Last July, the government published an All-Island Rail Review proposing a transformation of the current train system through electrification, faster speeds, improved frequency, and new routes for people and freight. It might also have included the preservation and restoration of many old buildings associated with that mode of travel, such as this one, the Mountrath and Castletown railway station in County Laois. It was designed by Sancton Wood, an English-born architect who in 1845 was responsible for Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station in Dublin, built for the Great Southern & Western Railway Co., which then commissioned him to design smaller stations along the company’s route to Limerick Junction. Most of these buildings were in the Gothic style seen here and some are still in use but not this one which closed in 1976 and has since fallen into its present state of dereliction.
The Fair Green in Castletown, County Laois is a triangle occupying the centre of the village, dominated by a large and not especially impressive former Christian Brothers novitiate (now a retreat house run by another religious order). However, a number of charming, substantial private residences survive on the north-west and south sides of the green, as shown here. Dating from the second half of the 18th to the early 19th centuries, they are each different – some two-storey, some three, some five bay, some three – one of the largest having (immediately below) featuring a pretty Venetian window on the first floor. Although seemingly many of the original interiors have been altered, and some of the fenestration is not of the best quality, their collective survival gives the village an attractive appearance too rarely found in Ireland.
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
Further to Monday’s post about Drumcondra House, Dublin, here are portraits of the two men discussed. Above is the funerary monument to Marmaduke Coghill erected in the adjacent church by the deceased’s sister Mary. It was carved by (and bears the signature of) the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers who was based in London: this work seems to have been his most important Irish commission, aside from a series of fourteen busts which can be seen in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin. Clearly proud of her sibling, Mary Coghill made sure his extensive list of achievements and virtues were recorded on the substantial base below the central figure. Meanwhile in the entrance hall of Castletown, County Kildare can be seen this portrait of the Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei, responsible for the initial design of the house, and perhaps of Drumcondra House too. Painted by Giuseppe Berti in 1735, it shows Galilei seated before an open window through which can be seen the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano which he had designed three years earlier: plans for it can also be seen below his left hand.
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.
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.
In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.
During this post-festive season, when evenings can seem especially long and monotonous, readers might like to consider occupying their time with the creation of a print room. This once-fashionable pursuit, which had its heyday in the second half of the 18th century, subsequently fell out of favour and only one intact example survives in Ireland: that at Castletown, County Kildare. The design and execution of print rooms was customarily left to women, although it evolved from the mostly-male habit of collecting valuable prints and storing these either in a cabinet or within albums. Later on prints might be hung in a chamber designated for the purpose, often kept shrouded in order the work avoided suffering light damage: while cheaper than paintings prints, especially those of larger dimensions could be expensive to produce. However, larger runs of prints in the 18th century, often reproductions of popular works of art, helped to bring down costs and make these pictures accessible to a broader market than had hitherto been the case. Cheaper prices led to greater disposability and the emergence of the print room, a phenomenon effectively unique to Britain and Ireland (although there were some instances of the vogue found in America).
Located behind the house’s main staircase and part of an enfilade on the ground floor overlooking the garden, Castletown’s Print Room was created in 1768 by Lady Louisa Conolly. She had been collecting pictures for at least the previous six years, and in addition had gained experience through assisting in similar ventures with her sister Emily, Countess of Kildare at nearby Carton and with Lady Clanbrassil at Cypress Grove House, Templeogue, County Dublin. Both these rooms have since been lost. The project was a long time in gestation: in 1762 she wrote to her sister Lady Sarah Bunbury, ‘I always forget to thank you my Dear for the Prints you sent me, I hope you got them of Mrs Regnier, for I have a bill there, the two little ones that you admired so, are the very things I wanted, that of Helen is charming. I have not had time to do my Print room yet.’ It is likely the reason the Print Room took so many years coming into existence is both because the Conollys were preoccupied with other work at Castletown and because Lady Louisa did not want to rush preparing the layout of what is a larger space than that customarily used for such a purpose: the ceiling here, for example, is twenty-five feet high. As a result, an awful lot of prints were needed. As late as February 1768 she was still writing to her sister Lady Sarah, ‘…any time that you choose to go into a print Shop, I should be obliged to you, if you would buy me five or Six large Prints, there are some of Teniers engraved by LeBas, which I am told are larger than the common size, if you meet with any, pray send me a few.’ Working out the design for this room was a complex business, particularly since border frames for each of the frames also had to be prepared, as well as garlands, trophies and other elements of the overall decoration.
When Lady Louisa finally came to embark on the scheme, the prints were duly cut out and then glued onto lengths of warm off-white painted paper. These in turn were attached to the room’s walls on battens overlaid with cloth. As Ruth Johnstone has noted, in many cases Lady Louisa ‘made editorial decisions based on the outside shapes of images.’ Accordingly she altered the original rectangular format of forty-six images to either an octagonal, oval or circular shape, or to a rectangle with a convex top. Most likely because of the need to create a visual balance based on size and shape there is no overriding theme to the pictures but rather they reflect mid-18th century taste. A handful of images were included for a specific reason. In central position between the two windows, for example, is a print of Van Dyck’s portrait of the children of Charles I, a group including Lady Louisa’s great-grandfather Charles II. In the same position on the opposite wall is a print taken from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Louisa’s sister, the aforementioned Lady Sarah Bunbury (the original painting, incidentally, is now in the collection of Chicago’s Art Institute). Providing a centrepiece on the east and west walls are prints of the era’s most famous actor, David Garrick, and the room also includes a portrait of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, rather surprising since he was a political opponent of Lady Louisa’s brother-in-law Henry Fox, first Baron Holland. Otherwise the sources were diverse, with a fondness for both pastoral and classical subjects taken from the works of diverse artists including Teniers, Greuze, Jan Steen and Claude Lorrain. Despite such dissimilitude, Castletown’s Print Room conveys an impression of homogeneity thanks to its designer’s careful preparation. Anyone intending to embark on a similar enterprise will find these long winter evenings perfect for similarly thorough planning.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death on May 8th 1989 of Mariga Guinness at the age of only 56. It seems an opportune moment to celebrate her life, especially since an entire generation has since grown up without having had the opportunity to meet Mariga and to benefit in person from her influence.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Marie-Gabrielle von Urach was born in September 1932, the only child of Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder. Her mother’s family were from the Scottish borders, her father’s a junior branch of the royal house of Württemberg in southern Germany; her grandfather was briefly King of Lithuania, a great-aunt Queen of Belgium and a great-grandaunt the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Although her father had been expected to succeed to the principality of Monaco (an extraordinary story in itself), in the aftermath of the First World War this arrangement was abandoned and so he came of age with little money and no prospects. Both Mariga’s parents were artists and in the mid-1930s they and their daughter moved to Japan where Prince Albrecht was attached to the German embassy as a government photographer. However in 1937 Rosemary von Urach decided the Japanese Emperor was being misled into aggression by his generals, and taking Mariga with her somehow gained admission into the imperial palace to offer him advice. Arrested and sedated by security guards, she was sent back to Britain where she had a breakdown followed by a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in a Scottish mental hospital. Meanwhile Mariga’s father continued working for the German government throughout the Second World War and did not see his daughter again until she was sixteen and he had remarried (when they reunited he did not tell her this himself and she only found out indirectly). In the intervening years Mariga had been raised in England by a septuagenarian unmarried friend of her grandmother’s who died in 1951, leaving her charge possessed of little other than great intelligence and beauty. That same year she was introduced to the Hon Desmond Guinness by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein. The couple married in June 1954 and moved to Ireland the following year.
Mariga first visited Ireland (at the invitation of the late Mark Bence-Jones) in 1953. He later remembered that she arrived in a ball dress having gone straight from a dance in London to catch an early flight. ‘The first thing they asked me when I got off the ‘plane was “Have you been on a farm?”’ she said with her unerring sense of the incongruous (there had recently been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England). Afterwards she wrote, ‘Ireland is HEAVEN, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps the Horse Show.’ Of course, after moving here Mariga took the country very seriously, not least in her ceaseless campaigns to preserve its architectural heritage and her founding with Desmond of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
The society was run from the couple’s home at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which they had bought and restored after looking at countless other houses around Ireland. Leixlip represented Mariga’s highly distinctive and influential taste. As architectural historian Mark Girouard has written, ‘In the 1960s Mariga Guinness made Leixlip Castle an unforgettable place: a solid, four-towered mediaeval castle converted in the early 18th century with huge, thick-barred windows and spacious, simple rooms looking down to the Liffey; a massive front door that was never locked; and inside an inspired assembly of mainly Irish 18th-century furniture and pictures, put together and set off with a sense of color and occasion, a mixture of informality and showmanship, to make a setting in which it seemed that anything could happen and anyone might turn up.
One would turn up oneself, pull open the front door and wander into empty rooms with log fires smoldering, until people would, perhaps, begin to appear: millionaires, Irish professors, Anglo-Irish lordlings, pop stars, German princes, architects, priests, art historians, students, all revolving around Mariga, with her drawling voice and mischievous smile, and Desmond, with his charm and blazing blue eyes.
A party might develop or a picnic, or both or neither; intrigues and dramas would get under way, champagne might or might not flow, and the whole charade was given point by the crusade for Irish Georgian architecture, to save or rediscover which forays would be made from the castle all over Ireland.’
Many people can testify, and have done so, to the abiding impact of Mariga’s exceptional taste. Interior designer John Stefanidis has remembered her ‘A wit, a tease, an intelligent and enchanting beauty, gifted with impeccable taste. She had panache…whether in a fur hat and muff, or in fancy dress with a large hat and feather boa, she always looked marvellous. A wonderful hostess, Leixlip Castle was an example on how to live in an historic house – despite it being freezing cold in winter (she longed for central heating).’
It was thrilling to stay there surrounded by marvellous furniture she had found and not an ugly thing in sight. She was the inspiration behind the founding of the Irish Georgian Society – not only did she find houses and restore them but also doggedly charmed her way through bureaucratic red tape in Dublin.’
Likewise in his 1985 book The Inspiration of the Past, architectural historian John Cornforth described Leixlip as ‘the key country house in the British Isles in the late 1950s and 1960s,’ before going on to write that ‘The process of restoring, decorating and furnishing the house was very much a shared enthusiasm, with complementary contributions from two remarkable people; but it always seemed to me that the overall look of the house owed more to Mrs Guinness, who has a rare gift for composing objects and rooms in a stimulating way and combining unlikely, and occasionally uncompromising, objects to create memorable effects…Ultimately it was the feeling for scale in the house and the combination of the Irish pictures and furniture with the simple decoration supported by prints, piles of books and quantities of shells that made it such a complete and convincing Irish country house, very carefully thought out but achieved with such brio and confidence that it seemed natural and not contrived. It managed to be stylish and unfussy; quite grand and yet informal and cut-back; and everywhere there was both a vivid historical air and a sense of fantasy.’ In this context, Cornforth referenced Nancy Lancaster before recalling an observation made by Christopher Gibbs that while Mrs Lancaster’s taste had been ‘patrician’ that of Mariga was ‘princely.’
Although less actively involved with the Irish Georgian Society during the last years of her life, Mariga’s commitment and engagement with the organisation during its early decades was of vital importance. After her death, the late Professor Kevin B Nowlan noted how, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s Mariga Guinness gave a sparkle to the grim struggle to save our heritage of 18th century architecture.’ Indeed, it was her crusading spirit and her exceptional ability to inspire other people that deserve to be forever remembered. As the Knight of Glin commented, ‘She had that vital talent of leading every sort of person into the then often unappreciated world of Irish architecture, decoration, furniture and paintings.’ The society’s membership swelled as a direct result of her passionate advocacy of conservationism; she was a force of persuasive charm impossible to resist. ‘Not a painter, not a writer, not a musician,’ wrote her great friend Maureen Charlton while Mariga was still alive, ‘what she does is to transform life itself into a work of art, to make each passing day a new creation.’
Mariga was always especially good at inspiring the young, who would quickly be beguiled into voluntarily working for the Irish Georgian Society, and in a thoroughly practical way too. During the course of an interview given less than two months before her death, she spoke of the restoration, indeed the salvation of Castletown, County Kildare in 1967 when students were at the top of ladders painting cornices, children scrubbed floors, ‘and even the oldest of the old were able to polish the beautiful door handles and do something to help.’ Mariga too threw herself into activity and led by example, being prepared to climb a ladder with a pot of paint, or wield a banner during a protest against the threatened demolition of an historically important building. A feature in the Irish Independent during this period noted of Mariga that when not in Leixlip ‘dispensing informal hospitality and discussing current such finds as a document-packed sealskin trunk or an ancient set of stocks in a Meath courthouse, she’s paint-stripping or picture hanging at Castletown.’ Although she could sometimes give the impression of being rather vague – she was notorious for introducing even relatively close friends as ‘Mr Thingummy’ – a strong core of practicality ran through her character. And there was a streak of seriousness too. As she told a reporter from the Irish Times shortly before her death, when speaking of the Irish Georgian Society, ‘It was definitely very serious, what we were doing.’
Although we met in passing on a couple of occasions when I was still a student, it was only after she had divorced and I had graduated that Mariga and I came to know each other. By then she had perforce moved out of Leixlip Castle and was living in Tullynisk, the dower house of Birr, County Offaly. It was definitely a house of contrasts, on the one hand a grim little kitchen (out of which surprisingly delicious meals were produced) and on the other the main rooms which were decorated with Mariga’s customary flair and discernment. Despite chaos forever appearing imminent, life at Tullynisk was actually rather well-ordered: overnight guests found their rooms perfectly prepared, logs neatly piled beside the grate (the house was always cold), fresh linen on the beds, and carefully chosen reading matter on an adjacent stand. No matter how late we had all scattered – and it was often very late – the followed morning Mariga would be the first to rise, moving about the house with trays laden for the breakfast table.
At the same time, disorder reigned behind the scenes: Mariga’s unparalleled collection of historical costume, for example, remained heaped in a tempting Everest on one bedroom floor, periodically raided for dressing-up on her instruction during parties. And her wonderful library, although the majority of books were eventually shelved, never had any real order put on it. Meanwhile she continued to drive a battered old Citroen, which periodically refused to move and would sometimes spend months outside the house. I remember Mariga’s bafflement when she was summoned to appear in court in Birr for failing to tax the vehicle, her logic being that since it was immobile no taxation ought to be required.
The truth was that during those final years Mariga was deeply unhappy, the melancholia to which I suspect she had always been vulnerable threatening to overwhelm her. Although she tried to keep herself busy and organised regular house parties and outings – a caravan of cars driving slowly down pot-holed laneways in pursuit of an alleged architectural gem that more often turned out to be an undistinguished farmhouse, its owners baffled by the spectacle of this troupe of eccentric gawkers – she was often alone. At such times she must have felt the world of which she had once been so vital a part had moved on and forgotten her. Of course it hadn’t, and more importantly it still hasn’t. All of us remained heavily indebted to Mariga Guinness and her inspirational leadership. Through her dynamism and commitment, Ireland’s architectural heritage became better known and appreciated, and preserved, than would otherwise have been the case. This week’s anniversary of her untimely death allows us an opportunity once more to pay due acknowledgement to a remarkable woman.
Mariga Guinness, 21st September 1932 – 8th May 1989
When Thomas Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox in 1758, Castletown, County Kildare which had been built by his great-uncle William from c.1722 onwards still lacked a main staircase. The young couple undertook to address this want and within a year of their wedding seem to have employed the Swiss-born stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini to work on the plasterwork decoration. The result, as Joseph McDonnell has written, ‘evokes, like little else in the country, the spirit and grandeur of the grotesque decoration of Imperial Roman interiors…’ Yet in the midst of the grandeur one also finds domesticity, not least in the profile portraits inserted by Franchini into the stairhall walls and believed to represent members of the Conolly and Lennox families. This is especially true when one reaches the landing and encounters a pair of heads facing each other across a now-empty stucco frame. These are depictions of Tom and Louisa who together did so much to enhance the beauty of Castletown.