After last Monday’s post about the house on Fota Island, County Cork, it is worth noting that the immediate demesne, including one of Ireland’s most important late 19th/early 20th century arboretums, also survives and can be visited. To the rear of the main building lie a series of walled gardens which have been well-maintained by the Office of Public Works and at the top of these the Irish Heritage Trust has restored a series of greenhouses now filled with plants. In consequence, the site provides an opportunity to explore an Irish country house in its original setting, something not always possible.
‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600.
Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland.
During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.
In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.
One of a number of gateways providing access to the four-acre walled garden at Barmeath Castle, County Louth. A map dating from the mid-1770s and drawn up by the surveyor Charles Frizell shows this area of the demesne to be a shrubbery with no evidence of enclosure, indicating the walled garden, like so many others, was only created in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Unusually, all the walls are lined in brick, whereas, as a rule, it was only the south-facing wall that received this treatment since brick retains the heat longer than does stone. The entrances are also distinguished by being given rather grand, pedimented, breakfront gateways. The walled garden here has been restored in recent years and is now open to the public. Readers with no interest in matters horticultural should be warned that the Irish Aesthete is at present curating an exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish country house garden (opening at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House in Dublin on May 19th) and therefore this subject is likely to feature heavily in the coming weeks.
This week marks the first anniversary of the death of architect and garden designer Angela Jupe at her home at Bellefield, County Offaly, where the Irish Aesthete had paid a visit just a few weeks before that unhappy event. After graduating from university, she worked for a number of architectural firms before heading up a design team at the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). But by the mid-1980s she had established her own practice and begun to follow her personal passion for gardening. She created two businesses, the Traditional Gardening Company which specialised in garden design and construction, and the Garden Furnishing Company, a retail outlet.
As the name of her garden design business indicates, Angela Jupe loved old-fashioned gardens: an obituary in the Irish Times quoted her observation that ‘Some modern landscape architecture feeds only the eyes and forgets that we have noses for scent and hands for touch…Not only is there too much hard landscaping but it leads to plants that grow into a little circle requiring no pruning, care or attention.’ The first country garden she created for herself was at Fancroft Millhouse, County Tipperary which had stood empty and neglected for 12 years before she bought it in 1997 and embarked on a thorough restoration, not just of the grounds but also the house and outbuildings. Then in 2004 she took on a fresh challenge, moving to Bellefield, where the stables and walled garden had stood unused for the previous three decades.
Bellefield is a charming small gentleman’s residence dating from the first years of the 19th century. A keen believer in conservation and architectural salvage, Angela Jupe filled the house with decorative items brought from other buildings, as she also did when restoring the stableyard to the rear. And in the two-acre walled garden, which again benefitted from her attention and experience, she constructed both a charming little onion-domed folly and a large glasshouse from various pieces of salvage. The garden itself, formerly completely overgrown, displays her various passions, not least for snowdrops, of which there are more than 300 different varieties, one of the largest such collections in Ireland. In addition, there is an abundance of old French roses, rare daffodils, Chinese peonies and old fruit trees. Following her unexpected death, it emerged that she had left the Bellefield, the house and its garden, to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) of which she had been a long-standing supporter and board member. The process of transfer of ownership is still ongoing, but the RHSI is currently maintaining the site and hopes to open it to the public next year.
Regular readers will be aware that over the past couple of years, the Irish Aesthete has devoted much time and attention to the subject of the Irish country house garden and its evolution since the early 17th century. This study has taken a number of forms, including an exhibition of paintings of walled gardens (which show, incidentally, can at present be seen in Kylemore Abbey, County Galway, which has its own restored walled garden), a two-part television documentary, and a conference on the subject. The last of these, held last autumn, has now spawned a book, Digging New Ground: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1900. Co-edited by Professor Finola O’Kane, the publication contains essays from a wide variety of knowledgeable experts in this field of study, all of whom offer fresh insights into their chosen topic.
Country house gardens, like country houses themselves, only really begin to appear in Ireland from c.1600 onwards; prior to that date, the only cultivated areas resembling gardens as we know them would have been attached to religious houses, monasteries and convents. In her contribution, Vandra Costello looks at these early domestic gardens and what form they took, much influenced by ideas from Italy, France and Holland, while Terence Reeves-Smyth explores the evolution of the walled garden, once an essential feature of any country house of substance. But while early gardens almost celebrated their artifice, from the mid-18th century onwards, the natural and the romantic – sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony – came to dominate horticultural theory and practice alike, influenced by such notable English practitioners as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. However, during this period Ireland produced her own distinguished garden designers, not least John Sutherland whose highly successful career is examined by Patrick Bowe. Thomas Pakenham looks at the creation of arboretums in this country, and Seamus O’Brien explores the explorers: those intrepid botanical hunters forever in search of new plant species to bring back to Ireland. There are essays on garden buildings by Ruth Musielak, on the effect of technological advances in the production of glass and iron by Laura Johnstone, on evaluations of and improvements in gardening during the 19th century by Finola O’Kane, and an assessment of the Irish country house garden in the 21st century by Catherine FitzGerald. Plus, the Irish Aesthete tells the story of John Hennessy Saul, born into a family of gardeners, who emigrated to the United States where he established a thriving horticultural business, involved in the design and creation of gardeners throughout that country.
John Hennessy Saul was born in December 1819 at Carey’s Wood, a dower house on the Castlemartyr estate owned by the Boyles, Earls of Shannon: appropriately enough, the place, now called Carewswood, is a garden centre. Both Saul’s grandfather and father were gardeners, so it was almost inevitable that this would also be his choice of profession, as was also the case for several of his brothers. After working first in Ireland and then in England for some years, in 1851 he emigrated to the United States where he was almost immediately employed by the country’s most influential landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, with whom he then worked on the layout of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Following Downing’s untimely death in July 1852, Saul established his own business in the city, and within a few years was running an 80-acre nursery supplying plants to customers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not least Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, along with many other public and private commissions. Saul’s catalogues often offered opportunities to buy varieties of plants that he had cultivated: charmingly, he tended to call these after his wife. He also wrote regular specialist articles for all the leading horticultural publications of the time, won prizes in all the major competitions then being held and served on a number of important horticultural boards and committees. When the District of Columbia’s Board of Works established a Parks Commission in Washington in 1871, Saul was one of its founding board members and produced plans to increase the number of trees throughout the city: he was serving as the commission’s chairman at the time of his death, aged 77, in May 1897. John Hennessy Saul was clearly a remarkable man, and an outstanding horticulturist who learnt his skills while young and working in an Irish country house garden. Across the centuries, emigration has sent millions of Irish men and women around the world, and it seems probable that at least some of them worked in the same field as Saul, and perhaps enjoyed similar success. Their stories wait to be rediscovered and told, thereby enriching Ireland’s own gardening history.
Running to some 62 acres, Powerscourt, County Wicklow is unquestionably Ireland’s most famous – and most photographed – country house garden, but what can be seen here today is of relatively recent origin. The building around which it was created has origins in a medieval tower house constructed by the de la Poers, whence derives the site’s name. In the 1730s, this structure was encased in a large Palladian house designed for Richard Wingfield, first Viscount Powerscourt by the architect Richard Castle. But the surrounding landscape remained largely unadorned, the ground behind the building dropping down to a large, irregular stretch of water called Juggy’s Pond, beyond which the vista was closed by the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. Only in the 19th century did the scene begin to change, initially thanks to the sixth Viscount who in 1843 employed architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson to produce plans that would divide the sloping ground into a series of Italianate terraces, supposedly inspired by those at the Villa Butera (now Trabia) in Sicily. In a book about the estate that he published in 1907, the seventh viscount remembered being brought from his schoolroom one October morning to lay the first stone of this scheme. He also recalled how Robertson, who was forever in debt, would periodically have to hide in one of Powerscourt’s domes when the Sheriff’s officers came to arrest him. As for the gardens, Robertson, who found himself better able to work after sufficient quantities of alcohol had been consumed, in consequence suffered from gout. As a result, he ‘used to be wheeled out on the Terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen, but when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.’ However, in 1844 the sixth viscount, who had travelled to Italy to buy vases and sculptures for the intended garden, died of consumption before reaching home. Work on the site stopped during his young heir’s minority and it was not until the latter had reached adulthood in 1858 and assumed responsibility for the estate that the garden once more began to receive attention.
By the time the seventh Viscount Powerscourt started taking an active interest in the gardens of his country house, Daniel Robertson had died. However, the estate’s owner took a keen interest in finishing the incomplete job, visiting a number of key sites in Europe, such as the gardens at Versailles as well as those around the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna and the Schwetzingen Palace near Mannheim. He also consulted a number of landscape gardeners such as James Howe and William Brodrick Thomas. The second of these was also employed by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham in Norfolk. In the end, however, it was largely Lord Powerscourt himself and his Scottish head gardener, Alexander Robertson (no relation of the previously mentioned Daniel) who drew up their own scheme. Robertson, described by his employer as a very clever man with ‘more taste than any man of his class that I ever saw’ died in 1860 but by then the main outlines of the project had been agreed, and work started, not least on creating the terraces, on which it seems 100 men laboured for ten years. Lord Powerscourt reported that one of the difficulties faced was that because the ground had once been part of a glacier moraine, water kept coming to the surface of the ground and threatening to wash away the work; Robertson proposed thatbefore anything else was done, holes be dug at the back of each terrace so that the water inside, on coming to the surface ‘should fall down through the holes into the next stratum and disappear. This was done and we had no more trouble.’ Similar feats of engineering had to be undertaken to transform what had hitherto been Juggy’s Pond into the basin seen today: inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome, it has a central jet which can reach 100 feet. Another key feature added during this period is the Perron, a terrace situated part of the way down the central walk to the basin, designed by the English architect and astronomer Francis Penrose. This was intended to offer a viewing platform to what lies beyond, but also to break the monotony of the descent. The Perron has elaborate geometric mosaic paving, finished in 1875 and made from different coloured pebbles collected on the nearby beach at Bray. Meanwhile, Lord Powerscourt had continued to add to the collection of statuary and urns begun by his father, buying old pieces and commissioning new ones: the pair of figures representing Victory and Fame were made for him in 1866 by Hugo Hagen in Berlin: the same sculptor was also responsible for the pegasi down by the basin’s edge.
Lord Powerscourt never stopped adding new features to the grounds of Powerscourt, which extend much further than is indicated here. It is said that he did so because for a long time he and his wife had no children, and he did not want to leave anything for his somewhat disreputable younger brother Lewis Wingfield (and then, after 16 years of marriage, Lady Powerscourt had five children in succession). After he died in 1904, the family struggled to maintain the estate and eventually, in 1961 it was sold to the Slazenger family, which owns it still although, as is well known, the house was tragically gutted by fire in 1974. But the gardens remain much as they were during the seventh viscount’s time and draw large numbers of visitors. The pictures shown today were taken on a rare occasion when the grounds were entirely empty, allowing the Irish Aesthete to have the place to himself. In style, they are intended as a homage to those taken by Eugene Atget a century ago in the Parc de Saint-Cloud outside Paris.
As regular readers of this site will know, the Irish Aesthete has of late become much preoccupied with Irish country house gardens and their evolution across four centuries. At the moment, much of the investigation into this subject is being undertaken under the auspices of the Irish Georgian Society, part of a year-long project of which some elements (a recent two-part television documentary on some of the gardens, an exhibition of paintings of country house walled gardens) have already taken place, but others are yet to happen. One of the latter is a day-long conference scheduled to be held next week on Wednesday 17th November, The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground. Organised in conjunction the Office of Public Works and taking place in Dublin Castle, the conference will feature a wide variety of speakers investigating different aspects of Irish country house gardens, from the history of walled kitchen gardens to the development of arboretums. The event is open to the public, but places must be booked in advance: it promises to be a most stimulating occasion, and will in turn lead to a new book on the subject to be published next year.
For more information on next week’s conference, please see: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
For a long time they merely left it there.
They were too full of pity and distress
To breathe again that choked and choking air.
The rusty gate closed on a wilderness.
The walled garden, an old dying princess
From a lost country, had grown very strange.
A snow of petals fell on the rich loam,
Caroline Testout, Star of Holland, Night,
Ladies in waiting in a spacious room,
Those roses dressed in small clouds of light.
All, all destroyed, invaded, overthrown,
The formal beauty gone, formal delight,
And none to reclaim now, to heal, save
Order and beauty buried here alive.
‘Where are the roses gone?’ they whispered, shaken,
On those rare, sad occasions when they stood
Remembering the safe land of childhood
And saw this feverish ruin, overtaken
By squitch and groundsel and the woody nightshade.
‘Where are the goldfish, where the pond?’ And fled,
As children do, this world grown out of range.
‘The times have changed. We cannot help the change.’
The Walled Garden at Clondalkin by May Sarton (1955). Pictures show a walled garden in County Wexford
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.
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.