A Man of Taste and Influence

The text below originally appeared here in 2015. Tomorrow at Sotheby’s in London many of the items in the accompanying photographs will be offered for sale; thankfully not all, since some key pieces such as the 1770s sofas, the Axminster carpet from c.1820-30 and 19th century beds with their original hangings have been offered on loan to the state for public display. Nevertheless, the contents of another historic Irish house are being broken up because there is little or no official support for owners of such properties struggling to survive and eventually they are left with no option but to sell.
It is worth pointing out – again – that legislation has existed on the Irish statute books for many decades which is supposed to ensure that valuable paintings, furniture and so forth remain in this country. The Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act dates from 1945 and was, in theory at least, supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. The idea behind these pieces of legislation is that before any item over a certain fairly low value can leave the country, the parties responsible are required to seek permission from government-appointed authorities (until July 2015 usually one of the main national cultural institutions.*) However, there is no known instance where such an export licence has been refused; auction houses have long understood that this is a mere paper-filling formality. Tomorrow’s sale, for example, also includes a mahogany dining table attributed to Mack, Williams and Gibton and dated c.1815. It was listed in an inventory made of the contents of Carton, County Kildare in 1818 and has remained in the house until now when, after 200 years, it will be offered for sale tomorrow.
Vendors vend, buyers buy, auctioneers auction. Across millennia collections have been assembled and dispersed. There are no villains here, no one deserves to be castigated for acting in an untoward fashion. But there is, as has been the case for too long, evidence of clear neglect on the part of the Irish state towards what becomes of our patrimony, and an obvious want of concern over how this has been steadily whittled down, year by year, house by house. One must ask what is the function of legislation observed in name only? Surely the purpose of enacting the laws mentioned above was to ensure that a reasonable effort would be made to retain valuable works of art and collections in Ireland? That is currently not the case. A general election takes place here in a few weeks’ time: readers might like to ask any candidates they encounter for an opinion on the national heritage and what might be done to retain whatever is still here. Otherwise expect more sales.

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Despite the many advances made in Irish architectural history over recent decades, some areas remain in need of further investigation. Among the most obvious of these is the question of attribution. There are significant houses across the country yet to be assigned to any architect, and others which need to have their accreditations reassessed. In the latter category are those properties given accreditations by the late Knight of Glin in the early 1960s when he was engaged on his uncompleted thesis on the subject of Irish Palladianism. At the time there was far less information available on or interest in architectural history than is now the case, and therefore the Knight was to a large extent dependent on instinct when allocating various houses to different architects, about whom little or nothing was known. Often he had to rely on his eye rather than on documentation, and as he admitted towards the end of his life, mistakes were made. To date insufficient effort has been made to correct these and as a result attributions made half a century ago still stand. An obvious opportunity for correction occurred with the appearance of the relevant volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland series published earlier this year, but the editors failed to avail of this opportunity. A reassessment of the Knight’s attributions still awaits requiring someone able to combine scholarship with connoisseurship. Until such time, in particular the output of gentlemen architects like Francis Bindon (whose name has appeared here on more than one occasion) will remain unclear. On the other hand, thanks to another book published in 2015 we are now in a much better position to assess the oeuvre of another talented 18th century amateur, Nathaniel Clements.

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In 1754 John Carteret Pilkington published the third and final volume of his late mother Letitia’s celebrated memoirs in which he described Nathaniel Clements as being ‘a certain great man in Ireland, whose place of abode is not remote from Phoenix Park…whose acquirements have justly raised him from obscurity to opulence [and] whose extensive plans in building have excited an universal admiration of his taste in architecture.’ As Clements’ new biographer Anthony Malcomson noted, it was perhaps something of an exaggeration to claim he had raised himself from ‘obscurity’ but as a fifth son he would have been expected to make his own way in the world, especially since his father died when he was only seventeen. That father, Robert Clements had inherited an estate in County Cavan but in 1707 had secured the important, and lucrative, post of Teller to the Irish Exchequer. This job passed to his eldest son Theophilus who badly bungled his own financial affairs as was discovered when he died in 1728. Nevertheless, both the family and Nathaniel Clements were by this time sufficiently well connected for the Tellership of the Exchequer to pass to him, a job he held for the next twenty-seven years during which time, as Pilkington commented, he made himself exceedingly rich. His substantial income was boosted by money received from non-residents in receipt of an Irish pension for whom he acted as agent for decades (Malcolmson estimates that by the mid-1740s his annual income from this job alone was £1,500). He also held numerous other offices, all of which brought in additional funds. Much of this was used to acquire land, the most reliable form of investment in a period when banks failed regularly (as did that established by Clements and a couple of partners in 1759). By the end of his life he had bought up some 85,000 acres spread across three counties and producing an income of around £6,000 each year.

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Another area of investment in which Clements engaged was housing, beginning with his participation in the development of Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The man behind this project, and others on the northern banks of the Liffey, was Luke Gardiner to whom Clements was related by marriage. Named after Henrietta, Duchess of Bolton, an old friend of Gardiner, whose husband acted as Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1717-20, the street was from the start intended to be the capital’s premier address, its two sides lined with houses of princely splendor. As so often the case throughout 18th century Dublin, the exterior of the buildings, mostly standard red-brick and occupying sites of varying proportions, gave – and continue to give – insufficient notice of what lay behind the facades. Clements was responsible for constructing a number of houses on the street, beginning with Number 8 which was finished around 1733 and let to Colonel (later General) Richard St George. Three or four others then followed before he moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the initial development of which was likewise overseen by Gardiner. Here Clements built several more properties including a family residence that came to be known as Leitrim House. But having become ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1750 (having previously acted as deputy-ranger) he embarked on building himself a smart and substantial new villa. The Ranger’s Lodge was a five-bay, two-storey over full-height basement house on either side of which quadrants connected to L-shaped single-storey wings. Clements and his socially-ambitious wife hosted opulent parties on the premises intended to impress their contemporaries and to cement the couple’s place in Ireland’s hierarchy. In June 1760 for example, it was reported that the Clementses ‘gave an elegant entertainment to several of the nobility and gentry at his lodge in the Phoenix Park, which was illuminated in the most brilliant manner.’ Five years after Nathaniel Clements’ death in 1777, his son Robert sold the lodge to the government which then converted – and subsequently – enlarged the building for use as a Viceregal residence. Today the same property is known as Áras an Uachtaráin and occupied by the President of Ireland.

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Nathaniel Clements’ engagement in speculative building, together with his reputation as an arbiter of taste, led to several buildings being attributed to him by the Knight of Glin. These included Brookelawn and Colganstown, County Dublin; Williamstown and Newberry Hall, County Kildare; and Beauparc and Belview, County Meath. All can be dated to c.1750-65, and all share certain stylistic similarities, not least reliance on Palladianism which by that date was fast falling from fashion. While respecting the Knight’s notion of Clements as an architect, and one responsible for the houses listed above, Maurice Craig in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) proposes that he was ‘eclectic’ not least because ‘he picked and chose his elements from pattern-books and combined them so that they compose well enough together: but they do not interact on one another.’ However, given his many other professional and financial interests, it must now be accepted that Clements was not an architect as we would understand the term. Rather he was an influence, or as Malcomson proposes, ‘a role model’, someone to turn to for advice. Furthermore, the design of his Ranger’s Lodge provided the prototype for a new generation of villa-farms that were not grand country houses but residences at the centre of working estates. All this is applicable to a house which has long been ascribed to Nathaniel Clements because it was built for his eldest son and heir Robert who in 1795 was created first Earl of Leitrim. Killadoon, County Kildare, shown in the pictures here today, surely ought to have been designed by Nathaniel Clements but even Mark Bence-Jones in his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses argued that ‘apart from having the “pattern-book” tripartite doorway with a fanlight, a baseless pediment and engaged columns which he seems to have favoured, it lacks the characteristics of the houses known to be by him or convincingly attributed to him.’ In fact, as Malcomson shows, Nathaniel and Robert Clements had a troubled relationship and he proposes that the older man’s input into the house’s design ‘must have been limited.’ The need for a thorough re-examination of 18th century architectural attribution remains.

*In July 2015 An Taisce took a successful case in the High Court against the state delegating responsibility for the granting of export licenses to cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Ireland. However, this does not appear to have made any difference to such licenses being granted.


Nathaniel Clements, 1705-77: Politics, Fashion and Architecture in mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Anthony Malcomson is published by Four Courts Press

A Stage Set


The Village at Lyons, County Kildare is often described as a restoration but to be frank it is more a recreation. By the time the late Tony Ryan bought the estate in 1996, the buildings beside the Grand Canal, which had once included a forge, mill and dwelling houses, were in a state of almost total ruin. Therefore the work undertaken here in the years prior to his death in 2007 involved a great deal of architectural salvage, much of it brought from France, although some Irish elements were incorporated such as a mid-19th century conservatory designed by Richard Turner, originally constructed for Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Today the place primarily operates as a wedding venue, providing an alluring stage set for photographs but bearing little resemblance to what originally stood here.

In My End is My Beginning

‘In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.’
So opens East Coker, the second of T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. Apposite lines as more of our architectural heritage has been lost or is imperiled. But this, the first day of a new year, is an occasion for optimism, to feel that 2020 will be better than its predecessor, and that circumstances can be improved. Disappointed in the past, now is a moment to embrace the future, and to remember the lines with which Eliot closes the same quartet:
‘Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.’

The Irish Aesthete sends every good wish for 2020 to all friends and followers.


Photographs of Colbinstown Graveyard, County Kildare. 

The Holy Trinity Massacre


Prior to the arrival of the Normans, much of what is now eastern County Offaly was under the control of the O’Conor Faly clan. The invaders pushed them west, their lands granted to the knight Robert de Bermingham who had participated in Henry II’s expedition to Ireland in 1172. However, over the next 100 years the O’Conor Faly’s gradually returned to their former territory and in 1294 they captured Kildare Castle. By then their opponent was de Bermingham’s descendant Piers Mac Feorais, Baron of Tothemoy who in 1289 had been appointed by the crown authorities to guard the much of the frontier in Kildare. Finally in 1306 a truce was reached between him and Mac Feorais agreed to act as god-father to the nephew of Murtough O’Conor Faly, then head of the clan.


On the Feast of the Holy Trinity, 1306 the Berminghams and the O’Conor Falys gathered for the baptismal ceremony at Carrickoris church, and then adjoined for a feast at the adjacent feast. However, as the Annals of the Four Masters later recorded, ‘O’Conor Faly (Murtough), Maelmora, his kinsman, and Calvagh O’Conor, with twenty-nine of the chiefs of his people, were slain by Sir Pierce Mac Feorais Bermingham in Mac Feorais’s own castle, by means of treachery and deceit.’ The little godson meanwhile was thrown off the top of the battlements and so died. Now wonderfully peaceful, this is the site, if not the actual building, where the notorious massacre took place.

Three in One



The name of Moone, County Kildare is said to derive from the Irish Maen Colmcille, meaning ‘Colmcille’s property’. This is because although the place was converted to Christianity in the fifth century by Palladius (who preceded St Patrick in Ireland), a monastery was founded here 100 years later by St Colmcille. No trace of that establishment remains, the ruins on site being those of a Franciscan friary of c.1300 (although parts of the structure may be earlier). A late 18th century image shows that considerably more then survived, including a Lady Chapel on the north side and a tall, square tower but these were then demolished. The remains of the church are remarkable for holding one of the finest High Crosses in Ireland, of local granite and rising some seven metres. It was only discovered in 1837, buried in ground near the south-east wall of the building; a further missing portion of the base was found in 1875 and restored in 1893. Dating from the ninth century, it is extremely well-preserved, all four sides carved with human and animal figures, many of them representing stories from both the Old and New Testament. The cross sits beneath what was apparently meant to be a temporary cover, but the plastic roof has been there for so long it has probably acquired protected structure status.




Not far away from the remains of the Franciscan friary rises another ancient structure: a 15th century tower house. The original owners are unknown, perhaps the Eustace family who came into possession of this part of the country through inheritance in 1447. They remained in occupation until at least the mid-17th century, but then lost the property during that era’s upheavals. As so often, there is only one point of access, a door on the east side to the south of which are stone steps leading all the way to the top. While the ground floor features the customary high, vaulted space, much of the interior was converted, probably in the 18th century, into a brick-lined dovecote. However the upper storey still holds an old stone chamber with a chimney and windows.




Between monastic ruins and tower house stands the third significant building on this site: a mid-18th century Palladian building known as Moone Abbey House. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, the land around here was bought by Thomas Ashe, a Dublin alderman. He died in 1741 and seven years later, Moone was acquired on a 999-year lease by Samuel Yates of Colganstown, County Dublin: he is believed to have commissioned the new house. Colganstown has been attributed to Nathaniel Clements, and his name has also been mentioned in association with Moone Abbey House along with that of Dublin-based architect John Ensor. The building was intended to make a good impression but is less substantial than initially appears to be the case, since the central block is only one-room deep. Among its quirkier features are the convex quadrant walls that in turn lead to rather unusual two-storey, two-bay wings with Dutch gables. An engraving of 1792 by Daniel Grose (see bottom of page) shows that originally the main house was of two storeys and with a Diocletian window at the top. The third storey – and porch – are 19th century additions. Like its immediate neighbours, Moone Abbey House has undergone various vicissitudes over the course of several centuries but thankfully survives. The course of Ireland’s history can be discovered in these three adjacent buildings, all still standing and, in the case of the house, still happily serving as a family home.




And finally, Daniel Grose’s view of the site in 1792.

 

 

An 18th century House Guest


Abbey Leix, County Laois
‘I must return to give you an account of Lady De Vesci’s. I am quite in love with her and with their state of living. It is entirely without form, everybody doing as they please, and always a vast number of people in the house. Lady Knapton, his mother, lives with them, and seems no restraint upon anybody, she is so good-humoured. We were about six or seven ladies and as many gentlemen, divided into different parties about the room, some working, some reading, some playing cards, and the room being large and very full, it had a most comfortable appearance. It opens into the library on one side and the dining-room on the other. As it rained most of the time I was there I did not see much of the grounds, but the park is not laid out, as they have employed all their time and money in making a comfortable house first, which I think the most sensible plan. Lady De Vesci was very loth to let us go so soon, but Mr. Dawson had business at home that prevented our staying longer. However, we go again into their neighbourhood the end of next week, as Sir Robert and Lady Staples have been very pressing with their invitations, and insisted upon our naming the time, which we accordingly did, and Lady De Vesci begs we will come to her again after that, to meet Lord and Lady Tyrone, so you see we have enough to do; besides we have a ball to go to on Wednesday next, which a distant neighbour has invited us to, and when all this is over we meditate a trip to Dublin, to buy some things we have occasion for.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, September 1778.




Carton, County Kildare
‘At last we have left Dublin, and are arrived at this place, which I find more agreeable than I expected, though I don’t think I should like to stay long; but for a couple of days it will do very well, as there is a good deal to see. I can’t say much for the entertainment within, as the Duchess is not more agreeable in her own house than she was in mine ; however, I am not sure but what I should grow to have some liking, or at least esteem, for her, as I am convinced she is perfectly good and well meaning. The Duke seems very fond of her, and being stupid himself, does not, I daresay, find out that she has any deficiency of understanding. Lady Charlotte [FitzGerald, sister of the Duke of Leinster], who is really sensible, seems to do what she pleases with them both. You will be surprised when I tell you there are at present four generations in the house, the Duchess having her mother and grandmother paying her a visit, which, with her children, makes up four, and the great-grandmother is a very good-looking woman, not older than most people’s mothers, and the Duchess’s mother, Lady St. George, one would take to be fifteen. I must describe her to you, because she is so remarkable. She has a very pretty little figure, with a face not handsome, but well enough, and her dress in the afternoon is a polonaise trimmed with gauze ; upon recollection, I am telling you wrong, for it is a Circassian, all over loops and tassels (like the one Mrs. Stuart brought from Paris last year), and a little black Henri Quatre hat upon her head, with her hair dressed up to it behind. In a morning she wears an orange-coloured habit embroidered, or rather embossed, with gold, and a great rich gold stuff waistcoat, with broad laced ruffles, and a little white beaver hat with a bunch of white feathers upon the top, and a black stock, so that she looks the finest French figure you ever saw. Everything seems to go on in great state here. The Duchess appears in a sack and hoop and diamonds in an afternoon, French horns playing at every meal, and such quantities of plate, etc., that one would imagine oneself in a palace; and there are servants without end.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, October 1778.



Castletown, County Kildare
‘On Saturday they asked if I should like going to Castletown, Mr. Conolly’s, and upon my answering in the affirmative we set out in the coach and six with all due state. I was very much entertained, as it is a very pretty place, though a flat (which you will not credit, I suppose) ; but there’s very fine wood, a fine river, and views of mountains from every part of it, so the flatness does not strike one so much, and I never saw any place kept so neat and nice. They first carried me to the cottage, for you must know it is quite the fashion in Ireland to have a cottage neatly fitted up with Tunbridge ware, and to drink tea in it during the summer. We then went to the house, which is the largest I ever was in, and reckoned the finest in this kingdom. It has been done up entirely by Lady Louisa, and with a very good taste ; but what struck me most was a gallery, I daresay 150 feet long, furnished in the most delightful manner with fine glasses, books, musical instruments, billiard table, in short, everything that you can think of is in that room, and though so large, is so well filled, that it is the warmest, most comfortable-looking place I ever saw ; and they tell me they live in it quite in winter, for the servants can bring in dinner or supper at one end, without anybody hearing it at the other, in short, I never saw anything so delightful, and I am sure you would have been in raptures. Lady Charlotte [FitzGerald] is so fond of it that she would have me go into every hole and corner of that great house, and then made me walk all over the shrubbery, so that by the time we had finished I was compleatly tired.’
From Lady Caroline Dawson to Lady Louisa Stuart, October 1778




Next Sunday afternoon, I shall be speaking at Emo Court, County Laois on Lady Caroline Dawson and her visits to country houses around Ireland. For further information, please see: http://emocourt.ie/event/robert-obyrne-lady-caroline-dawson-an-18th-century-country-house-guest

 

Awaiting Approval


The façade of the former Charter School in Monasterevin, County Kildare. This was one of a number of such educational institutions set up under the auspices of The Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland (established 1733). Work on the site began in 1758 and the school opened for pupils four years later. Following the school’s closure, towards the end of the 19th century the building was converted for use as a warehouse, the windows then being reduced in size.


The old charter school has stood empty for many years, but in 2006 permission was granted for the building to be renovated and on the surrounding 26 acre site some 201 residential dwellings and a medical centre constructed. Economic recession intervened and that permission has long since lapsed. Last year, a fresh application was made by a developer for a 60-bed nursing home and 115 residential units, as well as a crèche and a craft and retail space here. The same developer’s latest application (for 99 residential units and, it appears, no nursing home) was turned down by the local council last March. No doubt there will be another in due course. Meanwhile the condition of the former school continues to deteriorate.

Not Long for This World



Rathangan, County Kildare was once a prosperous market town and according to Samuel Lewis in the early 1830s, some 2911 people lived in the area (in the 2016 census, that figure was 2,611). Evidence of its former affluence can be seen in the many handsome houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that line Main Street and Bridge Street. However, as is the case with so many towns around the country, while Rathangan’s outskirts are now ringed with new housing estates, much of the old centre has been allowed to fall into decay. One of the most visible victims of this neglect is the town’s largest and most prominent house, Rathangan Lodge.



The central block of Rathangan Lodge probably dates from c.1800 and is of five bays and three storeys over basement, the whole centred on doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights. The sides of the building were hung with slates for additional insulation. It has been proposed that the house was originally built as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Leinster (who at the time owned much of the land around here) but more likely the first owner was a successful merchant. At some subsequent date, perhaps around 1840. seven-bay, two-storey wings were added on either side, each of them having a central entrance. The building appears to have been occupied, or at least used, until relatively recently but has now been permitted to fall into serious decay. It is of course listed for protection in the current Kildare County Development Plan, but none seems to be forthcoming. The neighbouring house, of slightly later date, has clinging to its gates a planning application from 2005, but no work looks to have been untaken here and the building is likewise now in near-derelict condition.


Towering Over the Scene


Two adjacent ecclesiastical ruins at Taghadoe, County Kildare, that to the left being a truncated round tower. A monastic site us believed to have been established here in the 6th century, its foundation attributed to a Saint Tua. From this evolved the Irish name Teach Tua (House of Tua) which eventually became anglicised as Taghadoe. The tower is all that remains of that religious settlement; rising some 20 metres, it has lost the original conical top.



The adjacent church is presumably on the site of an older structure, of which there are no visible remains. It was built in 1831, likely as part of the church rebuilding programme undertaken by the Church of Ireland’s Board of First Fruits. This must have suffered from a severe shortage of parishioners as it closed for services after just forty years and now stands a roofless shell. The building’s distinctive feature are the four octagonal towers, one at each corner. These lean out at a slight angle, as though in imitation of the older round tower which does likewise.

Entombed


The church at Dunfierth, County Kildare dates from c.1500 and is associated with the de Bermingham family which at the time was still the dominant family in this part of the country. In 1548 a tomb to Walter de Bermingham was built inside the church, and this featured a number of fine carvings.



In 1815 the de Berminghams had long since gone from the area, and the Hamilton family constructed a vaulted mausoleum inside the former chancel of Dunfierth church. This incorporated a number of carvings from the older tomb, such as a Crucifixion scene, and bands of ‘keeners’ on either side of the structure. Inside the rear wall features the carving of an armoured knight, only really visible if the natural light is sufficiently good. There are other fine pieces of work elsewhere on the site, such as this window on the south wall.