Beyond the Green Baize Door

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During an interview given in March last year, Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of Britain’s National Trust caused widespread umbrage by announcing the organisation intended to simplify displays of artwork in its properties. Visitors, she declared, were put off because there is ‘so much stuff’ in some of the historic houses owned by the NT. ‘We just make people work fantastically hard,’ said Dame Helen, ‘and we can make them work much less hard.’ Understandably this approach, implying the trust’s members were incapable of appreciating works of art or of understanding the context in which they are shown, met with disapproval in many quarters. Dame Helen’s comments suggested the trust’s intention was not to encourage instruction (because that might require people to ‘work fantastically hard’) but to accept incomprehension. It indicated entertainment would be given precedence over education, without understanding that some visitors, possibly the majority, actually want to learn more, want to come away from a visit with greater knowledge and understanding. Of course it is true the majority of visitors to historic properties are unlikely to have first-hand experience of living in such an environment. Nor will their forbears have done so. Hence the evolution of country house displays, which initially concentrated on showing only the main reception rooms, those spaces in which the best furniture and paintings were on view. More recently, and in part thanks to television series like Downton Abbey, the opportunity to explore what took place on the other side of the green baize door has become increasingly popular. Life at the top and the bottom of a house, the rooms used and occupied by servants, can be less immediately aesthetically pleasing but they hold other attractions, not least an opportunity to discover how a building operated. In its heyday, the country house was like a complex machine in which all the parts worked together to ensure smooth delivery of service to the owners. Only by looking at the rooms in which this work took place can one fully understand how a great house functioned successfully. This explains why they merit investigation. However, there is another reason why these areas can sometimes be worth exploring.

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Kilfane, County Kilkenny has been discussed here before (see When Nature Imitates Art, November 11th 2013), specifically in relation to a picturesque garden developed on the estate in the 1790s. The land here had originally belonged to the Cantwells, prior to the family being banished to Connaught in the 17th century. It then passed into the ownership of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670, and his descendants remained on the estate for most of the following century. In the late 1700s, John Power married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Power was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. Eventually he took a lease in perpetuity on Kilfane from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate. It would appear at least one explanation for his settling in County Kilkenny was a keen interest in hunting: in 1797 he established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. The first of its kind in Ireland, the club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day.
An existing house at Kilfane seems to have been remodeled by the Powers around 1798. A couple of years later, William Tighe wrote ‘To Kilfane, Mr Power has added a new front and other improvements, which render it not only an excellent house, but a good specimen of architecture.’ As then completed, the main block was of five bays and three storeys over basement with a single bay, one storey projecting porch on the ground floor, and three-bay single storey flanking wings. The building was comprehensively enlarged around 1855-6 by local builder/architects Patrick O’Toole and Joseph Wright who added three-bay two storey recessed blocks behind the wings and gave the porch bays on either side. Kilfane may have undergone further alterations in the late 19th/early 20th centuries but little else appears to have been done to the building prior to 1971 when Kilfane was sold by the Powers. It has recently come on the market again, providing the opportunity for a recent visit to the house.

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Trying to understand the architectural development of Kilfane is challenging because, as is so often the case, little information survives. We do not know who, if anyone, was the Powers’ architect at the end of the 18th century, nor the appearance or layout of the house to which, according to William Tighe, was added ‘a new front and other improvements.’ Internally few clues are immediately offered. The entrance hall is wide and low, with screens of columns featuring composite capitals. Access from here is gained to the drawing and dining rooms, both with considerably higher ceilings (they each occupy a one-storey wing) and ample, full-length windows: the same characteristics are found in the former library behind the drawing room. These three spaces clearly date from the end of the 18th century, whereas the entrance hall could be earlier (and given its shape might originally have been a number of rooms subsequently knocked into one). Thereafter things grow more confusing, not least in the staircase hall which is wood panelled in a style that looks distinctly Edwardian. The first floor doorcases into the main bedrooms add to the muddle, being heavily carved in a manner suggesting German or Austrian origins. The mid-19th century alterations made to the building provide a fresh challenge, with flights of stairs on either side of the central block rising to more bedrooms.
Greater clarity, and a better understanding of the house’s original form, may be discovered in the top and bottom floors, those spaces formerly devoted to servants. Because less subject to the whims of changing taste, these areas are more inclined to retain their earliest decoration and such looks to be the case at Kilfane. Here the second floor features a series of rooms, now in poor structural condition, with the same deep window embrasures, shutters and skirting installed at the end of the 18th century. The whole storey is centred around a landing lit by a funnel-shaped cupola: according to legend, the devil was once caught playing (and cheating at) cards in the house and fled through here into the night. The basement is equally informative as again the basic layout appears to have remained relatively unaltered. Hence the sequence of rooms is much as it would have been when the Powers first embarked on developing the property, the old kitchen still in place, together with the wine cellar, storage spaces, pantries and so forth. A large section of the basement occupies only the area taken up by the main block of the house, excluding the wings, suggesting this was what first stood on the site prior to the Powers’ intervention. A further examination of the house is merited to see what else might be learned here about its evolution. In this instance, the absence of ‘stuff’ on the top and bottom floors offers an opportunity for elucidation. This may not be what Dame Helen Ghosh had in mind when she gave her interview, but sometimes the most useful information about a house can be discovered beyond the green baize door.

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Above and Beyond Fashion

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Pay no attention to decorators, designers, or passing fashions: from one season to the next nothing better becomes a house than a well-stocked bookcase (although a well-stocked cellar is also appreciated). Here are two of them within the library at Ballinderry Park, County Galway, an 18th century house that has been discussed before (see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th 2014) but deserves regular revisiting, if only to linger over some of the many volumes gathered therein.

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http://ballinderrypark.com/

Meanwhile, Elsewhere in Ballinrobe…

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On the road leading from Castlebar into Ballinrobe, County Mayo can be seen the ruins of the old Roman Catholic chapel. With financial support from the local landlord James Cuffe, first (and last) Lord Tyrawley work began on the cruciform building in 1815, in other words some years before the Emancipation Act of 1829. It is notable for being more ample than were many such Catholic churches of the period, for having a splendid four-storey bell tower at the east end, and for fine limestone wall monuments to its earliest parish priests on either side of the crossing. However within decades the building appears to have been deemed insufficient to local needs since a successor was begun closer to the centre of the town in 1849. Before the end of the 19th century the old chapel was unroofed and today its shell languishes on a patch of ground surrounded by housing estates.

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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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The Tiger Awakes

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On the gates of Cranmore House in Ballinrobe, County Mayo hangs a planning application notice which proposes the construction here of a three-storey retail and residential block, a second three-storey block to be used as an old persons’ home, seven houses, a terrace featuring that strange new form of accommodation, the ‘townhouse’ and, adjacent to the existing structure, a new 46-bedroom hotel with the inevitable function rooms, bars, gym and swimming pool. Cranmore House was built in 1838 by Alexander Clendenning Lambert, agent for the Knox family to whom the property subsequently reverted. They remained in occupation until the 1920s after which the house passed through a couple of hands before being unroofed in the 1950s, in which condition it remains to the present. The predominantly greenfield nature of site makes it attractive to developers, although the proposal seems both unfortunate and unnecessary when so much of Ballinrobe immediately outside the gates could do with refurbishment, including many existing ‘townhouses.’

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Glory be to God for Dappled Things

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On the eastern side of Library Square runs the oldest extant range of buildings within the walls of Trinity College, Dublin. Dating from c.1700, the Rubrics was once matched by similar blocks to the west and north (the south side is taken up by Thomas Burgh’s Great Library, on which work began in 1712). The other sides have long since been either cleared or replaced, but the Rubrics remains, albeit somewhat truncated and with new brick facing added in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, it provides an impression of how the college must have appeared during the early Georgian period.

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Situated in a Widely Extended Demesne

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

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

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