Looking down an enfilade of rooms on the ground floor of the 1903 Milltown Wing at the National Gallery, Dublin. This portion of the building was designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (following his death in 1899, its completion was overseen by his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane). A notable decorative feature is the doorcases carved in walnut by the Italian woodworker Carlo Cambi. The picture below shows the equivalent sequence of rooms on the first floor which, like much of the rest of the gallery, have been closed to the public for the past six years: once fully re-hung with pictures from the collection, they are due to reopen in mid-June.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
The upper section of the double-height stair hall in 7 Henrietta Street, Dublin. The house dates from the early 1740s and retains some of its original interior, albeit in a much mutilated condition. For example, as can be seen below with a handful of exceptions the carved balusters were removed over a century ago when the building was divided into tenements and replaced with coarse timber uprights. But the walls retain their plaster panelling, a battered recollection of how splendid this space must once have been.
Following a recent note on two remarkably similar staircases, one in County Tipperary, the other in County Westmeath (see The Missing Twin, December 28th 2016), here is a third which has featured here before but is worth showing again as it might be deemed to belong to the same family. The stairs belong to the Red House, Youghal, County Cork, built in the first decade of the 18th century for the wealthy Uniacke family: the design has been attributed to a Dutch architect called Leuventhen. Whereas the other two examples have balusters fluted in the upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower, here these designs alternate. But otherwise the work has much in common, not least the Corinthian columns on each return and, on the gallery, a richly worked apron. There is more work to be done…
Above are three images of the main staircase in the former Archbishop’s Palace, Cashel, County Tipperary. Long attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and dating from c.1730 this building is rightly deemed important for retaining much of its original interior, not least these stairs in red pine. Its features include a richly carved apron below the first-floor gallery and the balusters, those on the return capped with Corinthian columns, the others being fluted in their upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower.
One of the past year’s happiest moments has been the discovery of the Cashel Palace staircase’s ‘twin’ in a house in County Westmeath. Although the two buildings have little in common externally (and the latter is usually dated much later), both share this interior feature which in design and execution alike are essentially identical, the Westmeath apron being slightly more elaborate. More research needs to be undertaken on the subject: something to look forward to in 2017…
If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00
Once the tallest building in Wexford town, here is the tower that stands at the centre of the collegiate range of St Peter’s, former seminary for the diocese of Ferns. With corner turrests and mullioned windows, the five-storey block was designed c.1832 by a local architect, Richard Pierce, today better remembered for the town’s ‘twin churches’ of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception which have identical spires. Pierce was clerk of works in Ireland for Augustus Welby Pugin (responsible for the chapel built immediately adjacent to the range) and his own work shows the influence of the latter. The tower of St Peter’s is particularly notable for its splendid Perpendicular tracery window which lights the internal staircase.