The garden front of Palmerstown, County Kildare. The estate here was acquired in the middle of the 17th century by a branch of the Bourke family, later Earls of Mayo, who built a residence later described as ‘an old fashioned house, added to from time to time in an irregular manner, the rooms low and small but enriched with some good pictures, particularly a set of Sir Joshuas.’ In 1872 Richard Southwell Bourke, the sixth earl, was assassinated while serving as Viceroy of India. Subsequently a new house was erected for the family, the costs defrayed by public subscription: a plaque over the entrance notes that it was built ‘by his friends and countrymen.’ Designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt in what is generously described as a Queen-Anne style, the second Palmerstown only lasted half a century, being burnt during the Civil War in January 1923: the elderly seventh earl was a Free State Senator and therefore vulnerable to attack from Anti-Treaty forces. The building was subsequently reconstructed under the supervision of architect Richard Orpen but without its original third-storey Mansard roof. Having changed hands several times in the last century, it is now a wedding venue.
Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.
Despite its French name, the concept of the ferme ornée is of English origin and is usually attributed to the garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer.* His 1715 book The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation criticized the overly elaborate formal gardens derived from French and Dutch examples, and proposed laying out grounds that were attractive but also functional: ‘By mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable in the Interior Parts of my Designs and Paddocks, obscure enclosures, etc. in the outward, My Designs are thereby vastly enlarg’d and both Profit and Pleasure may be agreeably mix’d together.’ In other words, working farms could be transformed into visually delightful places. One of the earliest examples of the ferme ornée was laid out by Philip Southgate who owned the 150-acre Woburn Farm, Surrey on which work began in 1727. ‘All my design at first,’ wrote Southgate, ‘was to have a garden on the middle high ground and a walk all round my farm, for convenience as well as pleasure.’ The fashion for such designs gradually spread across Europe as part of the adoption of natural English gardens: perhaps the most famous example is the ferme ornée is the decorative model farmy called the Hameau de la Reine created for Marie Antoinette at Versailles in the mid-1780s. The most complete extant example of this garden type in Europe is believed to be at Larchill, County Kildare.
*Incidentally, Stephen Switzer was no relation to the Irish Switzers: whereas his family could long be traced to residency in Hampshire, the Switzers who settled in this country in the early 18th century had come from Germany to escape religious persecution.
Larchill was created in the mid-18th century on part of an estate then owned by the Prentices, a Quaker merchant family whose adjacent country retreat, Phepotstown, still stands. As was typical with members of this sect, the house is very plain (the Quakers disapproving of unnecessary ornament) in striking contrast with the buildings on their farm. Here they followed the principles espoused by Switzer, Southgate and others, erecting structures both utilitarian and attractive around a gothick-style yard. However, it is across the surrounding farmland that the greatest, and most conspicuous, effort was expended. The focus of this enterprise is an eight-acre lake to the south of the farmyard. Several buildings are located around this stretch of water, while two others stand on small islands. That to the east is a small temple-like structure, its outer wall marked with decorative recesses, while inside a circle of columns surrounds an open space which may have been a well (the columns supporting a roof that directed rainwater into the centre of the site). A bridge, perhaps composed of pontoons, linked this island to the mainland. Meanwhile to the west, a larger island holds a miniature fort known as Gibraltar, the name deriving from an unsuccessful siege of the peninsula that ran for more than three and a half years from 1779-1783. The fort may have been erected to commemorate the fact that Gibraltar withstood this assault by Spanish and French forces. Between the two islands used to stand a statue of the ancient Greek hunter Meleager: more recently it has been replaced by a similarly-proportioned figure of Bacchus. here…
The statue of Meleager once found in the middle of the lake now has pride of place in the Larchill’s restored walled garden. The south-west corner of this space is occupied by a three-storey battlemented tower, the interior spaces of which – lit by arched gothic windows – have walls covered in shells, reflecting a fashionable pastime of the period such as can be seen inside the cottage decorated in a similar fashion during the same period by Emily, Duchess of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare which stands not far away. Further to the east of this wall is a three-arched loggia which once served as an ornamental dairy, the interior once lined with 18th century Dutch blue-and-white tiles. Like the rest of Larchill, the walled garden has been restored over the past twenty-years by its present owners. The Prentices, who had created the core of the ferme ornée were forced to sell the place, which was then bought by another family the Watsons who maintained and even added other features to the grounds such as the Fox’s Earth, a folly apparently built by Robert Watson, a well-known Master of Hounds who feared reincarnation as a fox (having been responsible for killing too many of them). However, during the 19th century it would seem the ornamental aspects of the parkland were neglected so that it returned to customary agricultural usage. The buildings fell into dereliction, the lake dried out, or was drained, and the special character of Larchill lost. Only after being purchased by the de las Casas family in 1994 did work begin to restore the site. Many of the buildings were carefully cleared of undergrowth and trees, the lake re-established and the distinctive character of this ferme ornée recovered. Thanks to their labours, today it is once more possible to emulate the precedent of Philip Southgate and to walk around Larchill ‘for convenience as well as pleasure.’here…
Larchill, County Kildare is open to the public. For further information, see: https://larchill.ie/
It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.
One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.
The County Kildare institution long known as Maynooth Seminary was established by act of the Irish Parliament in June 1795 as The Royal College of St Patrick to provide ‘for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.’ Curiously it would be eighty years before building work began on the college’s present chapel. In the early 1850s the English champion of the Gothic Revival and convert to Catholicism Augustus Welby Pugin had produced designs for the quadrangle called St Mary’s Square. His plans included a chapel but owing to Pugin’s death in 1852 and a shortage of funds, this part of the project was not initiated. Only in October 1875 was the foundation stone laid, the architect now being J.J. McCarthy, often popularly described as ‘the Irish Pugin.’ By 1880 expenditure on the work had reached £26,242 and when McCarthy died two years later just the basic structure had been completed: a report issued in the middle of the 1880s appealed for financial aid so that the ‘useless empty shell’ could be finished as ‘a splendid, fully furnished collegiate chapel’. In 1887 seven Catholic architects were invited to tender for the job of designing the interior, William Hague being selected. The building was consecrated and opened for worship by Cardinal Michael Logue in June 1891 but still the work went on. Hague designed the tower and spire in 1895 but, as with his predecessors, he did not live to see the work here reach conclusion; rising 273 feet, it is the tallest such built structure in Leinster. Inside, the Lady Chapel at the east end was decorated and furnished by architect G.C. Ashlin in 1908–11; Ashlin was also responsible for the alabaster high altar and reredos.
At 222 feet, Maynooth is the longest church choir in the world and certainly the most elaborately decorated in Ireland. Every surface carries ornament, all sharing the same theme of ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God). The marble mosaic floor, for example, carries lines inspired by Psalms 112 and 46 opening with the line ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ (Praise the Lord, young men). The use of the fleur-de-lis on the floor is intended to evoke not just the Trinity (in the same way that the shamrock is supposed to do) but also the links between Ireland and France during the worst times of the Penal era. Meanwhile the ceiling is covered in canvas featuring a vast heavenly procession of figures leading up to the main altar, predominantly angels and saints, many of the latter being associated with Ireland and the early Christian church here. Each figure is enclosed within a medallion again bearing lines from sacred texts. The design was by the English religious artist and decorator Nathaniel Westlake but the work executed by a little-known artist based in Dublin called Robert Mannix. The walls above the choir stalls are life-size representations of the Stations of the Cross: like the ceiling they are in oil on canvas, and were designed and supplied by Westlake.
More colour is provided in the interior by stained glass installed in the 1890s and for which three companies were responsible: that owned by the aforementioned Westlake; Cox, Buckley & Sons; and the Munich-based firm of Mayer & Co, which was then much patronized by Catholic and Anglican churches alike throughout Ireland. The glass in the chapel nave is devoted to representing scenes from the life of Christ while at the west end of the building a large rose window inspired by that in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is devoted to celebrating Christ the King surrounded by sundry saints, apostles and evangelists. In the main body of the chapel, the space between the top of the choir stalls and the bottom of the windows is filled with a string course of Caen stone carved with animals and birds to demonstrate that even members of the animal kingdom sing the praises of their creator. The corbels at this level represent angels presenting various instruments used in church services by clerics, the two closest to the high altar holding a mitre and crozier (as used by bishops). Finally there are the stalls, all 454 of them carved in oak by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The finial in the back row of each section supports the figure of a saint while those on the lower levels represent a different plant or tree, again to demonstrate the variety of divine creation. Whatever one’s faith, or even if one has none, the decorative scheme of Maynooth College Chapel cannot fail to impress. It has a rigour and entirety of both vision and execution rarely found in Irish Catholic churches. Furthermore the interior has escaped despoliation by either unnecessary post-Vatican II reordering or by the imposition of some later cleric’s ill-judged aesthetic notions (cf. the so-called ‘renovations’ of the cathedrals in both Killarney and Monaghan). As a result it remains not just the largest chapel in Ireland but also one of the country’s finest Roman Catholic buildings.
Running to 222 feet, the church in Maynooth College, County Kildare contains the world’s largest choir chapel. Four tiered ranks of stalls ascend on either side of the nave, enough to accommodate 454 worshippers. The finials at the top of each section of seating are crowned with figures of saints, including those seen here. The entire choir is made of oak and was carved in the last quarter of the 19th century by a Dublin firm, Connolly’s of Dominick Street.
More on the church in Maynooth College in due course.
Evening Light at Drummin, County Kildare. The core of the house dates from the mid-18th century when it was built by the Rev. William Grattan. At that time the west facade, seen here, was the entrance front, the door being located where the arched window is now in the middle of the breakfront. At some point in the 19th century, lower wings were added on either side that to the left (north) side becoming the new entrance.