In a Shell


In June 1732 the indefatigable Mary Delany (then still Mrs Pendarves following the death eight years earlier of her first husband) was staying in Killala, County Mayo with her friends Robert and Katherine Clayton: at the time he was Bishop of Killala. Writing to her sister Mrs Granville, she remarked, ‘About half-a-mile from hence there is a very pretty green hill, one side of it covered with nut wood; on the summit of the hill is a natural grotto, with seats in it that will hold four people. We go every morning at seven o’clock to that place to adorn it with shells – the Bishop has a large collection of very fine ones; Phill [Mrs Clayton’s sister Anne Donnellan] and I are the engineers, the men fetch and carry for us what we want, and think themselves highly honoured.’ It was the onset of a lifelong interest in shellwork that continued after she married Dr Delany in 1743 and moved to Delville on the outskirts of Dublin. Here Mrs Delany decorated various items, including urns and chandeliers, with shells and then in 1750 she turned her attention to the chapel attached to her husband’s house, eventually covering its ceiling with shell ornamentation. In December 1750 she wrote that during the evening, while another great friend Letitia Bushe read aloud, ‘I go on making shell flowers for the ceiling of the chapel. I have made 86 large flowers and about 30 small ones.’ The following month, ‘I am going on making shell flowers, six of the festoons are finished and fastened on; I have ten more to do, and a wreath to go around the window over the communion table.’ Later that summer a little grotto in the garden of Delville received the same treatment. In this activity, Mrs Delany was reflecting the fashion of her age.





Inspired by examples from ancient Greece and Rome, the origin of the modern era Shell House can be found in the grottoes that were a feature of 16th century Mannerist gardens in Italy. The Buontalenti Grotto in Florence’s Boboli Gardens for example which dates from 1583-93 has walls covered with stalactites and stalagmites, sponges, stones, and shells; in fact these are not real but were carved by the sculptor Pietro Mati. The fashion for such follies soon spread and in 1624 James I had a ‘shell grotto’ created in the undercroft of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. It has long since disappeared and today the oldest extant shell grotto in England is at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire which dates from the late 1620s onwards. By the start of the 18th century, the Shell House obsession was widespread and unlike the artifice of the Boboli Gardens, these used real shells. In 1725 poet Alexander Pope built a grotto in the tunnel linking his house and garden at Twickenham. Decorated with shells, glass and mirror shards when completed the grotto was so lovely that the poet sighed, ‘Were it to have nymphs as well it would be complete in everything.’ No wonder therefore that around this time the creation of Shell Houses also began to be popular in Ireland.





One of the few extant 18th century Shell Houses in Ireland can be found in the grounds of Curraghmore, County Waterford. As was so often the case, the exterior of the building gives little indication of the richness found within. It has, as noted by James Howley (The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland, 1993) the cruciform plan of a miniature baroque church, with walls built of uncut but slightly rounded stones and a stone-flagged roof. As Howley goes on to explain, the interior ‘contains an Aladdin’s cave of rich, shell-encrusted detail on a series of interlocking domed spaces. These are arranged axially around the largest central space, with three circular apses, each containing a window and a small rectangular entrance lobby. Niches are placed between the entrances to the apses and the entire plan is knitted together by an elaborate floor pattern of great intricacy worked in pebbles.’ In the centre of the shell house stands a life-size white marble statue by John van Nost representing the woman responsible for its creation: Catherine, Countess of Tyrone. Most helpfully, a scroll carried in her right hand (her left appropriately holds a conch shell) informs readers ‘In two hundred & sixty one days these shells were put up by the proper hands of the Rt. Hon. Cathne Countess of Tyrone 1754.’ Finding the shells was a time-consuming, and potentially expensive, business, and involved liaising with sea captains and ship owners whose vessels would have returned from overseas voyages. Many of those used at Curraghmore are believed to have been acquired in the port of nearby Waterford city. And planning the design so that it formed a coherent whole would also have been an arduous process: only when sufficient materials had been gathered could the work of putting them into place commence. Seemingly the glue used for fixing the shells into place was a mixture of ox blood and hooves (presumably boiled down). It served the purpose well since most of them remain in place, thereby allowing us to appreciate this rare surviving example of a Irish Georgian shell house.

Behind the Scenes


One of the best-known views of Curraghmore, County Waterford is the façade of the house, the top of which is adorned with the stag of St Hubert, a crucifix between its antlers. This figure is taken from the family crest of the de la Poers who are believed to have first come to Ireland along with other Norman settlers in the 12th century. Here is a photograph taken on the roof of the building and showing the other side of the stag. At some date a metal bar was inserted into the animals’s neck to prevent the head falling off. Meanwhile, Curraghmore’s garden front is likewise topped by a beast, in this instance a dragon with a broken spear through its neck. This comes from the Beresford crest: in 1717 Sir Marcus Beresford married Lady Catherine de la Poer, only child of James, third Earl of Tyrone. Again, repairs have been carried out to the work. Both the stag and dragon were made by Viennese-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, a favourite of the British royal family: he carved several statues of Queen Victoria and her daughter Princess Louise was one of his pupils (indeed he died in her house in London in 1890). Conveniently the back of the dragon carries the date 1st November 1872, presumably referring to when it was made rather than installed on Curraghmore’s roofline.

The Passing of a Pioneer


A view of the south front of St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, County Waterford drawn by Jonas Blaymire and engraved by J Haydon in 1739. At that date the building still assumed the appearance given after an extensive programme of restoration work undertaken by Sir William Robinson from 1769 onward. Robinson rightly features prominently in A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 published in 1981. Sadly its author, Rolf Loeber, who thanks to the Hon Desmond Guinness was able to live in Castletown, County Kildare during the book’s preparation, died in Pittsburgh earlier this week. Although a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, Loeber had a life-long passion for Ireland’s architectural history, first inspired when as a student in Amsterdam in the 1960s he had read a copy of Maurice Craig’s Dublin 1660-1860. Beginning with an article on Irish Country Houses and Castles of the Late Caroline Period: An Unremembered Past Recaptured (Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society XVI, 1973), he published extensively on the subject, often breaking fresh ground and often in collaboration with his wife Magda (together they produced A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 which appeared in 2006). His knowledge and passion will be much missed by everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage.

A Country Pile


The garden front of Gurteen le Poer, County Waterford. The present house was completed in 1866 to designs of Samuel Ussher Roberts, great-grandson of the 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts. It was built for Edmond de la Poer, created a papal count after serving as Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X. Count de la Poer was a descendant of Roger la Poer who had accompanied Strongbow to Ireland and was then granted land here by Henry II in 1177. This particular branch of the family remained Roman Catholic and supporters of James II, and after being attainted in 1691 they were denied both the title of Baron la Poer and the main estate at Curraghmore. For the past twenty years Gurteen le Poer has been home to Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein and his family who are at present restoring the gardens.

A Shell


The shell of a former school and hall in Portlaw, County Waterford. Dating from 1854, these and many other buildings in the village were designed by one of the most prolific architects of the era, John Skipton Mulvany. He was much patronised by the Quaker Malcolmson family, responsible for various industrial businesses spread across south-east Ireland including in Portlaw.



Once part of a cotton factory complex the present building is listed in http://www.buildingsofireland.com as being a courthouse, so presumably at some point it also served this purpose. The quality of finish on exterior walls testifies to the building’s high standards but unfortunately nothing of the interior remains. Although disused and derelict, the property is listed for preservation by Waterford County Council.

The Promise of Summer


The gardens of Lismore Castle, County Waterford photographed last summer during the annual opera festival held here. The upper section of the walled grounds, the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland, was originally laid out in the early decades of the 17th century for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In recent years it has been revitalised by head gardener Darren Topps and his team.



There is no better time to enjoy the gardens of Lismore Castle than in early June, which is when the opera festival takes place and this season’s production – of Donizetti’s  enchanting L’Elisir d’Amore – will be perfectly in tune with the mood of these pictures, full of light and colour and sparkle. Very much recommended.


For further information on the Lismore Opera Festival, see: http://www.lismoreoperafestival.com

Finding a Niche

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One of the architectural wonders of Ireland is also one of its greatest mysteries: the forecourt of Curraghmore, County Waterford. This stupendous space, in which matching blocks of stables and offices face each other across an arena, leads up to the main house which has its own, more modestly proportioned wings. Linking the two sections are quadrants accommodating pedimented niches and entablatured doorcases, all executed in crisp limestone. Who was the architect responsible for the mise-en-scène? Both Francis Bindon and John Roberts have been proposed, but to date no one has been able to say for certain: it remains a mystery.

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Another Lost Treasure

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Mention was made here last week to Edward Synge, one-time Bishop of Elphin. His immediate predecessor in that diocese was Robert Howard whose eldest son Ralph in the early 1750s made the customary Grand Tour to Italy. While wintering in Rome in 1750-51 the younger Howard (who in due course became Baron Clonmore and then Viscount Wicklow) had his portrait painted by the city’s most fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni. The picture was brought back to Ireland and hung in the Howard’s seat, Shelton Abbey where its presence is recorded in an inventory of the house’s contents conducted by Bennett’s in July 1914: at that date the work was valued at £210.

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Sadly Ralph Howard’s descendant, the eighth Earl of Wicklow was unable to maintain Shelton Abbey and accordingly in October 1950 a great sale of the house’s contents was held, an event so substantial that it lasted almost a fortnight. Among the lots was number 1740, the Batoni portrait, although by then its sitter seems to have been forgotten, since he is simply listed as a ‘gentleman in crimson with fur-edged coat.’ In addition, the work’s value had significantly decreased since 1914, as it only fetched £90. Today it hangs in the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

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I shall be discussing the Shelton Abbey sale, and several others, next Thursday at 7pm in Lismore Castle, County Waterford during the course of a talk called ‘Art in Historic Irish Houses: Its Collection and Dispersal.’ For further information, see: http://www.lismorecastlearts.ie/events

 

Ice Ice Baby

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Located on a side road adjacent to the river Blackwater outside Lismore, County Waterford is this pair of ice houses dating from the end of the 18th century. They were built not to serve the nearby castle but by a local family, the Foleys who operated a fishery business in the area and wanted to preserve their catches. On a piece of flat land, channels were dug through which water from the river would enter and then be held by sluice gates while it froze during the winter: the resultant ice was then moved into these two round buildings which seemingly continued to serve this purpose well into the last century. The original entrance porch was to the rear, through which further doors gave admittance to each house, each measuring 6.65 metres in diameter and 4.5 metres to the top of the dome: the arched entrance in the southern chamber (next to the road) was only created a few years ago by the local authority. The cracks in the northern chamber must be a cause of concern.

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The Curfew Tolls the Knell of Parting Day

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Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

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For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke! 

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Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

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Lines taken from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard’ (1751).
Photographs are of the now-abandoned St Mary’s Church, Mocollop, County Waterford.