Et in Arcadia…


Closing the fifteenth annual Historic Houses Conference at Dublin Castle last week, Professor Christopher Ridgway urged the importance of ‘moving the narrative beyond the litany of loss and destruction.’ This site might sometimes seem to deal only in the latter currency, to offer a ceaseless round of bad news, of historic properties fallen into disrepair, of estates permitted to slide into ruin. On occasion however, a more cheerful story can be told, one that has nothing to do with loss and destruction. Such is the case this week at Oakfield, County Donegal.




Oakfield is of interest for many reasons, not least its links to one of the loveliest estates in England: Rousham, Oxfordshire. The main house at Oakfield, built in 1739 at a cost of £1,680, was commissioned by William Cotterell, then-Dean of Raphoe. Cotterell was a younger son of Sir Charles Lodowick Cotterell who, like his father before him (and several generations of the same family thereafter) held the court position of Master of Ceremonies. In 1741 Dean Cotterell’s brother, Sir Clement Cotterell who performed the same role in the royal household, inherited the Rousham estate from a cousin. William Kent had already been working on the gardens at Rousham but now also undertook improvements to the house. Clearly the Cotterell brothers were men of taste and this can also be seen at Oakfield even if Kent did not work there. In fact the house’s elevations are stylistically somewhat anachronistic and seem to harp back to the late 17th century. Nevertheless, tit is a handsome building in an admirably chosen setting: on a bluff offering views across to Croaghan Hill some five miles away. 




Oakfield remained in use as a deanery until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 when it was sold to Thomas Butler Stoney, another younger son (this time of James Stoney of Rossyvera, County Mayo). A Captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, Stoney also occupied all the other positions expected of someone in his position: County High Sheriff, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Justice of the Peace. Following his death in 1912 Oakfield was inherited by his only son, Cecil Robert Vesey Stoney, a keen ornithologist who eventually moved to England in the early 1930s. The house and surrounding lands thereafter passed through several hands before being bought twenty-one years ago by businessman Gerry Robinson who together with his wife Heather has since undertaken an extensive restoration of the property. 




Over the past two decades, not only have the Robinsons restored the residence at the centre of Oakfield, but they have created a 100-acre parkland around it. Some of this is based in the old walled gardens immediately adjacent to the house but the rest is spread over two areas bisected by a road. This division applies also to the spirit of the two sections, the upper garden having a more classical aspect thanks to elements such as a Nymphaeum on one side of the lake. The lower garden’s principal architectural feature is a newly-created castellated tower house overlooking another stretch of water. Between this pair of substantial structures are other, smaller buildings to engage a visitor’s interest. Oakfield is an admirable demonstration of what imaginative vision allied with sound taste can achieve. Walking around the grounds, it is hard to believe this is County Donegal. But that is what sets Oakfield apart: like Rousham on the other side of the Irish Sea, once inside the gates one is temporarily transported to Arcadia.


For more on Oakfield, see: http://www.oakfieldpark.com

The Méséglise Way


‘It was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white. It, too, was in holiday attire, for one of those days which are the only true holidays, the holy days of religion, because they are not appointed by any capricious accident, as secular holidays are appointed, upon days which are not specially ordained for such observances, which have nothing about them that is essentially festal – but it was attired even more richly than the rest, for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above another, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed about the crook of a rococo shepherdess, were every one of them ’in colour,’ and consequently of a superior quality…it was Nature herself who had spontaneously expressed it (with the simplicity of a woman from a village shop, labouring at the decoration of a street altar for some procession) by burying the bush in these little rosettes, almost too ravishing in colour, this rustic ’pompadour.’ High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose-trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from the altar on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour, but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the special, irresistible quality of the hawthorn-tree, which, wherever it budded, wherever it was about to blossom, could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone.’

Remembrance of Things Past: Janey Alexander, March 1962-May 2017

The Promise of Summer


The gardens of Lismore Castle, County Waterford photographed last summer during the annual opera festival held here. The upper section of the walled grounds, the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland, was originally laid out in the early decades of the 17th century for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In recent years it has been revitalised by head gardener Darren Topps and his team.



There is no better time to enjoy the gardens of Lismore Castle than in early June, which is when the opera festival takes place and this season’s production – of Donizetti’s  enchanting L’Elisir d’Amore – will be perfectly in tune with the mood of these pictures, full of light and colour and sparkle. Very much recommended.


For further information on the Lismore Opera Festival, see: http://www.lismoreoperafestival.com

Light and Shade

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After political events of the past week, many people across the globe are understandably overwhelmed with feelings of melancholia and premonitions of catastrophe. However the study of history teaches us that our forebears went through worse afflictions – and somehow survived. They faced infinitely more terrible examples of hatred and low conduct, and found the strength to carry on. They did so because, for all its failings and foibles, the human spirit is resilient. So too is the urge, the need to create beauty, even in the midst of turmoil and disorder. The determination of previous generations to overcome adversity, and to find the beautiful in the midst of ugliness can serve as our own inspiration.

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The gardens at Huntington Castle, County Carlow demonstrate how beauty is able to survive across centuries of war and upheaval. The origins of settlement here go back to the Middle Ages when a Franciscan friary was established on the site: a souvenir of that period is the Yew Walk, comprising 120 English yews planted along a stretch of ground 130 yards long and believed to be at least six centuries old. In the 17th century the property passed into the ownership of the Esmondes who in the 1680s laid out much of the rest of what can be seen today, including the parterre and a French lime avenue. Other elements from this period include the stew ponds (for the cultivation of fish that could be eaten) and an ornamental lake, while later work further enhanced the gardens thanks to various specimen trees that continue to thrive. More recent additions include the creation of a rose garden and the planting of thousands of snowdrops.

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The gardens at Huntington remain an ongoing project, tended by the latest generation of the family that first came here almost 400 years ago. Over that period, and well before, this country experienced many instances of upheaval, war, famine and other dreadful afflictions. And yet somehow the gardens at Huntington not only endured but were regularly augmented and improved by their owners. Those owners and the outcome of their labour offer us an example of how, even under the worst circumstances, the human spirit continues to crave beauty. Taken one afternoon in early autumn, today’s photographs show that light and shade naturally co-exist, without the latter ever being able to crush the former. In these dark days, we should remember that. The light still shines through.

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More on Huntington Castle in the coming weeks…

This Little St Cloud

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‘I went on Friday last to receive you remainders of rents in the county of Wicklow and lay at Killruddery two nights…Capt. Ed Brabazon has and will make great improvements there, the park for his colts is long time since finished and he is making also a deer park and decoy. The decoy will be the finest in the kingdom or I believe in the 3 kingdoms. The pond is already made and the reed wall is making, round a out which he will built a wall at so great a distance that the fowl shall not be frightened thereat, the south and north ends of which wall shall without and against the other two…a dry wall. Against the south wall without and against the north wall within he will plant fruit of all sorts and will make a treble ditch without the south wall and quickset the fen to the end that the deer may not get to the fruit and that the park may be completed.’
Letter from Oliver Cheyney, agent to the third Earl of Meath, 1682.

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‘Killruddery…being a large house with four flankers and terraces, and a new summer-house built by the said earl…with pleasure garden, cherry garden, kitchen garden, wilderness, gravel walks, and a bowling green, all walled about and well planted with fruit trees, with several canals or fish-ponds, well stored with carp and trench…’
From a report in The Dublin Intelligence, April 1711.

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‘The demesne of Kilruddery [sic] occupies a narrow valley, which separates the mountain termed the Smaller Sugarloaf from the promontory called Bray Head, and is marked by many circumstances of great natural beauty. The grounds are laid out in a manner peculiarly adapted to the character of the present building, and present nearly a unique instance in this country of the old Dutch style of gardening. From the natural grandeur of the surrounding country, the formality of this mode stands revealed with peculiar distinctness. The enclosing mountains rise boldly and at once, with all their brilliancy of purple and brown colouring, above the long avenues of stately elms, the close cut yew hedges, and regular terraces of this little St Cloud.’
From The Beauties of Ireland by James Norris Brewer, 1825.

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Here the River is Beautified

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In 1739 an Anglican clergyman called William Henry wrote a descriptive account of the area around Ulster’s Upper Lough Erne in which he mentioned that a river (which he calls ‘of Ballyhaise’ but which is now known as the Annalee) ‘ murmurs by Rathkenny, the seat of the Clements’ family. Here the river is beautified by an elegant house, improvements and large plantations on the southern shore, and on its northern bank by extensive gardens and terraces.’ It appears that Daniel Clements, originally from Warwickshire, came to Ireland in the 1640s as a soldier and by 1657 was in possession of the estate of almost 2,000 acres at Rathkenny, County Cavan which remained in the possession of his descendants (whose name in the 19th century became Lucas-Clements) until sold just a few years ago. His son Robert succeeded to the property in 1680 and remained there until his own death in 1722. One of Robert’s sons was Nathaniel, of whom mention has been made here before (see A Man of Taste and Influence, August 3rd 2015).

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The Clements family would seem to have built a house for themselves on the south bank of the river which bisected their property. Nothing is known of the appearance or character of this building since it was demolished, likely around the late 1820s when work began on a new residence. This neo-classical block was designed by William Farrell who was the architect for a number of other such places in the vicinity. A sunken lawn to the immediate east appears to indicate where was the previous house but directly across the river is a survivor from the earlier property: a terraced walled garden. Today this is approached by a narrow concrete bridge but presumably something more elegant once offered access, since the garden itself is rather splendid. Cut limestone walls support banks on either side of limestone gate piers: paths to the immediate left and right lead to enclosing red brick walls which, on the river frontage, conclude in tall piers topped with urns. A gate to the east leads beyond the wall to the remains of a small pavilion built on the water’s edge; only one wall of this remains with a gothic arched window at its centre. One has a sense of what this little building must have been like since at the top and centre of the main terraces (supported by a sequence of low brick walls) is a summer house. Flanked by quadrant walls it is in the gothick style, constructed of brick with stone quoins, a battlemented parapet and arched windows on each side of the door. Inside is a single high-ceilinged room which once had further windows, since blocked up, and a chimneypiece which has gone. To the rear of the building there is access to another room below: one imagines this was used by servants looking after the needs of those upstairs.

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Relatively little is known of the history of the walled garden at Rathkenny: Lucas-Clements lore proposed that it dated to 1695, which means construction soon after Robert Clements returned from England (he had been attainted by James II’s parliament in 1689 and fled to England) and around the time he became high sheriff of County Cavan. Nothing like it survives in this part of the country, but evidently at one point it was not the only such terraced garden. In 1739 the aforementioned Rev. Henry wrote of Ballyhaise, some nine miles to the west, ‘‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers.’ Designed for Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, probably in the third decade of the 18th century, and attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the main house at Ballyhaise is of red brick with cut stone dressings: with later additions the building survives although the river-fronting terraced gardens are long gone (for more on Ballyhaise, see Made to Last For Ever, March 9th 2015). Then barely three miles to the east of Rathkenny is Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), another red-brick and stone house almost certainly designed by Pearce, and then a few miles further north again are the remains of the former early 18th century stables at Dartrey, County Monaghan (Now Unstable, October 1st 2014), once more employing the same materials. One has the impression that even if the same architect was not involved in all these neighbouring estates, the same spirit was at work, and the same influences and tastes being shared. More research remains to be done in this area but meanwhile the terraced gardens at Rathkenny are a rare survivor from the early Georgian period. Thankfully the property’s new owner appreciates their significance and is ensuring that they will continue to offer us an insight into early 18th century horticultural design.

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Situated in a Widely Extended Demesne

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‘Through hills at the foot of Bessy Bell …we come to Baronscourt, Lord Abercorn’s magnificent seat….the great number of fine oaks and three long narrow lakes which ornament this place give it an air of great grandeur.’
Rev. Daniel Beaufort (1786)

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‘In the vicinity is Baronscourt, the seat of the Marquess of Abercorn, a stately mansion, situated in a widely extended demesne, combining much romantic and beautiful scenery, embellished with three spacious lakes, and enriched with fine timber.’
Samuel Lewis (1837)

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