Escaping a Family Curse

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In 1824 the former courtesan Harriette Wilson advised a number of her ex-lovers that in return for a consideration of £200 she would omit their names from the memoirs she was then writing. The Duke of Wellington is famously said to have retorted ‘Publish and be damnned.’ He duly appeared in the book, as did another Irishman, James Lennox Naper. By the time the work appeared Naper was a respectably married man living on his estate in County Meath. However, the tale recounted by Wilson concerned his life more than a decade earlier, when he was a young Member of Parliament living in London and conducting a liaison with the author’s friend and sister-courtesan Julia Johnstone. The latter was at least fourteen years older than her lover (Harriette Wilson thought he looked more like her son) and she did not find him especially attractive. Nevertheless, she was urged by Wilson to respond to his ardours, not least for the sake of Johnstone’s many children: ‘”Napier [sic] is your man”,’ Wilson told her. ‘”Since you could be unchaste to gratify your own passions, I am sure it cannot be wrong to secure the comfort and protection of six beautiful children.” “But Napier’s vanity makes me sick,” retorted Julia, impatiently. “The possession of my person would not satisfy him. He wants me to declare and prove that I love him; and the thing is physically impossible”.’ Eventually she overcame her reluctance, but the match was never very happy. On one occasion Wilson discussed the matter with her sister Fanny, ‘”Oh, he is horridly stingy,” answered Fanny, “and Julia is obliged to affect coldness and refuse him the slightest favour till he brings her money; otherwise she would get nothing out of him. Yet he seems to be passionately fond of her, and writes sonnets to her beauty, styling her, at forty, although the mother of nine children, ‘his beautiful maid’.”‘ The affair only ended with Johnstone’s death in 1815.

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In 1593 the Dorset-born judge Robert Napier was knighted and sent to Ireland as Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. He appears to have been singularly inept at his job, forever complaining about this country’s climate and seeking a better position on the other side of the Irish Sea. In 1600 he travelled to England and thereafter refused to return to Ireland. Accordingly he was suspended from office in 1601 and replaced the following year. Nonetheless, during the short period he held office, Sir Robert managed to found the family’s fortunes here, and in the third quarter of the 17th century his grandson James Naper further improved it by marrying Dorothy Petty, sister of Sir William Petty whose own descendants would eventually become Marquesses of Lansdowne. A series of strategic marriages meant that the Napers eventually came to own some 180,000 acres of land, with their main seat being at Loughcrew, County Meath. This was the estate inherited by Charles Lennox Naper who, despite being so stingy to poor Julia Johnstone, was believed to enjoy an annual income of more than £20,000. A considerable amount of it was ultimately spent on Loughcrew, where around the time Naper’s name featured in Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, he commissioned a substantial new residence designed by Charles Cockerel.

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Naper’s splendid house is no more: over the course of less than 100 years Loughcrew suffered three fires and was not rebuilt after the last of these. Only part of the building’s portico was re-erected in recent years, while adjacent outbuildings were converted to provide accommodation. The greater part of the estate has likewise gone, and little remains to demonstrate the former wealth of this family. Yet here and there in the surrounding landscape are remnants indicating how extensive was the demesne and how ambitious once its owners’ notions. Today’s pictures show the Rustic Lodge, one of at least six formerly marking approaches to the house, each of them different in design from the others. As its name indicates, this lodge is resolutely pastoral in concept, and might almost have been conceived as a nest in which Naper could conduct subsequent romances. Believed to date from c.1840 the two-storey building’s ground floor features a blind arcade resting on rusticated stone piers, with openings for door and mullioned casement windows. The upper level is of yellow brick, with a patterned roof of slates and tiles, the two chimney stacks being again in rusticated stone. What remains of the interior suggests a similar character, the chimneypieces once more in rusticated stone and the entrance hall’s coved wooden ceiling almost alpine in spirit. The prettiest feature is a spiral staircase tucked into a corner of the former sitting room whence it sinuously climbs to the first floor before concluding in a final coquettish swirl of iron balusters. Now in poor condition, with the surrounding woodland encroaching ever nearer and the climate Sir Robert Napier so disliked having an impact on the fabric, one worries this lodge, like much else at Loughcrew, might be lost forever. It is said the main house on the estate suffered from a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ All being well, the Rustic Lodge will escape this fate and enjoy a happier future.

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A Sick Building

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Last Monday, the Irish Times published a feature on the threatened demolition of a former Church of Ireland primary school in Glasthule, County Dublin: an application has been lodged with the local authority for the present building to be replaced by four so-called ‘townhouses.’ Objections have been raised to this plan on the grounds that humanitarian and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement may have attended the school, thereby linking it to the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year. However on Wednesday the same newspaper carried a letter from one of Casement’s biographers outlining the peripatetic nature of his upbringing and thus confuting the notion that he had ever been educated in the Glasthule establishment.
Above is an image of the former County Meath Infirmary on Bridge Street, Navan. A decade younger than the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, it dates from the mid-18th century, at which time, according to a subsequent account, ‘The gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Navan, from their observation of the various calamities and miseries the poor undergo,for want of proper and timely assistance in their several maladies and disorders, did propose to found a County Hospital. Accordingly a subscription was opened at an Assembly at Navan, the first of October 1753; and soon after the Foundation of a County Hospital was laid on a convenient and healthy situation, on an eminence at the entrance into the town.’ A plaque above the main entrance carries the date 1754 and a quotation from St Mark’s Gospel: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’
A supposedly protected structure the seven-bay, three storey County Infirmary (its premises extended in the 19th century) continued to serve the locality until finally closed in September 2010. The building stood vacant before finally being sold three years later. It has remained empty and visibly deteriorating ever since. As can be seen, several of the windows are now broken, there are slates missing from the roof and the fabric is clearly suffering. Designed to tend the sick, now the building itself is in need of care. Unlike the former school premises in Glasthule, the County Infirmary can claim no connection with someone famous (although a plaque linking it with the 1916 Rising has recently been placed on the outside wall). Perhaps for this reason there appears to be little public concern over its present state and future survival. Yet in a town which retains precious few historic buildings of any merit, this is an important link to the past and to the generous philanthropists who funded its construction and medical endeavours. Is it enough to believe we should only preserve our architectural heritage provided there is a link, however putative or fanciful, to dead patriots (and even that has too often proven an insufficient safeguard)? Should we not value a building on its own merits, whether as a tangible part of our history, as an important legacy to pass on to the next generation or even – heretical thought – due to inherent aesthetic excellence? Both the Glasthule schoolhouse and the County Infirmary in Navan, together with thousands of other properties across the country, need to be considered on all these terms and not just because someone now held in esteem may or may not once have crossed their thresholds.

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An Echo of Lost Grandeur

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Now providing access to Dolly’s Grove, County Meath, this limestone triumphal arch seemingly once stood at the entrance to Summerhill in the same county. Among Ireland’s very finest country houses Summerhill was built in the 1730s but is no more, having been burnt in February 1922, after which its dramatic shell survived another thirty-five years before being demolished (for more on the house, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). Summerhill’s design has traditionally been attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and some of his stylistic tics, such as blind niches and oculi, can be seen here in the Dolly’s Grove arch suggesting the architect was responsible for this piece of work also.

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House of Stone

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Duleek, County Meath derives its name from the Irish words daimh liag meaning house of stone and is, it seems, the oldest known reference to such a church being made from stone rather than wood. A monastery was founded here in the fifth century by St Cianán, a disciple of St Patrick, but the ruins of St Mary’s Augustinian priory seen here date from the 12th and 13th centuries, with the large tower at the west end erected in the 15th century at a time when churches and monasteries were subject to attack. An adjacent early 19th century Anglican church no longer serves its intended purpose but has been converted into a restaurant.

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Not so Cosy

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There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of the Irish village: here is an example of the deterioration found across the country. On a key corner site in Crossakiel, County Meath stands a now-vacated former pub and grocery which, with slates gone from the roof and windows broken, only looks set to fall into further ruin. When that happens, as seems to be inevitable, the possibility of Crossakiel having a viable commercial future will grow even more remote than is the case at present. And so the decline continues.

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In the Midst of Winters

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From Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837):
‘Agher, a parish, in the barony of Upper Deece, County of Meath, and province of Leinster, 2 ½ miles (S. S. W.) from Summerhill; containing 360 inhabitants. It is situated on the road from Summerhill to Edenderry, and from the latter town to Dunboyne, and contains 1900 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. Its surface gently undulates, and the soil consists of loam of different qualities: about one-third of the land is under tillage, and the remainder, with the exception of about 100 acres of bog, half of which is cut away and partly planted, is good grazing land. There are quarries of limestone; the Royal Canal passes near the southern extremity of the parish. Agher House, the residence of J. P. Winter, Esq., occupies a beautiful situation in a demesne of about 650 statute acres, containing some fine timber: the gardens are extensive and well laid out; and the neat appearance of the cottages on the estate manifests the proprietor’s regard for the comforts of the peasantry. The living is a rectory, in the diocese of Meath, and in the patronage of the Crown: the tithes amount to £80. The church is a neat edifice, erected by voluntary contributions and a parochial rate, in 1804: it contains a window painted by Gervaise, representing Paul preaching at Athens, from the cartoons of Raphael, which was formerly in the private chapel at Dangan, in the adjoining parish, when that place was the seat of the Wellesley family. There is a glebe-house, with a glebe of 12 ½ acres. In the R. C. divisions this parish forms part of the union or district of Laracor, or Summerhill: the chapel is situated on the townland of Agher, on ground given by the family of Winter. The parochial school for both sexes is aided by annual donations from Mr. Winter and the rector, and there is a private pay school; also a dispensary.’

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The Winter family originally came to Ireland under curious conditions. According to Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland (1835), Dr Samuel Winter, an Anglican clergyman originally from Warwick had during the English Civil War settled in a parish in northern England. However, ‘In 1650 Dr Winter was obliged to resign the living of Cottingham, York, of which he was Rector, being ordered by the then Government to proceed to Ireland with the Commissioners appointed for the settlement of that country, as their Chaplain, and was soon after (on 3rd June 1652) constituted Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, which the preceding troubles had left almost dissolute. In this office he exerted himself with great zeal and success to reassemble the surviving members, and to re-establish the discipline of the University. He appears to have been removed from the provostship at the Restoration.’ Dr Winter then returned to England but not before confirming himself in the ownership of lands in Counties Offaly, Meath and Westmeath. On his death these were duly inherited by his eldest son, another Samuel, who had married a sister of the anabaptist Cromwellian solder, Colonel Zierom Sankey. Subsequent generations made equally good marriages, the most significant of which was the union c.1738 of Francis Winter (who had already inherited the estate of his childless elder brother) and Margaret Pratt, daughter and heiress of Benjamin Pratt of Agher, County Meath: like the Winters, the Pratts originally came to Ireland as part of the Cromwellian settlement and had bought Agher from Henry Jones, Bishop of Meath. In 1771 the son of Francis and Margaret Winter, yet another Samuel Winter, was left Agher on the death of his Pratt grandfather. Soon after he built a new house on the land, moving into it in 1776. However, the cost of the property, of three storeys over basement, together with other financial setbacks, obliged Samuel first to mortgage and then to sell some of his other lands. Thereafter the family seem always to have been short of funds: in 1817 Samuel’s son John Pratt Winter was forced to lease Agher, auction his stock and furniture, and take his wife and younger members of the family to live in a boarding house in Paris where they remained for seven years.

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The last of the Winters to live at Agher was Captain Charles Edward Purdon-Winter who in 1936 sold the estate to the Irish Land Commission. The land was split into diverse lots and in 1947 the house demolished by controlled explosion, its rubble used to fill the basement. Today little remains to recall the Winters of Agher other than the church and its surrounding graveyard, both of which they did so much to beautify. The church was erected by the family in 1804 on the site of an older building (Jonathan Swift held the living from 1699 until his death in 1745). It was further extensively refurbished by the Winters in 1902 and at that date a four-stage buttressed tower and porch was added at the west end. Internally the church’s most distinguished feature is the window above the altar table. After Raphael and representing St Paul preaching to the Athenians, this was originally made for the private chapel of nearby Dangan Castle, seat of the Wellesleys (forebears of the Duke of Wellington) until abandoned by them at the end of the 18th century. The artist responsible was Dublin-born Thomas Jervais, who according to Strickland, ‘For the Duke of Leinster he executed some stained glass, which was formerly in the bow-window in the large room in Leinster House; and did several windows for Lord Charlemont at Marino, which were destroyed by fire in March, 1807. Three windows by him were formerly in Rathfarnham Castle, as recorded by Austin Cooper in 1781; but they have now disappeared.’ Around 1770 Jervais moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life. Thus the Agher window now appears to be the sole surviving example of his workmanship in this country and is particularly important because it is not stained but painted, using a technique he devised for himself. Less rare but equally charming is the Winter mausoleum found in the graveyard, its first occupant of its barrel-vaulted interior being Samuel who died in 1811. A late flourish of the Gothick style, the façade has a three-bay battlemented façade, the breakfront centre capped with pinnacles as are the outer miniature turrets. The arched opening is flanked by similar windows with a recessed quatrefoil above each. It stands a memorial to past Winters and, with little else remaining to do so, serves as a recollection of their long presence in this part of the country.

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The Irish Georgian Society is currently fund-raising to help with the cost of restoring the Jervais window in Agher Church. The work comprises a series of painted panels which were then fitted between thin lead bars to make the picture. In its present position (see above), it contains an error of assembly: can anyone spot what that is?  

A Unique Legacy

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Few houses better exemplify the maxim of initial appearances being deceptive than Headfort, County Meath. An immense, austere block – the limestone facade including wings runs to more than five hundred feet – in 1789 it was described by then-Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Rutland as ‘a long range of tasteless building’ and three years later George Hardinge said it was ‘more like a college or an infirmary’ than a private residence. Headfort was built for the descendants of Thomas Taylor who came to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century in the company of his school contemporary Sir William Petty. By 1660 Taylor had secured 21,000 acres of land in Cavan and Meath, and settled outside Kells. No trace remains of the original house constructed by the family, but from the middle of the 18th century onwards plans were under way to build a new country seat suitable for their advancement in the Irish peerage: already a baronet, the third Sir Thomas Taylor, who inherited the estate in 1757, would be created Baron Headfort in 1760, Viscount Headfort two years later and Earl of Bective in 1766. His son, in turn, would become first Marquess of Headfort in 1800.

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The first architect consulted about designs for a new house was Richard Castle, a favourite for such commissions among Irish landowners during the period. However in this instance his proposals of 1750 failed to win the approval of the second Taylor baronet; an extant portfolio is marked: ‘Mr Castle’s plan and a damn bad one.’ John Ensor and another anonymous architect also drew up proposals for a similarly Palladian-style building but these too were spurned. The Taylors were not as wealthy as some of their contemporaries and funds to spend on the building were limited. Presumably this is why although still more designs were commissioned in 1765 from fashionable neo-classical architect William Chambers those were similarly rejected. In any case, by that date work had already started on a sober, and accordingly economical scheme which, on the basis of a 1760 plan inscribed GS, is attributed to George Semple, a Dublin-based builder and self-taught architect. Whoever was responsible, the house’s exterior would not have required much architectural skill in its composition. Of three storeys and 11 bays, the near-identical front and rear elevations of grey Ardbraccan limestone are largely unrelieved other than by pedimented doorcases.

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But if the house’s exterior lacks ornament, its interior was intended to present a different image. Between 1771 and 1775, Lord Bective requested Scottish-born architect Robert Adam to produce decorative schemes for a suite of rooms in the newly completed Headfort. Adam, who never visited this country, duly came up with designs for the entrance and staircase halls, as well for as a series of three adjacent spaces on the garden front culminating in a double-height saloon that was known as the ‘Eating Parlor.’ Even if not all his proposals were fully implemented, the interiors are of immense importance as the only extant examples of Adam’s work in Ireland. Once more due to shortage of funds, a simplified version of the suggested decoration was executed in the entrance and staircase halls. But the architect’s original drawings survive and indicate that other elements of the scheme were carried through, not least in the Eating Parlor, where the only major modification saw the architect’s recommended barrel-vaulted ceiling instead being coved. Created by reconfiguring the house’s layout to merge two rooms on both ground and first floors, the Eating Parlor is lit by a line of tall windows between which stand the original marble-topped console tables and pier glasses. Facing these are a pair of carved white marble chimneypieces with circular overmantles holding classical compositions by the Italian artist Antonio Zucchi, who worked with Adam on a number of other occasions; further Zucchi work is found elsewhere in the room, including a ceiling centrepiece. The rest of the walls are covered with panels intended to contain Taylour family portraits, and a number of matching doorcases. The adjacent, somewhat smaller, saloon is similarly decorated but the third room in the suite, the Chinese Drawing Room, has since lost the landscape wallpaper from which derived its name.

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Inevitably with the passage of time, the fabric of Headfort began to deteriorate; problems of damp coming into the building were a particular problem. It didn’t help that since 1949 the house has served as a preparatory school, with inevitable wear and tear on its fabric. Due to the significance of the Adam interiors, in 2004 the World Monuments Fund placed the house on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Thereafter the Headfort Trust, thanks to funding from the WMF, Ireland’s Heritage Council and relevant state departments, initiated a programme of essential work including repairs to the roof, chimney stacks and gutter piping. Internally the trust embarked on a conservation and research project that revealed the original Adam decorative scheme. Nowhere was this more the case than in the Eating Parlor which underwent complete refurbishment thanks to aid from the Irish Georgian Society which in 2008 made the room the beneficiary of its 50th anniversary fundraising efforts. For a long time the Eating Parlor had been painted a shade of blue more usually found in hospital wards. However analysis of the walls revealed they had first been decorated using a variety of mid- to dark shades of verdigris, a scheme which tallied with the Adam drawings. The same colours were also used in the staircase hall, while those of the Saloon are softer, with an abundance there of pink and pale blue. When initially finished, and furnished, the effect must have been quite startling and highly novel, and even today, depleted of their contents and put to alternative use, these rooms can still confound the popular notion of how a chaste neo-classical interior should look. Today, when no other examples of Adam’s work can be seen on this island, it is a unique legacy.

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