When John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington commissioned designs for a residence from architect James Gandon in 1790, he already lived in a fine house. This was Dawson Court, presumably built earlier in the 18th century by his grandfather Ephraim Dawson following the latter’s marriage to Ann Preston, heiress to an estate at Emo, County Laois. Since no pictures or descriptions exist, we know very little about that building, other than it was called Dawson Court and stood somewhere in the vicinity of the present, Gandon-designed Emo Court. The only surviving parts of the building are a pair of carved limestone chimney pieces, one of which remains in a former bedroom on the first floor. The other, once protected by a since-demolished passageway, now sits exposed against a wall to the immediate west of the house.
Buried in woodland managed by Coillte, the national forestry commission, this gazebo was once part of the parkland of Emo Court, County Laois. As James Howley noted in his book on The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (1993), the structure bears similarities to the William Kent-designed Worcester Lodge on the Badminton estate in England. It dates from 1746, whereas the Emo Court gazebo is slightly later, believed to be c.1760. The rusticated base takes the form of a triumphal arch, with extensions on either side, one of which would have held a service room and the other a staircase. The latter provided access to the octagonal first floor, its cut-limestone exterior featuring alternating windows and arched niches with oculi above them all. Here presumably meals were taken on occasion and views across the demesne appreciated. The dome crowning the building has long since been lost, and some of the stonework looks in perilous condition.
One of James Gandon’s designs for the façade of Emo Court, County Laois. In the 1780s the architect was employed by enlightened patron John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington to come up with plans for a new house on his country estate. This is one of Gandon’s proposals, and interesting to compare with Emo Court as eventually built. The process was devilled with setbacks, beginning with the Lord Portarlington’s unexpected death in 1798, by which time only the shell of the house had been constructed. It took more than sixty years, and the involvement of a number of other architects, before work on the building was finally completed. As a result and reflecting changes in taste, various alterations, external and internal, were made to the original scheme. Many of Gandon’s original drawings, plus those of his successors, are currently on display in the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin. Below is one of the Gandon proposals for the garden front, and a photograph of the same prospect today.
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?
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?
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.
Those of us blessed – or perhaps afflicted – with an aesthetic cast of mind are inclined to believe that in matters of taste absolutes exist, and that our own judgement is invariably sound. Yet even a cursory scan of cultural history reveals that taste and its manifestations change from one era to another and are dependent on many factors, not all of them aesthetic. Our own judgement is thereby revealed to be, if not fallible, certainly more subjective than we might imagine to be the case: we are the products of our age, and so is the environment we create around us. The evolution of the interiors at Emo Court, County Laois offer evidence of the ever-changing subjectivity of taste. The history of the house’s gradual construction was summarised a few weeks ago (see In the Round, February 1st 2016) but this can be seen by an exploration of its rooms. The building was commissioned in 1790 by John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington, his architect being James Gandon who had already designed the neo-classical church at nearby Coolbanagher for the same discerning patron. Emo Court’s entrance front is perhaps the truest expression of Gandon’s intentions, a severe seven-bay facade, the three central bays stepped forward to feature a giant pedimented Ionic portico featuring the family coat of arms. The end pavilions, likewise brought forward, appear to be single-storey, their upper sections featuring Coade stone panels featuring on one side the Arts and on the other a pastoral scene. Relatively little of the rest of the house was finished before Lord Portarlington died in 1798 leaving a widow and young children, after which the project went into abeyance for several decades.
The next burst of activity occurred during the period 1824-36 when the wastrel second Earl of Portarlingon commissioned English architect Lewis Vulliamy to draw up designs for Emo Court. Born in 1791 and apprenticed to Robert Smirke before establishing his own practice, Vulliamy is summarised in one biographical notice as being an ‘eclectic designer’ who was ‘competent in any style required of him.’ Buildings designed by him range from the since-demolished Italian Renaissance Dorchester House, London to Jacobethan Westonbirt House in Gloucestershire. Vulliamy oversaw the completion of the garden front with its own giant Ionic portico and, indoors he initiated work on the rotunda and completed the dining room. The latter’s most notable feature is the ceiling plasterwork, richly ornate in the style preferred during the late Georgian period and almost certainly not what Gandon would have had in mind for this space (or any other within the building). This is even more the case with the next stage of work at Emo which only occurred following the second earl’s death in 1845. He left the estate, and considerable debts, to a nephew, the third earl who was only in a position to embark on a fresh programme of decoration in 1860. The architect now employed was Dubliner William Caldbeck who designed what is now the library (but was originally a drawing room) with its neo-rococo ceiling and extraordinary Carrara marble chimneypiece that features putti frolicking amongst grapevines, and the salon (formerly a library/ballroom) which has screens of green marble Ionic columns at either end. During this period the walls of the drawing room were hung with damask silk, and those of the entrance hall with embossed leather. We move further and further from the neo-classical concept of James Gandon and his patron.
In 1920 Emo Court and its surrounding demesne were sold to the Land Commission, not an organisation ever renowned for its taste. The land was broken up and the house sat empty and stripped of all contents until 1930 when, with the immediate parkland and lake, it was sold to the Jesuit Order for use as a novitiate. One of the residents during the following decades was Fr Francis Browne, the well-known photographer who would record the interior of so many remaining Irish country houses. During their time there, the Jesuits made a number of changes to the interior of Emo Court. The rotunda and adjacent drawing room, for example, were adapted for use as a chapel. This necessitated the removal of the mahogany double doors between the two spaces, together with two of the Corinthian Siena marble pilasters immediately inside the former and the chimneypiece in the latter. Part of the rotunda’s inlaid floor was also taken out to accommodate an altar in what was now a chapel sanctuary (the drawing room holding the congregation). Likewise the salon was altered to act as a refectory, the end screens including the green marble columns being taken out, along with its chimneypiece. Meanwhile the drawing room became a conference room.
Owing to a decrease in their numbers, the Jesuits left Emo Court in 1969 and the house was soon afterwards bought by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison who had already restored one property in this country, Woodstown, County Waterford (which famously he rented to Jacqueline Kennedy and her family in the summer of 1967). Major Cholmeley-Harrison employed the London firm of Sir Albert Richardson & Partners to oversee Emo’s restoration, and it was discovered most of the elements removed by the previous occupants had not been destroyed but stored and could therefore be reinstated. Thus The warped mahogany doors were flattened with weights and braces to return to their original form before being once more hung, while the demolished wall of the rotunda was rebuilt and the floor re-inlaid. The drawing-room got back its neo-rococo chimney piece and became a library and the Jesuit’s refectory was similarly given back its chimneypiece, screens and marble columns. In the entrance hall, coves to either side were were painted by Geoffrey Ghin in trompe l’oeil to Gandon’s unexecuted design for stuccowork here. In 1994 Major Cholmeley-Harrison presented Emo Court and its land to the Irish state, remaining in residence there until his death eight years ago. Today Emo is an accumulation of different eras’ taste, not least that of only four decades ago. The present decoration of the main reception rooms – the hessian-covered walls in the dining and drawing rooms, the acid green paint covering both walls and ceiling in the salon – are reflections of another period’s taste. Were Emo Court to be restored today, it is inconceivable such materials or colours would be employed. No doubt some visitors, and perhaps some employees of the Office of Public Works which is now responsible for the property, must yearn to instigate a programme of redecoration which would include an assiduous investigation of original paint shades and finishes so that these could be reinstated. The craze for historically ‘accurate’ decoration is a reflection of our own age and as likely to be superseded as have many others before. What makes Emo Court so interesting is precisely the building’s ability to incorporate so many shifts in taste without giving first place to any one of them. Instead they must perforce co-exist. There’s a lesson here for all of us blessed or cursed with an aesthetic cast of mind.
On January 1st 1778 John Dawson, Viscount Carlow married Lady Caroline Stuart, daughter of the third Earl of Bute. Shortly before this occasion, Mrs Delany wrote of her as follows: ‘Lady Caroline is a genius in painting and musick, and has made a great progress in both; she has a clear, sweet voice, under good management, and less of the fashionable yell than most of her contemporarys. She is extremely good-humoured and sensible, but is one in whom many pleasing accomplishments are a little hurt by an awkward habit: she has no affectation, but a trick of a laugh at whatever is said or that she says herself.’ Fortunately we know a great deal more about Lady Caroline than this somewhat ambivalent description, as she was an ardent letter writer, especially to her youngest and favourite sibling, Lady Louisa Stuart. Their correspondence survives and was published in 1895 as Gleanings from an Old Portfolio. From her letters we learn that Lady Caroline was not altogether happy living in Ireland, separated from her family and old friends. It did not help that the house inherited by her husband failed to meet with her approval. Dawson Court stood on an estate in County Laois which had been acquired by Viscount Carlow’s grandfather, a clever banker called Ephraim Dawson who had married a Preston heiress and built the house for his bride. What might have sufficed at the start of the 18th century was no longer deemed good enough towards its close, and more than once Lady Caroline grumbles about the old building and its disadvantages. In August 1781 she writes, ‘we have had a storm of wind and rain to-day, that I really have been expecting this infirm house to give way, and dreamt of it all night, my fears were so strong… I have no pleasure in the place this summer, for, as nothing has been done in our absence, it is all in the greatest disorder, not a walk in the garden free from weeds, no water in the river, and the weather so bad that, in short, I comfort myself, as Miss Herbert says, with a good fire.’ That December, she complains again about problems caused by high winds: ‘I can hardly find a place to sit in to-day, being turned out of the drawing-room by smoke, and here’s a whirlwind in the library.’ One suspects that it was at least in part to put an end to her protests that around 1790 Lady Caroline’s husband, by now created first Earl of Portarlington, embarked on building a new residence.
Painted in Rome by Batoni in 1769 while on a Grand Tour, the future first Earl of Portarlington was a man of considerable artistic ability. According to George Hardinge, who visited Ireland in 1792 and 1793, Lord Portarlington ‘draws prettily & is a very ingenious architect… [he]draws in Sandby’s manner and almost as well – many of the views in Sandby’s work – (“The Virtuoso’s Museum”) are taken by the former, who has made a voyage pittoresque of Ireland worthy of immediate publication…’ Almost as great a patron of the arts as Lord Charlemont, Portarlington displayed his discernment by being one of the key supporters of James Gandon who he had met in the home of the aforementioned Paul Sandby and to whom he wrote from Ireland in 1779, ‘I do not see any architect of the least merit here.’ By 1790 Lord Portarlington had already commissioned from Gandon the design of a new church close by his estate at Coolbanagher (see A Very Conspicuous Object, December 28th 2015). Understandably he therefore turned to Gandon again when looking for a design for the proposed new house and so work commenced on what would prove to be the architect’s most important private commission. Evidently Lady Portarlington’s dislike of the old house was so great that the family demolished this building and moved into the new – named Emo Court – even though it was far from finished. And then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1798 her husband joined the army summoned to repel a French invasion in Mayo. In late November he wrote to his wife that ‘in consequence of a cold, I have had the most violent attack on my lungs; which was a dangerous situation for six days past, but I had last night a favourable change; which gives me great hopes of getting thro it…’ He died shortly afterwards and work on Emo Court came to a halt. The second earl initially seemed to promise well but proved a disappointment to the family, an army career stalling in 1815 when he somehow failed to join his company at the Battle of Waterloo until after much of the fighting had taken place: it would appear he had been enjoying himself too much and too late the night before. Thereafter he is generally described as giving himself up to dissipation, and the squandering of family funds, supposedly remarking on one occasion that he could not see what difference another nought would make to his financial obligations. He died in Londin in 1845 unmarried and unmourned, leaving title and estate – complete with unfinished house – to a nephew who also inherited debts running to some £600,000.
An account of Emo Court in the middle of the 19th century noted that ‘The principal apartments in the house are a grand reception saloon at the entrance, and a state drawing room, but these rooms, although built nearly sixty years rough bricks and stone still visible.’ Elsewhere could be found scaffolding and tools used on work begun but not concluded by the second earl who in the 1820s had employed the fashionable London architect Lewis Vulliamy and an otherwise little known trio of brothers called Williamson who ran a practice in Dublin. Between them, they had built a portico on the rear facade, decorated the dining room ceiling and designed the interior of the rotunda. It is the last of these that is shown here today, finally completed in around by yet another architect, William Caldbeck who also added that standard of the Victorian country house, a ‘bachelor’ wing. So what of this key space, aside from its basic form, can be attributed to James Gandon? The rotunda, otherwise known as the saloon, lies at a crucial juncture in the house, directly behind the entrance hall and between dining and drawing rooms. Here a series of marble pilasters capped with gilded Corinthian capitals rise to a coffered dome with glazed top. Niches between the pilasters would once have held statues and the floor is inlaid with elaborate parquet. The rotunda was intended to be the central point in an enfilade overlooking the gardens but could it ever have served any purpose, other than as a rather lovely meeting place while passing from one functional area to another? And again, what of its decoration can be considered based on Gandon’s intentions, and what those of the Victorian Caldbeck? It helps to compare the room with other near-contemporaneous examples, most obviously the saloon of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh designed by James Wyatt and dating from the same period. Again the walls are lines with Corinthian pilasters (scagliola) and there are round-topped niches (these holding Wyatt-designed stoves) the upper section of which has plasterwork which might have been Gandon’s aim for the Rotunda. Another, and closer, comparison can be made with Ballyfin, just a few miles away and designed in the early 1820s by the Morrisons, father and son. One suspects that in this instance, the incomplete work at Emo provided inspiration for Ballyfin’s top-lit rotunda (as the former’s library did for that at the latter) although here the walls are lined by Siena scagliola columns with Ionic capitals. So it seems reasonable to conclude that even if not executed by Gandon Emo’s rotunda displays his spirit.
More on Emo Court in due course. With thanks to the Office of Public Works for permission to photograph the house’s interior.