A Gem


Writing about Summergrove, County Laois almost half a century ago (Irish Georgian Society Bulletin XVI, October 1973), the late Maurice Craig declared, ‘Of all the houses which are neither ‘big houses’ nor farmhouses, Summer Grove has always seemed to me one of the most attractive, nor has a wider acquaintance with its rivals caused me to modify that opinion.’  While he admitted that ‘the elements of the facade: gibbsian doorway with side lights, venetian window, diocletian window, platband, stone cornice, hipped roof and symmetrical chimneys, are common to a great many mid-eighteenth century houses of about this size, as is the pediment over the breakfront in the centre,’ nevertheless, Maurice was seduced by the building’s irresistible charm. In part, he explained, this derives from ‘the mildly archaic flavour of its rather steep roof with its barely perceptible sprocketing, the interior decoration suggests a date some time around 1760 or even a little later. The Venetian and Diocletian windows go on so long in the provinces that they provide no reliable indication of dates. From the massive triple keystone of the front door projects an elaborate and splendid wrought-iron lamp-bracket, such as would be noteworthy even in Dublin, but in the country is of the very highest rarity. Before leaving the facade we should note the unusually small stones of which it is built, which from a distance seem hardly larger than bricks, and very nearly as regular.’ Thereafter, Maurice noted in his Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976), ‘the main interest in Summer Grove lies in the ingenuity of the planning. In the back half of the house three storeys are fitted into the same height as two on the entrance-front. It is surprising that this method of ‘mezzanine’ planning was not more widely used in country houses, since it results in a small number of high-ceilinged rooms and a rather larger number of low-ceilinged ones, a most desirable result not so easily achieved by conventional planning.’ Among the rere elevation’s most distinctive features are the pair of Venetian windows, one at either end of the top floor.







A date stone discovered some 20 years ago suggests that Summergrove was finished in 1766 but work on the house probably started much earlier. The original owner was one Thomas Sabatier whose Huguenot forebear – likely grandfather – François Sabatier had fled France in the aftermath of the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1707, he was listed as living in Mountmellick, a prosperous town just a couple of miles east of Summergrove. Like many other Huguenot families who settled here, the Sabatiers must have flourished, since in 1736, within one or two generations of arrival in this country, they were able to acquire tracts of land in the neighbourhood and embark on building a fine country house. The architect responsible is unknown: the Knight of Glin proposed Henry Pentland, but there is little evidence to support this name, or any other. Regardless, it would appear the costs involved in the building’s construction were greater than had been anticipated because in February 1774 Summergrove was advertised to let for such Term of Years as may be agreed’, the building described as ‘large and commodious, and fit for the immediate Reception of a Gentleman of Fortune,’ the interior being ‘well finished and stucco’d, with every other Necessary, such as Italian, Kilkenny and other Marble Chimney Pieces, Grates, etc.’ Nevertheless, the family remained in possession, if not always in residence, of Summergrove. Thomas Sabatier died in 1784 and was succeeded by his son John who, in turn, died in 1792, followed by two further generations likewise called John. Following the death of the last of these in 1859, the house changed hands for the first time, being acquired by Jonathan Pim, whose Quaker ancestors had settled in Mountmellick at the end of the 17th century. By the beginning of the 19th century the Pims were involved in brewing and other business enterprises, while Jonathan Pim was acting as agent for the Summergrove estate. Having taken over the property, he had little time to enjoy possession, since he died in 1864, being succeeded by his son William, who lived in the house until 1902. Having no children, he left Summergrove to his sister who in turn passed it to her son, William Anthony Robinson who, with his wife lived there until the 1950s when, once more, the house was offered for sale. Thereafter it passed through different owners, not all of whom occupied the building, before being bought 30 years ago by the present owner.







The interiors of Summergrove are quite as engaging as the house’s external appearance. To cite Maurice Craig again, ‘The small square entrance-hall has a Doric entablature over the door and window cases, a flowing rococo centrepiece to the ceiling and, on the inner wall, three elegant arches under a single wide arch, the three doors separated by fluted corinthian pilasters. The right-hand door gives directly on to the staircase, while the middle one is dummy, a device which recalls the entrance to the centre of the Long Gallery at Castletown. On the staircase side the same three doors are under a pediment with ornament a good deal less fruity than that on the hall side, but in the same free-flowing rococo vein. The right-hand room on the ground floor has a coved cornice and ceiling decorated in the Robert West manner with sprays, roses, bunches of grapes and pheasants.’ (Loath as one is to correct Maurice, the inner wall’s middle door is not a dummy, but now serves to provide access to the staircase beyond. Furthermore, the ground floor room with ceiling decorated in the style of Robert West is to the left – not the right – of the entrance.) The rococo plasterwork in Summergrove’s reception rooms varies in quality, that in the entrance hall being charming but somewhat perfunctory, while that in the dining room is of altogether finer quality and clearly by a superior hand. On the other side of the entrance hall, what is now a drawing room has a plain ceiling. The original drawing room – now a bedroom – can be found on the first floor, directly above the dining room has another fine rococo ceiling although this one lacks the latter’s coved frame. And, as the advertisement of 1774 noted, there are some fine chimneypieces, although a couple of these were taken out of the house prior to it being acquired by the present owner, who deserves credit for having found satisfactory replacements. Indeed, he merits praise for having undertaken such a meticulous restoration of Summergrove over the past three decades, so that today this glorious building glows, a burnished gem in Ireland’s Midlands and an example of what can be achieved with sufficient dedication and patience. 

 

A Last Hurrah




This week marks the 150 Anniversary of the consecration of Holy Trinity in Westport, County Mayo, thought to be the last church to be built prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, and therefore acting as a last hurrah of the old ecclesiastical order in this country. Designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and constructed on a site provided by the third Marquess of Sligo, the building replaced a late 18th century church (now ruinous) elsewhere on the estate. The work is thought to have cost more than £80,000, this high price explained by the exceptional craftsmanship evident throughout, not least the elaborate carvings around all doors and windows on the exterior; these were the work of one William Ridge, about whom it appears little else is known. The interior is just as generously decorated with stained glass provided by Alexander Gibbs and Company of London, the windows frames in mosaic supplied by another London firm, Clayton and Bell. But the most notable feature of the interior are the inlaid murals covering large areas of the walls. Mostly representing scenes from the Gospels (including a depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper over the west door), these are made from white marble with traced designs outlined in dark cement; the backgrounds are of gold leaf. These murals were made for the church by Samuel Poole of M.T. Bayne and Company of Westminster.



Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,





Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.





O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats.
Photographs of the Casino at Marino, Dublin, designed by Sir William Chambers for James Caulfield, Earl of Charlemont. 

Saved for the Nation


Some readers may be familiar with the history of Richard Barry, seventh and penultimate Earl of Barrymore. He was almost the end of the line of a family which could trace its ancestry back to participation in the Norman Conquest of England (1066) and then the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland (1169 onwards): their name derives from Barry in Glamorganshire, Wales where their forebear had been granted lands by William the Conqueror. In this country, they acquired substantial territories in what is now East Cork, and remained prominent there for many centuries, being created first Baron Barry (c.1261), then Viscount Buttevant (1541) and finally Earl of Barrymore (1628). 





One generation of Barrys duly followed another until the advent of the seventh earl (born 1769) who inherited his title and estates at the age of three, following the death of his father. His mother would die when he was eleven, and it was perhaps this absence of parental authority which led to Lord Barrymore acquiring such a notorious reputation for dissipation as an adult, known as the Rake of Rakes or Hellgate. On the other hand, his siblings were as bad. His only sister Caroline was called ‘Billingsgate’ because she swore like a fishwife (London’s Billingsgate was home to the city’s fishmarket) and of his two brothers, Henry, the last earl was called ‘Cripplegate’ because he had a clubfoot, and Augustus, called ‘Newgate’ because, despite being an Anglican clergyman, he was a compulsive gambler (Newgate being the debtors’ prison in London). The seventh earl also liked to gamble, as well as being addicted to boxing, racing and acting (he built his own theatre in Berkshire at a cost of £60,000). Eventually, his debts grew so great that he was forced to sell most of the family’s property in Ireland; he is said to have squandered some £300,000 during his lifetime. This came to an abrupt end in 1793 when, as a Captain in the Royal Berkshire Militia, he was escorting some French prisoners to a camp and his rifle accidentally went off, wounding him so badly that he was dead within the hour: he was still aged only 24. 





What has all this to do with the pictures shown here? This is Fota, County Cork, built on an island which had long been part of the Barrys’ lands and had somehow not been sold due the excesses of the seventh earl. In the early 19th century, it passed into the ownership of John Smith-Barry who, while illegitimate, was a descendant of the fourth earl of Barrymore and sought – unsuccessfully – to have the title recreated for him after the eighth earl’s death in 1823. The transformation of Fota, it has been suggested, can be connected with Smith-Barry’s efforts to be raised to the peerage. Hitherto the house had been a modest 18th century hunting lodge, probably used by the Barrys’ agents, since the family were not resident in Ireland. But in the mid-1820s, the building was greatly enlarged by father-and-son team Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. They proposed two schemes, one of which was for Fota’s transformation into a Tudorbethan mansion, not unlike schemes on which the pair had already embarked at Killruddery, County Wicklow and Glenarm, County Antrim, with an entrance tower indebted to that at Burghley House. This idea was rejected in favour of a neo-classical design, the original five-bay building widened with an extra bay on either side and then further lengthened by the addition of two projecting pedimented wings to create a shallow courtyard, the whole centred on a single-storey limestone Doric portico. Bows were added to the garden front, one of these accommodating the drawing room, while the extensions at either end of the facade hold the dining room and library. The exterior is rendered with limestone dressings, which adds to the impression of crisp severity. A long two-storey extension to the north-west contains the service wing; in the 1870s, the front of his was hidden by a conservatory (later converted into a long gallery) leading to a billiard room. 





The first interior encountered at Fota – the entrance hall – is also the most successful. Running the length of the original house on the site and concluding at either end with small lobbies, it is divided into three spaces by screens of paired Ionic scagliola columns supporting entablatures decorated with plasterwork with a repeated pattern of wreaths and the Smith-Barry crest; the floor is covered in Portland stone. The abiding impression is of cool composure and absolute assurance in the handling of what could have been just a long, low corridor. In their decoration, the main reception rooms bear strong similarities with those of the contemporaneous Ballyfin, County Laois, both being indebted to the work of Percier and Fontaine: the ceilings in the drawing room (and its anteroom) were painted and stencilled in the 1890s by the Dublin firm of Sibthorpe & Son. The dining room has a screen of grey scagliola columns at the sideboard end of the space and, once again, rich ceiling plasterwork featuring trellises intertwined with vines. Although sparsely furnished in places, Fota, today in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, looks so well that it is easy to forget that just a few decades ago the house’s future looked in serious jeopardy, following the death of the last of the Smith-Barrys and the estate’s subsequent sale and resale. The history of a period when it seemed Fota might be left to fall into disrepair is too complex – and perhaps still too recent – to be told here. That it has survived is thanks to a small number of determined individuals (not least plucky Richard Wood) who courageously undertook to go to battle for the place. Too many other such Irish houses, in similar perilous positions, have been at risk – and indeed continue to be so. Let us rejoice, therefore, over this sheep, which might have been lost but has been found and brought back into the fold. 

Crazy Wonderful


Two doorcases in the entrance hall of Bellinter, County Meath, a house dating from c.1750 and designed by Richard Castle for John Preston. The two doors to the front of the room have the heaving lugging typical of this period but then atop a rectangular panel have caps studded with clusters of guttae. Meanwhile, the doorcase to the rear of the space has clearly been altered, probably in the early 19th century, but must always have concluded at a lower point in order to accommodate the plaster armory above. It’s all rather daft and completely wonderful.

A Confident Mixture of Styles



The Coote family has been mentioned here on several occasions. The first of them to settle in Ireland was Charles Coote, an ambitious soldier who arrived here around 1600 and gradually acquired estates, predominantly in the midlands, before being killed at Trim, County Meath in June 1642 during the Confederate Wars. One of his sons, Chidley Coote, born in 1608, participated in the same wars, rising to the rank of colonel. Unlike his father, he survived those turbulent times and in 1666 was granted some 3,000 acres near Kilmallock, County Limerick by Charles II. There he occupied a property called Castle Coote, which was eventually demolished in the mid-18th century, presumably around the time a new house – called Ash Hill – was built. His heir, another Chidley Coote, rather than the army, chose to become a  Church of Ireland clergyman instead, although one of his sons, General Sir Eyre Coote served as a soldier in India for many years. The same was true of one of his nephews, another General Sir Eyre Coote, although the latter’s career ended in disgrace in 1816 after it was discovered that the previous November, he had visited Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex and offered some boys there money if they allowed him to flog them. He then asked them to flog him in turn before providing payment. When this was discovered, General Coote was charged with indecent conduct, although acquitted after making a donation of £1,000 to the school. However, a subsequent investigation by a number of his fellow generals, concluded that Coote was eccentric rather than mad. Nevertheless, his behaviour was deemed unworthy of an officer and a gentleman, and in consequence, he was removed from his regiment and dismissed from the army. Coote’s eccentricity, it was claimed, arose from the effects of the climate on his brain while he served as Governor of Jamaica between 1805 and 1808. Incidentally, it has been claimed that while living on the island, he had an affair with a slave, and that the direct descendant of that relationship was another distinguished soldier and politician, the late General Colin Powell. 




To return to the Cootes of Kilmallock, the last of them to live on the Kilmallock estate was yet another Chidley Coote. Curiously, following his death in 1799, the property passed not to one of his sons (he had four by his second marriage) but instead to a cousin, Eyre Evans, whose great-aunt Jane Evans had been Coote’s grandmother: the Evans family was based at Miltown Castle, County Cork. In the early 1830s, Eyre Evans was responsible for transforming the garden front of the house at Ash Hill, of which more below. However, in 1858, in the aftermath of the Great Famine when much land changed hands, part of the estate was sold to one Thomas Weldon. More of the estate was sold by the Evans family in 1880 to Thomas Weldon’s son, John Henry. Following the latter’s death in 1907, the house came to be occupied by his wife’s nephew, Captain Paul Lindsay: in 1946 he sold it to the present owner’s family.
As seen today, Ash Hill reflects the tastes of its different owners, beginning with the Coote family. Seen through imposing limestone gate posts, the entrance front looks onto a wide forecourt, flanked by long, two-storey stable blocks that date from around the second quarter of the 18th century, making them earlier than the main house, believed to date from 1781. Its eleven-bay facade is centred on a single-bay pediment holding a doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights below a Venetian window. Further along the building are two further doorcases with fanlight and sidelights, although one of these has since been turned into a window. As already mentioned, some 50 years later, further alterations and additions were made to the garden front of the building and they were quite startling. As Samuel Lewis explained in 1837, ‘a large castellated mansion now in progress of erection in the ancient baronial style, consisting of a centre flanked by lofty circular towers and two extensive wings, of which one on the west is connected with a noble gateway leading to the offices, which occupy the sides of a quadrangular area; the whole is of hewn limestone…’ The architect responsible for this work is thought to have been Charles Anderson who had an extensive practice in this part of the country until 1849 when he emigrated to the United States and there enjoyed a successful career until his death 20 years later. As a result of these changes, the house’s name was changed to Ash Hill Towers.





A number of descriptions of Ash Hill in the first decades of the last century survive, giving the impression there was insufficient money to maintain the place. Writing in 1908, Eileen Weldon observed that while the house was big and impressive, it was also rather bare, and that the food on offer was meagre: ‘All we were offered for supper was six slices of toast for five of us and some cold bread. There was tea and butter, but not a sign of anything else. Father had smuggled in a cake from downtown and hidden it in the sideboard so we didn’t fare so badly.’ As for the interiors, ‘The ceilings and fireplaces are beautiful, but oh so dirty. I long to get to work with soap and water, a broom, etc.’ During the early 1920s, the house suffered badly, being occupied by different groups of soldiers on three occasions, none of them treating the place well. Another Weldon family member who called into Ash Hill in 1932 remembered ‘It was unoccupied and badly in need of repair. It was all furnished – about 30 rooms (not one bathroom) but the hand carved marble fireplaces were all bashed and broken – the ancestral pictures had been used for target practice…the lovely books of the library strewn underfoot.’ Seemingly Captain Lindsay offered Ash Hill ‘as a convent or monastery but there were no takers because of its condition.’ Finally, as noted, it was sold in 1946. Subsequently, some of Anderson’s more fanciful decorative flourishes were removed from the garden front, not least the two tall castellated towers and a chapel extension to one side. Internally, other changes had to be made, including the construction of a new main staircase, large parts of its predecessor having been destroyed. What does survive is a series of wonderful ceilings, the majority of them on the first floor which evidently once held the main reception rooms. Two of them look as though they might have been designed by James Wyatt/Thomas Penrose. However,   it does not appear man either produced these specific designs. Similarly, the execution is of an exceptionally high standard – those oval medallions holding classical figures – but the stuccodore responsible is unknown. The nearest comparison is the ceiling in the entrance hall at Glin Castle, elsewhere in County Limerick, which dates from the same period. The Ash Hill work has blessedly undergone restoration work in recent years to ensure future survival. Meanwhile, in striking contrast to these neo-classical designs, an adjacent room overlooking the garden holds a really splendid Perpendicular Gothic ceiling, smothered in ribs of fan vaulting. It is this confident mixing of styles within the same building, so typical of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, so anathema to purists, that makes Ash Hill and its history so fascinating to explore. 


Of the Highest Standard



Townley Hall, County Louth is an Irish country house which has featured here more than once before (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* « The Irish Aesthete). Without doubt, one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Ireland, it was the result of a happy collaboration between architect Francis Johnston and his client Blayney Townley Balfour – and also, crucially, the latter’s sister Anna Maria Townley Balfour whose involvement in the project has until recently been insufficiently understood and appreciated. The result was a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, a work of impeccable refinement and flawless taste, with the staircase hall at the centre of the house being one of the masterpieces of late 18th century European architecture. Like all such properties in Ireland, Townley Hall has faced challenges, its future at times uncertain, but the present custodians of the building – the School of Philosophy and Economic Science – have carried out much work on site to ensure the survival of this most-important building in our national heritage. And it has now produced a sumptuous book celebrating the glories of the house and its place in the architectural pantheon, to which the Irish Aesthete has contributed several chapters. The standards of the publication are every bit as high as those of Townley Hall, making this a book of interest to anyone possessed of an aesthetic sensibility.



You can also watch me discuss Townley Hall in a short film made for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last summer, which is available to view at Townley Hall, Ireland | ICAA Travel Revisited – YouTube

A Rich Man’s Extravagance


Born in County Down in 1766, at the age of 17 Alexander Henry emigrated to America where he established himself as a merchant in Philadelphia. Some years later, his nephew, also called Alexander Henry in turn moved to Philadelphia where he joined his uncle’s business, but then came back across the Atlantic to settle in England in 1804. The following year, in partnership with his elder brother Samuel, he set up a company in Manchester, A & S Henry & Co Ltd, that specialised in the marketing and distribution of cotton. The business was enormously successful, opening branch offices in Bradford, Belfast, Leeds, Huddersfield and Glasgow to act as collecting stations for textile products of all kinds; in consequence, the founding family soon became very wealthy, allowing its members to buy country houses and become Members of Parliament, as Alexander Henry duly did, representing South Lancashire. 





Mitchell Henry was born in 1826, second son of Alexander Henry, who some years earlier had married Elizabeth Brush, like him a native of County Down. Mitchell Henry trained to be a doctor, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and senior consultant at the Middlesex Hospital, London by the age of 30. However, following his father’s death in 1858, he ceased practising medicine, instead seeking election as an MP. ​Before then, he had married Margaret Vaughan whose family, once again, came from County Down; the couple would have nine children. Prior to that, and during their honeymoon, they travelled to the west of Ireland and were much taken with the scenery of Connemara. In consequence, after coming into his considerable inheritance, and following the Great Famine when large swathes of the country were offered for sale, Henry was able to buy Kylemore Lodge and some 13,000 acres of land in the west of Ireland from the impoverished Blake family. Here, from 1864 onwards, he embarked on building a new residence. At that date, this part of the country was exceptionally remote. The architect, and keen self-publicist, James Franklin Fuller, who designed the church at Kylemore (built in memory of Margaret Henry, following her unexpected death in 1874), remembered that to get there ‘was no easy matter. The train landed me at Westport the first day, the next meant posting to Leenane, the third was devoted to castle and church, while the fourth dropped me at Westport in time for the night mail; practically it “spoiled” a week.’ Constructing a large castle was something of an act of folly, since it involved considerable amounts of earthworks to clear the chosen site, as well as moving a road to the opposite side of Lake Pollacappul. As if that didn’t involve sufficient expense, instead of using local stone, the client insisted the building be cased in granite from Dalkey, County Dublin, sent by ship from one side of the country to the other. The main architect to work on this job was Galway-based Samuel Ussher Roberts, a great-grandson of the 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts. His design consists, as Mark Bence-Jones noted, of ‘romantic groupings of battlemented and machiolated towers and turrets’, the facade broken up by large and regular groupings of mullioned windows and oriels.’ The castle benefits enormously from its setting, with the mountains rising immediately to the rear and the lake, in which it is often seen reflected, directly in front. The interiors, beginning with the dark-panelled entrance hall, are harder to judge not least because they have been altered by subsequent owners and in addition were damaged by a fire in 1959. Their appearance, however, lacks the Gothic character of the exterior, and instead displays standard mid-Victorian style. The main reception rooms are large and high-ceilinged, with a variety of marbles employed for the chimney pieces, the finest of these being in the drawing room. The staircase hall leads to a first-floor gallery around which were grouped the main bedrooms. There is little here to set the space apart from any other country house of the period. In addition to the main castle, Mitchell Henry was responsible for commissioning the development of an eight-acre walled garden to supply him with all necessary fruit and vegetables: this has been restored in recent years.





Kylemore Castle was not Mitchell Henry’s only residence: he also owned a large property in London, Stratheden House. Originally designed in the early 1770s by Sir William Chambers, it was bought by Henry in 1863 and transformed into a vast Italianate villa by architect T. H. Wyatt before being filled with the owner’s objects d’art which included an antique bust of Agrippa and The Pompeian Mother, a statue by Giosuè Meli’s depicting a woman and child fleeing from the eruption of Vesuvius: this was displayed in its own Pompeian-style temple within the house. Much of the furniture was modern Italian replicas of originals in the Vatican and the Pitti Palace and among the most remarkable rooms was a library with ebonized woodwork and gold mouldings, green silkhung walls, and an ornate ceiling and frieze in Venetian cinquecento style, embellished with portraits of philosophers and poets. Alas, the extravagance of building and maintaining two such enormous and expensive houses, as well as draining bogland and improving conditions in Connemara, proved to be Henry’s undoing. From being very rich, he became rather poor; at the time of his death in 1910, he had only a few hundred pounds. Ten years earlier, Strathedan House and its contents were sold, and the building soon after pulled down, replaced by a block of apartments. Then in 1903 Kylemore Castle was also sold, to William Montagu, ninth Duke of Manchester and his wife, the American heiress Helena Zimmerman. The duke was a notorious spendthrift, as he proceeded to demonstrate in County Galway where he transformed much of the interior of his new property, taking out large quantities of stained glass from the main staircase window and much Connemara marble from a number of the rooms. Despite the considerable wealth of his wife’s family, he managed to run up an impressive number of debts: by 1918, 66 petitions of bankruptcy had been filed against him in the English courts. Two years later, Kylemore Castle was sold once more, this time to Benedictine nuns from Ypres, Belgian. Now called Kylemore Abbey, the order remains there to the present day. After running a girls’ boarding school on the site for many years, they have now turned it into one of the most successful tourist attractions in this part of Ireland.


Stepping Through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens, an exhibition curated by the Irish Aesthete and featuring more than fifty specially-commissioned paintings by artists Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse has now opened at Kylemore Abbey where it can be seen until the end of April.  


 

A Romantic Hideaway



The story is often told that Martinstown, County Kildare was built so as to provide Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, third Duke of Leinster, with a discreet location in which to meet his mistress. Curiously, the name of the duke’s inamorata is never mentioned, nor any further information given about the nature of the affair. Biographical information primarily focuses on his early support for Catholic Emancipation, his loyalty to the Whig party (traditional in the FitzGerald family) as well as his long and close involvement with Freemasonry:  he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for 61 years until his death in 1874. In 1818 he married Lady Charlotte Augusta Stanhope, a daughter of the third Earl of Harrington, with whom he had four children. If there were any marital indiscretions, they do not seem ever to have become known in the public realm. 





An estate map of Martinstown dated February 1833 and signed by one W. Clutterbuck, depicts an altogether more modest dwelling house than what can be seen on the site today, little more than a farmhouse (now the kitchen wing). At the time, the property belonged to Robert Borrowes (otherwise Burrows) whose family had moved to Ireland in the late 16th/early 17th century from Devonshire. Robert Borrowes was a younger son of Sir Kildare Dixon Borrowes, fifth baronet, of Barretstown Castle. That house passed to Robert’s older brother, while he was given the nearby Gilltown estate. Martinstown, therefore, was never a primary residence but rather a secondary farm which, according to Clutterbuck’s map, had been heavily planted with trees over the previous 15 years. However, a second extant drawing made in 1840 shows a building much closer in style to that which stands on the site today. The main, two-storey garden front is asymmetrical, heavily ornamented with a series of pinnacled gable-ends, cusped bargeboards and twisted, Tudoresque chimney stacks. Its design has been attributed to English architect Decimus Burton, best-known in this country for his work on the gate lodges of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Martinstown is altogether more fanciful than those buildings, a late flowering of the Georgian Gothick cottage orné, likely developed as a shooting lodge rather than a venue for romantic ducal rendezvous. 





The main entrance porch on the narrow north-west side of Martinstown has a half-timbered room above it which seems to be one of a number of later additions to the building. The walls of the house’s entrance hall show one of the most recent of such alterations: covered in murals representing an idealised landscape, they were an early commission received by artist Jane Willoughby. From here, visitors enter the central stair hall, decorated in a delightful Tudoresque manner. The west side of the room features a triple-arched arcade with open-work spandrels and a rosette cornice. Doors at either end of this open into the dining room and what is now a study.
As befits a cottage orné, the majority of rooms are cosy with low ceilings. An exception to this is the double-height drawing room with coved ceiling, added to the house in the 1870s when Martinstown was let to members of the British army then in residence just a few miles away on the Curragh: its scale is substantially larger than any other space in the building: the upper part of the walls here were painted with garlands of leaves and ribbons by another artist, Phillipa Bayliss.
Today available to rent for weddings and other events, during the last century Martinstown passed through several hands, the most notorious being those of Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the German Waffen-SS during the Second World War. Skorzeny and his wife, who were then living in Spain, visited Ireland for the first time in 1957 and two years later, they bought Martinstown and 168 acres of land from its then-owner Major Richard Turner, for £7,500. However, although they initially paid regular visits to the property, the couple were never able to secure residents’ visas from the Irish government and spent little time here after 1963, selling the place in 1971. Today the property acts as both a family home to the present owners, and as a popular venue for weddings: somewhere romantic for couples to marry rather than meet for illicit trysts. 


A Light Hand



Home since 1870 to the Royal Irish Academy of Music, No.36 Westland Row, Dublin was originally  built by Nicholas Tench in 1771 and nine years later leased to Sir Samuel Bradstreet, lawyer and politician: it is thought that the house’s decorative scheme dates from around this time. The neoclassical plasterwork in the main reception rooms is very fine and has been tentatively attributed by Conor Lucey to stuccodore Michael Stapleton, drawing on designs made by Thomas Penrose, architect and Inspector of Civil Buildings for the Board of Works: Penrose also acted as agent for the English architect James Wyatt who had many clients in Ireland. These photographs show some of the plasterwork in a ground floor room adjacent to the entrance hall, and include a series of grisaille medallions with classical figures painted by an unknown hand.