As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.
On Saturday, February 22nd 1908, page 7 of the Irish Times carried a variety of international and local news. Readers were informed, for example, that ‘Thirty-five terrorists were arrested yesterday in various parts of St. Petersburg, many in the open streets; some showed fight, firing revolvers and wounding their captors. A few carried bombs.’ Meanwhile, in Vienna, it was announced that festivities planned that spring to mark the diamond jubilee of the Emperor Franz-Joseph had been cancelled, ‘owing to the state of his Majesty’s health.’ In France, the trial was underway of a Sub-Lieutenant Charles B Ullmo for selling naval secrets to Germany (despite his defence counsel’s pleas for clemency on the grounds that the young man ‘was a victim of the opium habit, and that he had fallen under the influence of an unscrupulous woman, for whom he had squandered his fortune and ruined his life’, Ullmo would be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), in San Francisco a private bank collapsed and a Japanese steamer was wrecked off the coast of Alaska. One column, however, was dedicated to reporting on the inaugural meeting held the previous evening on the premises of the Royal Irish Academy of a new organisation. This would come to be called the Irish Georgian Society.
30 Jervis Street, Dublin (since demolished)
The Irish Georgian Society’s inaugural meeting was chaired by the new organisation’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, who then held the chair in Ancient History at Trinity College Dublin, becoming the institution’s Provost in 1914. According to the Irish Times, the ever-busy Countess of Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, although on her way to another meeting, ‘showed her interest in the proceedings by paying a short visit, remaining while the Chairman was explaining the objects for which the society was to be formed.’ These were, in brief, to preserve as far as possible by means of photographs or drawings, a record of the decorative work inside houses built during what Mahaffy described as Dublin’s golden epoch. Warming to his theme, the chairman imagined a stranger visiting the city and quickly recognising its exceptional character, being that of a former capital. The stranger would note that although houses around Dublin were designed by different architects, built by different men, in different but on the whole harmonious styles, and carried out mainly or almost altogether by Irish genius and Irish workmen. If the same stranger then ventured inside these houses, ‘he would find a beauty of decoration and dignity of style which would strike him as one of the most remarkable things in the Europe of that day.’
Speaking at the same meeting, the National Gallery of Ireland’s Registrar, Walter Strickland made many of the same points, noting how many historic buildings in the centre of Dublin were already being destroyed, but not before the contents of their interiors had been stripped out. Chimneypieces, he commented, ‘were sold to grace the drawingrooms of London’, stucco was hacked away, iron- and wood-work replaced or allowed to fall into decay. If the members of the society could not prevent this wanton destruction, he argued, ‘they could at least record and preserve pictorially the beauties of their old houses’, and this would be the organisation’s purpose: to provide testimony for the future of ‘the ceilings, the carved woodwork, the staircase, the beautiful doorways and lamp standards, and in doing this they would record work not only beautiful, but work executed by Dublin craftsmen.’
Professor Mahaffy advised those attending the meeting that the Irish Georgian Society intended to exist only for a short period, three or perhaps five years (in the event, it was the latter). However, at the end of that time the organisation planned to leave a lasting legacy which would ‘restore to the architects and craftsmen of Dublin their true credit,’ which had hitherto been obscured by the widespread belief that this work had been undertaken by foreigners ‘whilst our people were looking on helplessly.’ He recalled a recent visit to his house of a young cabinetmaker who admired a piece of furniture in one of the rooms with tears in his eyes. When asked what was the matter, the man replied, ‘I am thinking of the poor fellow that made this. He was a great workman. He is dead and gone now; his name is forgotten, and none of us will ever know who he was.’ Professor Mahaffy hoped that the newly-formed Irish Georgian Society would prevent the work of the 18th century being forgotten, ‘and would preserve a worthy record of it for succeeding generations.’
Gable-fronted houses in Sweeny’s Lane, Dublin (since demolished)
Since travel restrictions are once more in place, and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, over the coming weeks this site will intermittently look at endeavours which since the early 20th century have sought to curb widespread desire in Ireland to obliterate evidence of the country’s exceptional architectural heritage.
All photographs taken from Volume 1 of the Irish Georgian Society Records (published 1909)
Five years ago, the Irish Aesthete featured a tribute to the late Mariga Guinness, co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society; for anyone not familiar with her history, please see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/05/05/marvellous-mariga. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Mariga’s death at the horribly early age of 56, and so it is opportune to remember her again and to celebrate all that she did for her adopted country of Ireland. An inspiration to so many people during her lifetime, she deserves to be recalled and celebrated as a pioneer in the still-ongoing battle to save our architectural heritage.
Over 250 years ago a small group of ambitious Irish artists came together in Dublin to establish a new society dedicated to promoting their work. Within a couple of years they had not only organised an annual exhibition but also constructed a domed octagonal chamber in which this could take place. Known as the City Assembly House, it is the oldest extant public art gallery within these islands and very likely in Europe. Restored over recent years by the Irish Georgian Society, from today the space features ‘Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland’, a recreation of how the room would have looked when used by the Society of Artists between 1765 and 1780. All the work featured is by exhibitors in those original shows and among the more familiar names are Francis Wheatley, Thomas Roberts, Jonathan Fisher, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Robert Hunter and Samuel Dixon. Running until July 29th, the exhibition is a unique celebration of an earlier and still insufficiently appreciated era in Irish art. Admission is free.
For more information on Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland and the programme of complementary events associated with it, see: http://www.igs.ie/events
The garden pavilion at Glenville Park, County Cork. The core of the present house dates from the last quarter of the 18th century but 100 years later substantial additions were made to both front and rear, the pavilion, which holds a single large room, concluding the latter part of the building. After belonging to the Hudson, later Hudson-Kinahan, family Glenville was bought in 1949 by Colonel Philip Bence-Jones and later inherited by his son, Mark Bence-Jones who died four years ago. Bence-Jones was the doyen of Irish country house enthusiasts and his guide to these properties, first published by Burke’s in 1978, remains an invaluable resource.
Next Tuesday, October 14th at 8pm I shall be speaking on The Future of the Irish Country House in the 21st Century at 2 Pery Square, Limerick. This is the annual Knight of Glin Memorial Lecture hosted by the Limerick Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society and further information on the event can be found by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
This page from the Dublin Penny Journal of December 5th 1835 shows the casino at Marino, Dublin completed sixty years earlier to the designs of Sir William Chambers. As discussed here before (see Casino Royale, March 25th 2013) the casino was only one of a number of buildings erected in the grounds of the first Earl of Charlemont’s estate. Close to the casino, for example, stood a tall Gothic tower known as ‘Rosamund’s Bower’ and likely designed by Johann Heinrich Muntz, a Swiss-born painter and architect encouraged by Horace Walpole to move to England where he worked with Chambers. Unfortunately Lord Charlemont’s architectural ambitions exceeded his income, leaving his heirs somewhat impoverished and resulting in the park at Marino soon falling into decay: the Dublin Penny Journal notes that Rosamund’s Bower was already in ruins and strangers seldom visited the place any more.
Ultimately all except the casino was swept away, and at the moment that building plays host to a fascinating exhibition Paradise Lost: Lord Charlemont’s Garden at Marino which is demands to be seen (and is accompanied by a very smart and informative catalogue). Next Tuesday, June 10th the Office of Public Works and the Irish Georgian Society are holding a study day in the latter’s Dublin headquarters on South William Street exploring this long-vanished parkland and its legacy. For booking and more information, please see http://www.igs.ie/events.
Here is a portrait of Richard Boyle, fourth Earl of Shannon painted by a relatively little-known mid-19th century artist, the Hon Henry Richard Graves. Prior to inheriting his title, Boyle sat in the House of Commons representing County Cork. However, in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act with its attendant increase in the size of the electorate, he lost his seat, one of those returned in his place being Garret Standish Barry, the first Roman Catholic to enter Parliament since the Catholic Relief Act three years earlier.
Once notable landowners in East Cork where they owned the Castlemartyr estate, the Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle dynasty established in Ireland by Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork. Until the fourth Earl’s unseating, they had enjoyed an active association with this country’s politics: the first Lord Shannon Henry Boyle served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for more than two decades before being raised to the peerage in 1756.
The picture above is one of a collection depicting members of the family which from next week will be on show in the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, Dublin. To mark the opening of the exhibition, at 6pm on Tuesday, May 27th I will be holding a public discussion about his forebears with Harry Boyle, tenth Earl of Shannon. This event is free, but advance booking advised. For further information, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/earls-of-shannon-portraits-launch
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death on May 8th 1989 of Mariga Guinness at the age of only 56. It seems an opportune moment to celebrate her life, especially since an entire generation has since grown up without having had the opportunity to meet Mariga and to benefit in person from her influence.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Marie-Gabrielle von Urach was born in September 1932, the only child of Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder. Her mother’s family were from the Scottish borders, her father’s a junior branch of the royal house of Württemberg in southern Germany; her grandfather was briefly King of Lithuania, a great-aunt Queen of Belgium and a great-grandaunt the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Although her father had been expected to succeed to the principality of Monaco (an extraordinary story in itself), in the aftermath of the First World War this arrangement was abandoned and so he came of age with little money and no prospects. Both Mariga’s parents were artists and in the mid-1930s they and their daughter moved to Japan where Prince Albrecht was attached to the German embassy as a government photographer. However in 1937 Rosemary von Urach decided the Japanese Emperor was being misled into aggression by his generals, and taking Mariga with her somehow gained admission into the imperial palace to offer him advice. Arrested and sedated by security guards, she was sent back to Britain where she had a breakdown followed by a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in a Scottish mental hospital. Meanwhile Mariga’s father continued working for the German government throughout the Second World War and did not see his daughter again until she was sixteen and he had remarried (when they reunited he did not tell her this himself and she only found out indirectly). In the intervening years Mariga had been raised in England by a septuagenarian unmarried friend of her grandmother’s who died in 1951, leaving her charge possessed of little other than great intelligence and beauty. That same year she was introduced to the Hon Desmond Guinness by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein. The couple married in June 1954 and moved to Ireland the following year.
Mariga first visited Ireland (at the invitation of the late Mark Bence-Jones) in 1953. He later remembered that she arrived in a ball dress having gone straight from a dance in London to catch an early flight. ‘The first thing they asked me when I got off the ‘plane was “Have you been on a farm?”’ she said with her unerring sense of the incongruous (there had recently been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England). Afterwards she wrote, ‘Ireland is HEAVEN, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps the Horse Show.’ Of course, after moving here Mariga took the country very seriously, not least in her ceaseless campaigns to preserve its architectural heritage and her founding with Desmond of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
The society was run from the couple’s home at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which they had bought and restored after looking at countless other houses around Ireland. Leixlip represented Mariga’s highly distinctive and influential taste. As architectural historian Mark Girouard has written, ‘In the 1960s Mariga Guinness made Leixlip Castle an unforgettable place: a solid, four-towered mediaeval castle converted in the early 18th century with huge, thick-barred windows and spacious, simple rooms looking down to the Liffey; a massive front door that was never locked; and inside an inspired assembly of mainly Irish 18th-century furniture and pictures, put together and set off with a sense of color and occasion, a mixture of informality and showmanship, to make a setting in which it seemed that anything could happen and anyone might turn up.
One would turn up oneself, pull open the front door and wander into empty rooms with log fires smoldering, until people would, perhaps, begin to appear: millionaires, Irish professors, Anglo-Irish lordlings, pop stars, German princes, architects, priests, art historians, students, all revolving around Mariga, with her drawling voice and mischievous smile, and Desmond, with his charm and blazing blue eyes.
A party might develop or a picnic, or both or neither; intrigues and dramas would get under way, champagne might or might not flow, and the whole charade was given point by the crusade for Irish Georgian architecture, to save or rediscover which forays would be made from the castle all over Ireland.’
Many people can testify, and have done so, to the abiding impact of Mariga’s exceptional taste. Interior designer John Stefanidis has remembered her ‘A wit, a tease, an intelligent and enchanting beauty, gifted with impeccable taste. She had panache…whether in a fur hat and muff, or in fancy dress with a large hat and feather boa, she always looked marvellous. A wonderful hostess, Leixlip Castle was an example on how to live in an historic house – despite it being freezing cold in winter (she longed for central heating).’
It was thrilling to stay there surrounded by marvellous furniture she had found and not an ugly thing in sight. She was the inspiration behind the founding of the Irish Georgian Society – not only did she find houses and restore them but also doggedly charmed her way through bureaucratic red tape in Dublin.’
Likewise in his 1985 book The Inspiration of the Past, architectural historian John Cornforth described Leixlip as ‘the key country house in the British Isles in the late 1950s and 1960s,’ before going on to write that ‘The process of restoring, decorating and furnishing the house was very much a shared enthusiasm, with complementary contributions from two remarkable people; but it always seemed to me that the overall look of the house owed more to Mrs Guinness, who has a rare gift for composing objects and rooms in a stimulating way and combining unlikely, and occasionally uncompromising, objects to create memorable effects…Ultimately it was the feeling for scale in the house and the combination of the Irish pictures and furniture with the simple decoration supported by prints, piles of books and quantities of shells that made it such a complete and convincing Irish country house, very carefully thought out but achieved with such brio and confidence that it seemed natural and not contrived. It managed to be stylish and unfussy; quite grand and yet informal and cut-back; and everywhere there was both a vivid historical air and a sense of fantasy.’ In this context, Cornforth referenced Nancy Lancaster before recalling an observation made by Christopher Gibbs that while Mrs Lancaster’s taste had been ‘patrician’ that of Mariga was ‘princely.’
Although less actively involved with the Irish Georgian Society during the last years of her life, Mariga’s commitment and engagement with the organisation during its early decades was of vital importance. After her death, the late Professor Kevin B Nowlan noted how, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s Mariga Guinness gave a sparkle to the grim struggle to save our heritage of 18th century architecture.’ Indeed, it was her crusading spirit and her exceptional ability to inspire other people that deserve to be forever remembered. As the Knight of Glin commented, ‘She had that vital talent of leading every sort of person into the then often unappreciated world of Irish architecture, decoration, furniture and paintings.’ The society’s membership swelled as a direct result of her passionate advocacy of conservationism; she was a force of persuasive charm impossible to resist. ‘Not a painter, not a writer, not a musician,’ wrote her great friend Maureen Charlton while Mariga was still alive, ‘what she does is to transform life itself into a work of art, to make each passing day a new creation.’
Mariga was always especially good at inspiring the young, who would quickly be beguiled into voluntarily working for the Irish Georgian Society, and in a thoroughly practical way too. During the course of an interview given less than two months before her death, she spoke of the restoration, indeed the salvation of Castletown, County Kildare in 1967 when students were at the top of ladders painting cornices, children scrubbed floors, ‘and even the oldest of the old were able to polish the beautiful door handles and do something to help.’ Mariga too threw herself into activity and led by example, being prepared to climb a ladder with a pot of paint, or wield a banner during a protest against the threatened demolition of an historically important building. A feature in the Irish Independent during this period noted of Mariga that when not in Leixlip ‘dispensing informal hospitality and discussing current such finds as a document-packed sealskin trunk or an ancient set of stocks in a Meath courthouse, she’s paint-stripping or picture hanging at Castletown.’ Although she could sometimes give the impression of being rather vague – she was notorious for introducing even relatively close friends as ‘Mr Thingummy’ – a strong core of practicality ran through her character. And there was a streak of seriousness too. As she told a reporter from the Irish Times shortly before her death, when speaking of the Irish Georgian Society, ‘It was definitely very serious, what we were doing.’
Although we met in passing on a couple of occasions when I was still a student, it was only after she had divorced and I had graduated that Mariga and I came to know each other. By then she had perforce moved out of Leixlip Castle and was living in Tullynisk, the dower house of Birr, County Offaly. It was definitely a house of contrasts, on the one hand a grim little kitchen (out of which surprisingly delicious meals were produced) and on the other the main rooms which were decorated with Mariga’s customary flair and discernment. Despite chaos forever appearing imminent, life at Tullynisk was actually rather well-ordered: overnight guests found their rooms perfectly prepared, logs neatly piled beside the grate (the house was always cold), fresh linen on the beds, and carefully chosen reading matter on an adjacent stand. No matter how late we had all scattered – and it was often very late – the followed morning Mariga would be the first to rise, moving about the house with trays laden for the breakfast table.
At the same time, disorder reigned behind the scenes: Mariga’s unparalleled collection of historical costume, for example, remained heaped in a tempting Everest on one bedroom floor, periodically raided for dressing-up on her instruction during parties. And her wonderful library, although the majority of books were eventually shelved, never had any real order put on it. Meanwhile she continued to drive a battered old Citroen, which periodically refused to move and would sometimes spend months outside the house. I remember Mariga’s bafflement when she was summoned to appear in court in Birr for failing to tax the vehicle, her logic being that since it was immobile no taxation ought to be required.
The truth was that during those final years Mariga was deeply unhappy, the melancholia to which I suspect she had always been vulnerable threatening to overwhelm her. Although she tried to keep herself busy and organised regular house parties and outings – a caravan of cars driving slowly down pot-holed laneways in pursuit of an alleged architectural gem that more often turned out to be an undistinguished farmhouse, its owners baffled by the spectacle of this troupe of eccentric gawkers – she was often alone. At such times she must have felt the world of which she had once been so vital a part had moved on and forgotten her. Of course it hadn’t, and more importantly it still hasn’t. All of us remained heavily indebted to Mariga Guinness and her inspirational leadership. Through her dynamism and commitment, Ireland’s architectural heritage became better known and appreciated, and preserved, than would otherwise have been the case. This week’s anniversary of her untimely death allows us an opportunity once more to pay due acknowledgement to a remarkable woman.
Mariga Guinness, 21st September 1932 – 8th May 1989