The Theory of Evolution

Increasing study of country houses, here and elsewhere, has led to better understanding of these properties’ decorative histories. Almost without exception the process has been one of consistent change as successive generations adapt buildings for their own specific needs and uses, and reflect differences in taste. There can be no absolutes, nor notions that a particular style of decoration is ‘right’, only a willingness to respond to the present while respecting the past. Above is a view of the dining room in Borris, County Carlow as it was until recently, and below a view of the same room as it is now. A new wall colour and a re-hang of pictures has brought forth another aspect of the space’s character.


Forgotten Virtuosi

The stuccowork found in Irish houses is rightly renowned for its exceptional combination of vivacity and virtuosity. Yet the attention given to this field of design has focussed primarily on practitioners in the 18th century, with little notice paid to those who came later. It is curious that this should be the case: in the decades between the 1800 Act of Union and the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s several waves of house building occurred across the country, and many of these properties were elaborately decorated. By this date plasterwork was no longer created ‘free-hand’ on site but instead frequently made elsewhere in sections and then installed under supervision. But who were the people who carried out this work? While we often know who was responsible for the architecture, the names of firms and craftsmen who created the interiors seen today seem to be unknown, or at least not to have excited scholarly interest. The three houses featured today demonstrate that more could be done to honour and celebrate these virtuosi who did so much to enhance the properties on which they were employed.

Although a much older property existed on this site, Borris House, County Carlow was comprehensively redesigned for the McMorrough Kavanaghs in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Richard Morrison (see An Arthurian Legend, November 4th 2013). In terms of decoration, the finest room in the building is the one seen first by visitors: the entrance hall. We believe Morrison was responsible for every element of the design here, ceiling plasterwork, scagliola columns, doorcases and chimney piece. Although the room is almost square it appears to be a circular space due to a radiating ceiling and the carefully proportioned screen of paired columns forming a ring around the perimeter wall. On the ceiling eight beams emanate from a central coffered section to meet florid plaster embellishment that includes festoons of fruit, flowers and leaves resting on masked heads, sheaves of wheat and the crescent moon, and a sequence of immense eagles, their heads thrusting into space beyond outstretched wings. The capitals on top of the columns display equal creativity, as they do not correspond to any of the classical orders but are of Morrison’s own design, incorporating a band of lion heads. The skill involved in carrying out this programme of work is outstanding – but who did Morrison employ to transform his ideas on paper into a three-dimensional reality?

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Emo Court, County Laois has been discussed here on a couple of recent occasions (see Seen in the Round, February 1st last and Of Changes in Taste, March 14th last). Designed in the 1790s by James Gandon, the house’s interiors were only gradually completed over the next seventy years. One of the first spaces to be completed was the dining room, decorated in the early 1830s under the supervision of London architect Lewis Vulliamy. It is likely that Gandon would have proposed a spare, neo-classical scheme here but Vulliamy came up with something altogether more sumptuous, especially on the ceiling which has been divided into a series of sections centred on a rectangle containing a highly elaborate rose (looking more like a chrysanthemum) from which a chandelier would have been suspended. On either side thick bands running the length of the ceiling are filled with ribboned hexagons from which overflow vine leaves and bunches of grapes: this same motif is used again on the perimeter of the ceiling. Meanwhile a pair of demi-lunes immediately above and below the chandelier rose contain an eagle standing on a rippling band of ribbon, its wings stretching beyond crown of oakleaves encircling the bird. Closer again to the edge bare-breasted maidens are flanked by spirals of foliageputti stand on either side of ornamental urns and pairs of doves flutter within floral coronets. Extravagantly absurd and yet executed with such assurance and aplomb somehow the whole scheme comes together. Who deserves the credit for this feat?

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Ballyfin, County Laois (see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014) has been superlatively restored in recent years and now functions as an hotel that sets a standard for all others in this country and beyond. Ballyfin was designed for the Coote family in the early 1820s by Sir Richard Morrison, on this occasion partnered by his son William Vitruvius. The entire house is an exercise in opulent splendour of the kind John Nash was then creating for George IV at Buckingham Palace. Nowhere is this more manifest than the saloon which at either end has screens of green scagliola columns beneath rich Corinthian capitals. These lead the eye up to the coved ceiling over which once more ornament has been incited to run riot. Here panels contain figures of bare-breasted maidens surrounded by scrolled foliage so similar to those found on the dining room ceiling at Emo Court that both must have been executed by the same craftsmen. Likewise in the corners of the saloon ceiling in Ballyfin are pairs of putti, in this instance jointly supporting a lyre. The bordered runs of vine leaves and grapes seen at Emo are here replaced by long garlands of flowers but the spirit and style are consistent between the two houses. The most striking difference can be found on the Ballyfin’s ceiling entablature where snarling lions (or perhaps leopards) face each other separated by a crowned mask. It’s both deft and daft, and above all thrilling to realise craftsmanship of this calibre was available to patrons in 19th century Ireland. Time surely to celebrate the persons responsible, and to ensure their names and contribution to our heritage no longer remain unknown.


An Arthurian Legend


In a diary entry dated 27th February 1853 Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys, County Wicklow (known to her many posthumous admirers as the Highland Lady since she was of Scottish origin) wrote, ‘Mr Kavanagh has been burned to death, his fine old name and large fortune fall to that poor object, his brother, a poor cripple without either arms or legs only stumps. In this miserable condition he hunts! tied to his basket saddle, holding the reins between his mouth and shoulder, and he rides hard! He draws, writes, is really accomplished and intelligent. An old prophesy, it seems, foretold that the house of Borris would end with a cripple. Strange if true.’
An entire post could be written about Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, and indeed he has been the subject of more than one book. As Mrs Smith notes he was born without full limbs, both his arms and legs stopping well short of the flexible joint. Yet neither he nor his family allowed this impediment to hinder him: in his teens he set off with his eldest brother – who suffered from tuberculosis – on a journey through Russia, Persia and India (where he got a job as a dispatch rider) and although the older sibling died, Arthur survived and indeed returned to Ireland when his middle brother was killed in a fire in 1853 and he thus unexpectedly became heir to the family estate of Borris, County Carlow.
Once there, he led a full life: he hunted, he fished, he shot, he sailed, he sat as an M.P. in Westminster for many years. He also did much to improve his lands and the condition of his tenants, not least by bringing a railway line to Borris at his own expense. An amusing story indicates how little attention he paid to his physical handicap. Having caught a train to Abbeyleix to visit Lady de Vesci, he commented to his hostess, ‘It is quite extraordinary. I have not been here for over ten years and yet the station-master still remembered me.’



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The MacMurrough Kavanaghs are an extremely old Irish family: in 1814 its then-head commissioned an illustrated book called ‘The pedigree of the ancient illustrious noble and princely house of Kavanagh in ancient times monarchs of Ireland and at the period of the invasion of Ireland by Henry the second, Kings of Leinster.’ This volume, which cost the considerable sum of £615 and two shillings, and took four years to complete, traced the family’s origins back to 1670 BC.
It is notable that while the book’s title referenced the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, it did not mention the part played by an ancestor in bringing about this occurrence. In the mid-12th century Diarmait mac Murchadha was King of Leinster until dispossessed of his title by the High King of Ireland for having abducted Derbforgaill, wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne. In order to regain his kingdom, mac Murchadha pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry II and received the support of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow who married mac Murchadha’s daughter Aoife. Thus the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ forebear was responsible for first encouraging the original Norman invasion of Ireland. Subsequent members of the family were not always so willing to bow to overseas authority: in the late 14th/early 15th century Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach proved a formidable King of Leinster who regained full authority and control of territory. Yet in November 1550 Cahir mac Art Kavanagh appeared before the Lord Lieutenant Sir Anthony St Leger in Dublin where he ‘submitted himself, and publicly renounced the title and dignity of Mac Morough, as borne by his ancestors.’




Borris has long been part of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ lands. It is believed that the core of the present house was built by Brian Kavanagh enclosing at least parts of a 15th century castle on the site. A date stone over the front entrance carries the inscription AD MDCCXXXI and thereby proposes that part of the building was completed by that year. It is likewise assumed that this house was classical in style, a reflection of what was happening elsewhere in the country as a result of changing architectural tastes and a more settled environment.
During this period the Kavanaghs made a series of advantageous marriages and by the end of the 18th century they owned some 30,000 acres spread over three counties: three successive generations married daughters of the well-connected and wealthy Butler family. In 1778 Thomas Kavanagh assumed responsibility at Borris for his sister-in-law Lady Eleanor Butler after she attempted to run away with Sarah Ponsonby. His efforts, however, proved futile and eventually the two women were allowed to move to Wales where as the Ladies of Llangollen they lived for over fifty years (for some more on this, see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th).
During the uprising of 1798 Borris was subject to assault by the rebels and buildings were burnt but not, it would seem, the main house. Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh wrote to his brother-in-law that although a turf and coal house were set on fire and efforts made to bring ‘fire up to the front door under cover of a car on which were raised feather beds and mattresses’ yet these were unsuccessful.
It has sometimes been asserted that the reason why Borris was comprehensively remodelled in the second decade of the 19th century to the designs of those indefatigable architects the Morrisons père et fils, was because of damage inflicted in 1798 but an admirable new book* on the design and furnishing of the house pours doubt on this notion. Instead it would appear that Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh, who was also responsible for commissioning the illustrated volume tracing his pedigree, wished to give more tangible evidence of the family’s long history than did a classical house.


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Superbly located on a raised site with views across to the Blackstairs Mountains Borris as we now see it displays signs of stylistic schizophrenia, not least in differences between the house’s exterior and interior. The former is cloaked in Tudoresque mannerisms with symmetrical battlements and finials, a central entrance portico with pointed arches and four corner turrets which until the middle of the last century were topped with octagonal lanterns. Each side of the window mouldings is finished with the head of a king or queen indicating the ancestry of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family. John Preston Neale included an engraving of the newly-completed Borris in his 1822 work Views of the seats of noblemen and gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and then described the house as being ‘of the period of Henry the Eighth, of which period, though so many beautiful examples are extant in England, yet in this country, Borris may be considered as unique.’
When Samuel Lewis wrote of the house in 1837 he observed that Borris ‘exhibits the appearance of an English baronial residence of the 16th century, while every advantage of convenience and splendour is secured within.’ Those advantages apparently included the ornate classicism which reigns internally. This is especially so in the entrance hall which although a square was given a circular ceiling by the Morrisons who treated it as a rotunda with extremely ornate plasterwork incorporating garlands, masks, shells and wonderfully three-dimensional eagles, the whole coming to rest on a series of scagliola columns around the walls. Likewise one end of the dining room has a recess containing service doors this space created by another pair of Ionic scagliola columns. The treatment of the stairs and landing reverts somewhat to an earlier era, not least thanks to a large arched window, the upper portion of which is filled with stained glass featuring the family coat of arms.




Borris today is not as was designed by the Morrisons in the early 19th century. In the 1950s the service wing which connected the main building with the chapel was demolished, leaving the latter looking somewhat forlorn to one side. And the lanterns that topped the corner turrets were also removed. The greater part of the family land had gone, and with it much of the wealth. For a while the very future of the house looked perilous: for one of the very first Irish Georgian Society bulletins published in 1958 Lady Rosemary FitzGerald who had grown up in the place (her mother was a Kavanagh) wrote a piece called ‘A Valediction to Borris House’ in which she predicted ‘the house will soon be empty and roofless. The daws which possess the chimneys of every traditional Irish house will have the walls as well. This is inevitable. The house has been so rebuilt, altered, enlarged and generally muddled since the original keep was built in the ninth century that it is now impossible to maintain. It still needs the battalions of servants and unlimited cheap fuel that poured into the house until the First World War left so many big houses in reduced circumstances.’ Thankfully she was proven wrong and Borris still stands, a testimony to the staunchness of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, the latest generation of which has this year assumed responsibility for the place. Borris may not be as big as was once the case, nor able to rely on the income of a large estate but there are now other ways of making a house pay for itself and all of these are being put to use.
And Mrs Smith’s citing of an old prophesy ‘that the house of Borris would end with a cripple’ also proved incorrect because Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh married and had seven children. Below is a portrait of the redoubtable character that still hangs in Borris, like the house itself a testimony to the triumph of will over circumstances.
*Borris House, County Carlow and Elite Regency Patronage by Edmund Joyce (Four Courts Press)


For more information on Borris, see

The Wall of China


A view of the contents of a cabinet in the dining room at Borris House, County Carlow. Diffused light through windows to the left disposes a radiance over an assortment of bowls, plates and vases displayed on the mahogany shelves. More on Borris in a few weeks’ hence.
And in other news, The Irish Aesthete has been included amongst the finalists for Ireland’s 2013 Blog Awards in two categories: Best Arts & Culture, and Best Newcomer. The winners will be announced on October 12th next.

Going Head to Head


Ancestral home of the Mcmorrough Kavanaghs, ancient High Kings of Leinster, the present Borris House, County Carlow is an 18th century house incorporating parts of an older castle. Around 1810-20, the father and son team of architects Richard and William Morrison tricked out the building’s exterior in vaguely Tudor-Gothic style. Among the flourishes they added were these sandstone hood moulds above each window, all of them concluding in coroneted heads so as to emphasise the residents’ former royal status.

Strait is the Gate


An admirable pair of stone piers in the grounds of Borris House, County Carlow, ancestral home of the MacMorrough Kavanaghs (once High Kings of Leinster). The original 18th century building, having been damaged during the 1798 Rising, was refurbished some twenty years later in Tudor Gothic style by the Morrisons père et fils. But these gates look to pre-date that overhaul; elsewhere an entrance to the estate features granite ashlar piers topped with ball finials and dates from c.1780. Perhaps these gateposts, grander in scale and splendidly finished with slender urns are from around the same period?