A Legacy of Beauty

Lismore Castle, County Waterford 

Killruddery, County Wicklow

Ireland’s country house gardens are too often one of our lesser known, and insufficiently appreciated, assets. Developed from the 16th century onwards, they reflect the history and evolution of Ireland, changing and evolving as did the country and reflecting not just alterations in taste but also the developments in horticulture, and the introduction of new plant species. Country house gardens were often the places where early scientific research took place, as owners sought better understanding of the terrain, what might grow there, and to what use it could be put. But they were also places of beauty, where rare trees, shrubs and flowers were cultivated with the purpose of captivating the eye and soothing the mind. Whether it be the formality of the gardens at Killruddery, County Wicklow (the finest surviving example of this style in Ireland and Britain) or the classical landscape of Ballyfin, County Laois, the grandeur of Powerscourt, County Wicklow or the Robinsonian romance of Mount Usher, County Wicklow, Ireland has a wealth of spectacular historic gardens, all of which benefit from our rich soil and temperate climate, as well as ample rainfall.
A new two-part documentary, Ireland’s Historic Gardens, written and presented by the Irish Aesthete, begins on Irish television, RTÉ One, tomorrow evening (Sunday 26th September) and tells the story of these sites across the centuries, featuring interviews with many gardeners and garden historians who help to explain how extraordinarily blessed we are with the legacy bequeathed to us by our forebears. And even without any words, the filming of the gardens demonstrates their inherent magic. Do watch, and enjoy, if you can. The second part will be shown the following Sunday, October 3rd, and brings the story up to the present day.

Portumna, County Galway

Abbey Leix, County Laois 

Ireland’s Historic Gardens (Part One) can be seen on Sunday, September 26th on  RTÉ One, 6.30-7.30pm. Part Two will be screened the following Sunday, October 3rd at the same time. 

Barmeath


Home to the Bellew family for several, this is Barmeath Castle, County Louth. The core of the building is a late medieval tower house built by the Moores who previously owned the land on which it stands. A two-storey wing was added to this around 1700 and then towards the middle of the 18th century a large plain block constructed, of three storeys and seven bays. However, changing tastes meant that in the 1830s the first Lord Bellew commissioned Hertfordshire architect, Thomas Smith, to transform the building into a neo-Norman castle with ample crenellations and fat round corner turrets, as well as the addition of a great square tower at one end, this now becoming the main entrance. Despite this elaborate make-over, it is still possible to detect the more straightforward Georgian house on what then became the garden front.

Without Any Debt


Like so many others, the Burges (originally Burches) family appear to have arrived in this country in the mid-17th century, having for several previous generations been clergymen in England. And again, as was frequently the case, judicious connections through marriage aided their rise to wealth. Two brothers, David and Joseph, the elder of which was Rector of St Mark’s church in Dublin, moved to Armagh and in 1716 the younger married Elizabeth Lloyd whose father Ynyr was Deputy Secretary of the East India Company and owned land in East Ham, now a suburb of London. One of their sons, another Ynyr, also held an important post in the East India Company as Secretary & Paymaster of Seamen’s Wages, further improving their fortune. The family history in the 18th and early 19th century is complex as various lines failed to produce a male heir and therefore property was inherited by nephews or cousins who sometimes had to change their surnames as a condition of succeeding to estates. However, by the mid-19th century John Ynyr Burges, married to Lady Caroline Clements, a daughter of the second Earl of Leitrim, is listed in gentry directories as being of East Ham and Thorpe Hall, both in Essex, and of Parkanaur, County Tyrone. The land on which the last of these stands was originally held by the O’Donnelly family until they were displaced in the early 1600s and the property granted by James I to Sir Toby Caulfeild. His family remained in possession, until the Parkanaur estate was sold in 1771 by James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont by Ynyr Burges. He appears to have rarely visited the place but some time after his death in 1793 a two-storey gabled cottage called Edenfield was built on the land for use as an occasional residence for the family. 





The  architect Thomas Duff has been discussed here before with regard to Narrow Water Castle, County Down (Narrow Water Castle « The Irish Aesthete). Born in Newry in 1792, we know little of his background and education but 21 years later he is mentioned as executant architect of St Mary’s church in his hometown. In 1822 he advertised in the Belfast press to advise ‘such gentlemen as intend building, that he purposes to furnish plans of every description, in the Grecian, Roman and Gothic styles of architecture, with estimates and such written instructions as are requisite for the execution of each design.’ He also reassured readers that he would superintend the work. Soon enough commissions followed, beginning with Belfast’s Fisherwick Presbyterian church, a large classical building dominated by its Ionic portico. Duff was soon in demand among other denominations, and in 1825 he designed the Roman Catholic cathedral in Newry, described in 1841 by Thackeray (otherwise highly dismissive of the ‘Papist’ faith) as a fine building which did the architect credit: the cathedral, incidentally, is in the Perpendicular Gothic manner, reflecting Duff’s versatility and his ability to adapt to the wishes of clients. This was demonstrated in 1830 when, together with his then-partner Thomas Jackson, he designed the first museum built in Ireland by voluntary subscription for the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in the Greek Revival style, with a portico exactly copied from the octagon tower of Adronicus in Athens. A few years later, he was responsible for designing the Tudoresque Narrow Water Castle. And so it went on with a huge amount of work for religious, domestic and commercial properties right up to the time of his death in 1848 at the relatively young age of 56. However, during the previous decade he had been employed by John Ynyr Burges to transform Edenfield, the cottage at Parkanaur, into a substantial mansion. 





Around 1820 Edenfield cottage was enlarged thanks to the addition of a new wing. However, it was only in the following decade that the house assumed its present appearance and proportions, following the employment of Thomas Duff: the original three-bay, two-storey building can still be detected behind the entrance porch. But the entire structure was refronted by Duff, also responsible for designing a very substantial west wing which holds many of the main reception rooms, as well as two neighbouring yards behind the main block. The architect was given a strict budget of £5,000 and a plaque located above the archway leading to the stableyard declared ‘This house and offices were built by John Ynyr and Lady Caroline Burges without placing any debt upon the property A.D. 1870.’ Renamed Parkanaur, the building’s make-over made it look to be an Elizabethan manor house, one that would not be out of place in the Cotswolds. There are further gabled bays, their corners delineated by slender polygonal towers, an abundance of stone finials, tall chimneys, hood mouldings over the windows, as well as the obligatory Oriel window. Inside the decorative flourishes continue, not least in the Great Hall which is lit by three large Perpendicular windows and has a minstrel’s gallery above an arched screen. Elsewhere, other than in the ceiling decoration, the Tudor borrowings are less explicit, and both the gallery and inner hall contain exceedingly fine Jacobean carved chimneypieces, presumably brought here from some house in England; that in the gallery is dated 1641. Parkanaur remained in the possession of the same family until 1955 when sold by Major Ynyr Alfred Burges, after which the house stood empty for three years until bought by Thomas Doran. Originally from this part of Ireland, as a young man he had emigrated to the United States and there worked as a truck driver until unable to do so owing to ill-health. He subsequently started a business, the Cheerful Greetings Card Company, which involved people throughout America selling its products door to door: this was so successful that it made Doran a multi-millionaire (he eventually sold the company in 1966 for in the region of UD$10 million). Doran was a friend of a Presbyterian minister, the Rev Gerry Eakins who wished to establish a residential centre for disabled young adults, and so he bought Parkanaur and presented it to be used for this purpose. Opened in 1960 as the Thomas Doran Training Centre and now called Parkanaur College, the buildings continue to be used for this purpose.  

Making an Statement


The great porte-cochère makes quite a statement at the entrance to Killymoon Castle, County Tyrone. Set above the Ballinderry river, the Norman-style building dates from 1802 when designed by John Nash (his first Irish commission) for Colonel James Stewart whose forebears had arrived from Scotland in the second quarter of the 17th century and settled in this part of the country; the original house on the site had been destroyed by fire in 1802. Some time after being completed, the castle was described by Irish Penny Journal as ‘one of the most aristocratic residences in the province of Ulster.’ But the enterprise was expensive (it was reputed to have cost £80,000) and the Stewarts were extravagant, so the estate had to be sold in the mid-19th century after which it passed through a number of hands before passing into the family of the present owners almost 100 years ago.

A Massive Undertaking II



Last Monday’s post featured a very brief synopsis of the history of Coollattin, County Wicklow, believed to be the largest house in Ireland. The core of the building, and that first seen by visitors today, was designed in the 1790s for the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam by John Carr of York. In the mid-1870s the sixth earl decided to expand the property by creating a new entrance front as well as adding a new south range along with servants’ wing, stables and carriage houses, hence the place’s considerable size today. He gave this job to another Yorkshire resident, his clerk of works at Wentworth Woodhouse, William Dickie. Whereas the original house is finished with lined render, the extensions are fronted in local granite, so for the most part, at least on the exterior, it is possible to see which parts are by Carr and which by Dickie. 



The most striking addition made by Dickie and his client to the building is a new entrance at what had been the rear of Coollattin. The ground slopes behind the house, so this entrance is at a lower level than its predecessor to the south, and features a great portico with paired Doric columns and a flight of granite steps leading up to the door. Inside is a fine hall with coved ceiling and flagged limestone floor. A smaller inner hall contains a large chimneypiece but to the immediate right is a flight of steps which in due course turns 90 degrees to introduce the main staircase climbing to the ground floor of the original house. Beneath a coffered ceiling and lit by a line of tall arched windows – these matched by a balustraded gallery with similar openings on the facing side of the steps – this staircase has terrific drama, reminiscent of that found in Piedmontese or Sicilian Baroque palaces. It is quite unlike anything else in the entire building, much of the rest of Dickie’s work here being competent but lacking excitement. When eventually restored, this great staircase will provide a most marvelous ceremonial access to this important Irish country house. 


A Massive Undertaking I



Many people will be familiar with the travails in recent years of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, said to be the largest private house in England (and with the longest facade of any house in Europe). However, they are unlikely to know about Coollattin, County Wicklow which, at 65,000 square feet is thought to be the largest private house in Ireland. It is no coincidence that both properties – which suffered such long periods of neglect that their respective futures looked imperilled – were originally built for the same family, the Earls Fitzwilliam. In England and Ireland alike, the Fitzwilliams were very substantial landowners – here they came to have some 90,000 acres – which allowed them to build on a more palatial scale than most other peers. And the rich seams of coal on their Yorkshire property further enhanced their wealth, as was described in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. However, their direct link with Ireland only began in 1782 when the fourth earl inherited the estates of his childless maternal uncle, the second Marquess of Rockingham: the latter was a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who had been Charles I’s Irish Lord Deputy in the 1630s and while here embarked on what was then intended to be the country’s largest private house, at Jigginstown, County Kildare (his recall in 1640 left the building unfinished). 





In January 1794 the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam arrived in Ireland as the country’s new Lord Lieutenant. At this time, the French Revolution was at its most violent and the British government rightly feared similar insurrection could occur here: Fitzwilliam believed the best way to avoid such a state of affairs was to promote Catholic Emancipation and curb the power of the Protestant Ascendancy. However, rather like Lord Strafford before him he managed to alienate many potential supporters and by March of the following year he was on his way back to England, his Lieutenancy term having been brought to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, he retained an interest in Ireland and decided to build himself a proper residence on his Wicklow estate here at Coollattin. There seems to have been some building, perhaps a hunting lodg,e on the site already because as early as 1776 suggestions were made for its improvement. However work only began in 1796, to a design by the Yorkshire architect John Carr whose long life and successful career saw his style move from Palladianism to  Adamesque classicism. The Fitzwilliams had already employed Carr in England, which explains how he received the commission in this country. He was not an innovator, so the house is conservative and restrained in style, the entrance front being of two storeys and of five bays, with a three-bay breakfront beneath a substantial pediment holding the Fitzwilliam coat of arms. A relatively modest doorcast with fanlight is framed by free-standing Tuscan order columns supporting a wide pediment.The side elevations are distinguished by generous full-height central bows. Even before this was finished, Coollattin was burnt during the 1798 Rising, so much of it had then to be rebuilt in the first years of the 19th century. 





As shall be explained in due course, during the 19th century Coollattin underwent considerable expansion and alteration, so that it is not always easy to see what parts today survive from the original Carr building. The entrance front, for example, was moved from south to north, and the wall between hall and drawing room removed in order to create one large reception space. In the 1880s the adjacent library was hung with a Chinese wallpaper, with a room to the rear of the house receiving the same treatment. From here one moves to the dining room which the plans show was intended to be bowed at both ends but it appears this part of Carr’s scheme was never executed as only the east (window) side concludes in a bow. However, its equivalent on the other side of the staircase hall is double-bowed. Unravelling what parts of the interior design date from which period will be an ongoing challenge, not least in the aforementioned staircase hall, its great coved ceiling holding a dome to light the space. The first floor features a gallery, each of its walls containing three large arches, some blind, some giving access to bedrooms, all topped with glazed fanlights.
Given the size of the place, and the persons involved in its rise and near-fatal fall, the story of Coollattin is a long one, but to summarise: the Fitzwilliams remained in possession of the property well into the last century: in 1943 the eighth earl inherited the estate, along with those in England. As is well known, five years later he was killed in a plane crash, as was the woman with whom he was then having an affair, the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, otherwise known as Kathleen Kennedy, sister of future President John F Kennedy. His widow, Olive Plunket lived on at Coollattin until her own death in 1975 after which it was sold by the Fitzwilliams’ only child, Lady Juliet Tadgell (mother-in-law, incidentally, of British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg). Coollattin then went through an unfortunate period when it changed hands a couple of times, with much of the surrounding land and all the remaining original contents sold off. In 1983 it was acquired, along with 63 acres, by an American couple, the Wardrops, who did much to ensure the place survived. Twelve years later, her husband having died, the widow sold Coollattin to the local golf club which sought to expand its course from nine to 18 holes. For the next quarter century the building stood unoccupied and although some maintenance work was undertaken, it is now in poor shape. Offered for sale last year, Ireland’s biggest house has just been bought by a small group of concerned individuals who have set themselves the task of bringing the place back from the brink of ruin. They face an undertaking as massive as Coollattin itself. 



More about Coollattin on Wednesday…

Famously Abandoned II


Following last Wednesday’s post on the sad state of Woodlawn, County Galway (see Famously Abandoned « The Irish Aesthete) here are a couple of very early photographs of the place. Dating from the mid-1840s, they show the house prior to its transformation into the building which can be seen (albeit in very poor condition) today. This took place in 1859, seven years after the second baron had married, as his second spouse, the wealthy Elizabeth Oliver Gascoigne of Castle Oliver, County Limerick. It can be seen that the house’s facade formerly had full-height bows on either side of a recessed entrance with Venetian window on the first floor, and that there were single-storey wings on either side ending in what look to have been pavilions with three great arched windows beneath pediments. All of this would soon afterwards be encased in an elaborate – and no doubt expensive – Italianate aspect.

Highly Idiosyncratic



‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The
 Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.






In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.






Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.


 

Help Urgently Needed II



In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Ballindoon, County Sligo was originally called Kingsborough, thereby indicating it was built for a branch of the King family who some lived some 25 miles away at Rockingham, County Roscommon. The latter house was designed by John Nash and Ballindoon has sometimes also been attributed to him, but since it is believed to date from c.1820 perhaps it can only regarded as being in his style: by that date the architect was far too busy with royal commissions in London to have time for an Irish client. Essentially a lake-side villa, Ballindoon is a building of exceptional character, beginning with the immense pedimented Doric portico on the north-facing entrance front, its scale overwhelming the single bays on either side. Similarly the garden front is dominated by an enormous dome-topped bow, with a further series of engaged Doric columns around the ground floor. Unfortunately, like Hollybrook a few miles to the west (see previous entry), Ballindoon has stood empty for some years and is now suffering as a consequence, with what appears to be dry rot appearing on the upper floor: the insertion of uPVC windows throughout the house probably doesn’t help. Ballindoon was offered for sale with 80 acres three years ago, but remains unsold, and accordingly remains at risk.


Help Urgently Needed I



In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Hollybrook, County Sligo dates from the mid-18th century when believed to have been built to replace an earlier castle on the site: the estate then belonged to the ffolliott family around 1659, subsequently passing in and out of their possession on at least one occasion. In the last century it was run for several decades as an hotel (see a fascinating piece of film from 1938 showing it in use for this purpose: (1) Holiday at Hollybrook House, Co Sligo 1938 – YouTube) but in recent decades the house has stood empty and falling into the present state of decline; despite being on the market for several years along with 275 acres, it remains unloved. In urgent need of help if it is to survive, Hollybrook is of three storeys over basement and superficially appears to be a typically symmetrical building of the period. However, an examination of the facade shows that the handsome Doric portico is slightly off-centre: note how it is closer to the window on the left than to that on the right. The rear of the building shows similar idiosyncracies in the fenestration placement. One wonders therefore whether the old castle, probably a tower house, wasn’t demolished but, as happened in other instances, incorporated into a new house. Alas, an examination of the interior would be required to take this investigation further.