Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. Ann early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

A Master Carver


The glorious interiors of Glasnevin House, Dublin have been shown here before (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) with the focus o the building’s plasterwork. Since then the former entrance hall has been restored and now looks as splendid as the other ground floor rooms. Among the space’s outstanding features now properly revealed is a substantial chimneypiece. Dating from c.1760 it looks to be of stained pine and since the overdoors in other areas of the house are attributed to Dublin master carver John Kelly (in Irish Furniture, the Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007), it seems reasonable to assume this work also came from his hand.

The Glory of the House


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Samuel Lewis wrote that the ‘noble mansion’ at Newbridge, County Dublin was said to hold ‘several valuable paintings by the old masters, which were collected on the continent by the Rev M. Pilkington, author of the Dictionary of Painters, who was vicar of this parish; the drawing room contains several of the paintings described by him.’ The cleric mentioned here was Matthew Pilkington, born in King’s County (now Offaly) in 1701 and ordained a deacon in the Church of Ireland twenty-two years later. His was likely not a very profound vocation, but a position in the established church offered career advantages of which he intended to take advantage. Initially all went well. In 1725 he married the well-connected Laetitia van Lewen, as diminutive – but also as witty – as her husband, and the couple became friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Patrick Delany. Through the former Pilkington secured the position of Chaplain to the London Mayor of London and so moved to the other side of the Irish Sea. However in London he antagonized potential supporters and was imprisoned two years later. On returning to Dublin, he then became estranged from his wife and the couple was eventually and scandalously divorced in 1737: just over a decade later Laetitia Pilkington published her entertaining memoirs, from which her former husband emerges in a poor light. Ultimately he recovered his social position thanks to the patronage of Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin who offered Pilkington the living of Donabate and Portraine next to Cobbe’s newly completed seat at Newbridge. As mentioned by Lewis, it is believed that Pilkington travelled to mainland Europe to buy paintings for the house and that this in turn would have informed the work by which he is remembered: The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters, the first such book published in English. It appeared in 1770, four years before the author’s death.




The greater part of Newbridge was built between 1747 and 1752 to the designs of Scottish-born architect James Gibbs, his only known work in Ireland. The following decade a large drawing room was added to the rear of the house. In 1755 Archbishop Cobbe’s son and heir Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Beresford, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Tyrone, and sister of the first Marquess of Waterford, and space was needed for the young couple and the art collection being assembled for the family by Matthew Pilkington. The architect on this occasion was a local man, George Semple who had already overseen the erection of Newbridge. Semple initially proposed adding a pair of wings to the south-facing façade but in the end the decision was taken to construct a single large drawing room/picture gallery to the rear of the house, taking the space previously occupied by a pair of small offices. As has been noted by Julius Bryant, to preserve homogeneity of style within the building Semple used Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture as a source for the design of doorcases and chimney pieces, the former immediately apparent at the entrance to the room from the adjacent antechamber. Running some 45 feet in length, the space has a ceiling featuring ‘a sea of scrolling leaves and floral garlands encircled by dragons and birds fighting over baskets of fruit.’ This work is believed to have been undertaken by stuccodore Richard Williams, a pupil of Robert West: the Newbridge accounts for this period include seven payments to ‘Williams ye stucco man.’




A drawing of the Newbridge drawing room dated c.1840 and attributed to Frances Cobbe shows the room as it looked following a refurbishment of the space two decades earlier. In 1821 payments for furniture were made to Woods & Son, and to Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin, who were also paid for curtains in 1828. The carpet, by Beck & Co. of Bath was supplied in March 1823 for £64 and 18 shillings, while the crimson flock wallpaper and matching border came from the Dublin firm of Patrick Boylan. The present arrangement of paintings, the greater part of them collected during the previous century by Archbishop Cobbe and his son and daughter-in-law, dates from the same period. Towards the end of the 19th century, Frances Cobbe called the drawing room ‘the glory of the house. In it the happiest hours of my life were passed.’ She remembered the room as assembled by her parents. Some of the collection had been sold in Dublin in 1812, and in 1839 two key paintings, by Hobbema and Dughet, were sold to pay to fund the construction of some 80 estate workers’ cottages. In November of that year, then owner Charles Cobbe (father of Frances) wrote in his diary, ‘I have filled up the vacancies on my walls occasioned by the loss of the two pictures which have been sold, and I felt some satisfaction in thinking that my room (by the new arrangement) looks even more furnished than before.’ Such is still the case today. In 1985 Newbridge passed into the hands of the local authority, now Fingal County Council, which has been responsible for house and estate ever since. However, Alec Cobbe artist, designer and musical instrument collector, who grew up in the house continues to be devoted to the building. He has valiantly undertaken successive projects to preserve and conserve the interiors, not least the drawing room. As a result today, as noted by Bryant, this gorgeous space today ‘provides a rate opportunity to study an Irish collection in its historic context.’

A Ruined House


‘Those who lived here are gone
Or dead or desolate with grief;





Of all their life here
Nothing remains
Except their trampled, dirty clothes





Among the dusty bricks,
Their marriage bed, dusty and bent,
Thrown down aside as useless;
And a broken toy left by their child…’


A Ruined House by Richard Aldington
Photographs of Lakeview House, County Cork.

 

On the Tiles


Tiles on the entrance hall floor of Temple House, County Sligo. The original early 19th century house here was greatly enlarged and embellished c.1860 for Alexander Perceval who employed the firm of Johnstone & Jeanes. Based at 67 New Bond Street, London the company was better known for its furniture (of which many examples remain in the house) than as an architectural practice: this appears to be the only instance of its work in Ireland.

Decidedly Odd


Today’s building is decidedly odd. Heathfield, County Cork dates from c.1780 and as far as the interior is concerned, follows the period’s standard design and layout. Its exterior, on the other hand, is distinctly non-conformist. The entrance front, although facing east, is a blank rubble wall except for one small door placed off-centre. A wing, now ruinous, stands on the north-east corner: might there once have been another on the other side of the façade, thereby creating a miniature Palladian house? Meanwhile the weather-slated rear elevation likewise has just a single point of entry – at basement level – and only two windows (one now blocked) placed on the upper floor. Of the two other sides, that facing north likewise features a basement door as well as a large arched window to light the return on the staircase, while that looking south has pairs of substantial six-over-six sash windows on all three floors. What can be the explanation for such an odd arrangement which must have made the rooms inside rather dark? Did the original builder fear civil disturbance, and therefore minimise points of access to the building? At a time when increased fenestration was becoming the norm, it is hard to explain why, other than for reasons of defence, such limited access to natural light would have been deemed acceptable.




Heathfield is thought to have been built by a branch of the Lane family who lived not far away in a house called Arlinstown. It has also been proposed that the property’s name derives from George Augustus Eliott, created Baron Heathfield in 1787, a career soldier who briefly served as Commander-in-Chief in Ireland in 1774-5 but this seems rather unlikely. A more probable explanation is that Heathfield is a variant of Heathview, the name of a house near Kanturk owned by the Bastable family. By 1818 Heathfield was occupied by one Henry Bastable who appears to have lived there with his family for at least the next twenty years during which time he served as a magistrate in Kinsale and on the Cork Grand Jury, as well as being a member of the local Board of Guardians.




Heathfield’s defensive character would serve it well in the mid-1830s when County Cork experienced considerable disturbance during the Tithe Wars. The campaign against paying money to the Church of Ireland led to the re-emergence of rural secret societies, members of which roved through the countryside at night, attacking houses and demanding the surrender of food, arms and money. In March 1834 Henry Bastable was woken by a large group of men surrounding Heathfield and calling on him to hand over any weapons he might have. From his bedroom window he advised there was only one gun in the house, which they insisted he hand over. Going downstairs to a lower window he duly proffered the gun, but muzzle first: the men outside, fearing he might fire on them as they approached to take the weapon, obliged him to pass over the gun handle first. Next they wanted money, initially seeking a sum of £5. After some negotiation, 50 shillings was agreed upon and given to them. The group then departed, but returned a short time later to give back the gun: Henry Bastable believed this was because it was a new kind of device, the operating mechanism unfamiliar – and therefore of no use – to his nocturnal visitors.




From the mid-19th century onwards, Heathfield was occupied by a succession of different tenants and owners. In 1850 the house was briefly let to a Michael Buck who in turn sublet it to one William Dixon. Subsequently the property was taken by the English-born William Sillifant, who undertook improvements on the land, having bought Heathfield from the Bastables in 1878 for £1,350. In 1890 it was reported that significant malicious damage had been done to the pillars and gates at the entrance to Heathfield. While the Cork Constitution, a staunchly Unionist newspaper, proposed this was because Sillifant was English, a more likely explanation is that he had incurred the wrath of many neighbours by taking them to court for minor offences such as lifestock straying onto his land. As a result, he was unpopular locally.
Heathfield was sold by William Sillifant’s widow in 1905 and changed hands a further three times in the last century before being bought by the family of the present owners. The house was occupied until the 1970s but has since fallen into a poor condition. The dining room floor has completely collapsed and other parts of the building are vulnerable but enough survives to show it was evidently built for a gentleman farmer who wished to emulate the style of living enjoyed by wealthier members of society. In its design, however, Heathfield is decidedly odd.


Many thanks to Fergal Browne for his kind help with the history of Heathfield.

Laudate Pueri Dominum


The County Kildare institution long known as Maynooth Seminary was established by act of the Irish Parliament in June 1795 as The Royal College of St Patrick to provide ‘for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.’ Curiously it would be eighty years before building work began on the college’s present chapel. In the early 1850s the English champion of the Gothic Revival and convert to Catholicism Augustus Welby Pugin had produced designs for the quadrangle called St Mary’s Square. His plans included a chapel but owing to Pugin’s death in 1852 and a shortage of funds, this part of the project was not initiated. Only in October 1875 was the foundation stone laid, the architect now being J.J. McCarthy, often popularly described as ‘the Irish Pugin.’ By 1880 expenditure on the work had reached £26,242 and when McCarthy died two years later just the basic structure had been completed: a report issued in the middle of the 1880s appealed for financial aid so that the ‘useless empty shell’ could be finished as ‘a splendid, fully furnished collegiate chapel’. In 1887 seven Catholic architects were invited to tender for the job of designing the interior, William Hague being selected. The building was consecrated and opened for worship by Cardinal Michael Logue in June 1891 but still the work went on. Hague designed the tower and spire in 1895 but, as with his predecessors, he did not live to see the work here reach conclusion; rising 273 feet, it is the tallest such built structure in Leinster. Inside, the Lady Chapel at the east end was decorated and furnished by architect G.C. Ashlin in 1908–11; Ashlin was also responsible for the alabaster high altar and reredos.




At 222 feet, Maynooth is the longest church choir in the world and certainly the most elaborately decorated in Ireland. Every surface carries ornament, all sharing the same theme of ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God). The marble mosaic floor, for example, carries lines inspired by Psalms 112 and 46 opening with the line ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ (Praise the Lord, young men). The use of the fleur-de-lis on the floor is intended to evoke not just the Trinity (in the same way that the shamrock is supposed to do) but also the links between Ireland and France during the worst times of the Penal era. Meanwhile the ceiling is covered in canvas featuring a vast heavenly procession of figures leading up to the main altar, predominantly angels and saints, many of the latter being associated with Ireland and the early Christian church here. Each figure is enclosed within a medallion again bearing lines from sacred texts. The design was by the English religious artist and decorator Nathaniel Westlake but the work executed by a little-known artist based in Dublin called Robert Mannix. The walls above the choir stalls are life-size representations of the Stations of the Cross: like the ceiling they are in oil on canvas, and were designed and supplied by Westlake.




More colour is provided in the interior by stained glass installed in the 1890s and for which three companies were responsible: that owned by the aforementioned Westlake; Cox, Buckley & Sons; and the Munich-based firm of Mayer & Co, which was then much patronized by Catholic and Anglican churches alike throughout Ireland. The glass in the chapel nave is devoted to representing scenes from the life of Christ while at the west end of the building a large rose window inspired by that in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is devoted to celebrating Christ the King surrounded by sundry saints, apostles and evangelists. In the main body of the chapel, the space between the top of the choir stalls and the bottom of the windows is filled with a string course of Caen stone carved with animals and birds to demonstrate that even members of the animal kingdom sing the praises of their creator. The corbels at this level represent angels presenting various instruments used in church services by clerics, the two closest to the high altar holding a mitre and crozier (as used by bishops). Finally there are the stalls, all 454 of them carved in oak by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The finial in the back row of each section supports the figure of a saint while those on the lower levels represent a different plant or tree, again to demonstrate the variety of divine creation. Whatever one’s faith, or even if one has none, the decorative scheme of Maynooth College Chapel cannot fail to impress. It has a rigour and entirety of both vision and execution rarely found in Irish Catholic churches. Furthermore the interior has escaped despoliation by either unnecessary post-Vatican II reordering or by the imposition of some later cleric’s ill-judged aesthetic notions (cf. the so-called ‘renovations’ of the cathedrals in both Killarney and Monaghan). As a result it remains not just the largest chapel in Ireland but also one of the country’s finest Roman Catholic buildings.