After last Monday’s post about the house on Fota Island, County Cork, it is worth noting that the immediate demesne, including one of Ireland’s most important late 19th/early 20th century arboretums, also survives and can be visited. To the rear of the main building lie a series of walled gardens which have been well-maintained by the Office of Public Works and at the top of these the Irish Heritage Trust has restored a series of greenhouses now filled with plants. In consequence, the site provides an opportunity to explore an Irish country house in its original setting, something not always possible.
Running to some 62 acres, Powerscourt, County Wicklow is unquestionably Ireland’s most famous – and most photographed – country house garden, but what can be seen here today is of relatively recent origin. The building around which it was created has origins in a medieval tower house constructed by the de la Poers, whence derives the site’s name. In the 1730s, this structure was encased in a large Palladian house designed for Richard Wingfield, first Viscount Powerscourt by the architect Richard Castle. But the surrounding landscape remained largely unadorned, the ground behind the building dropping down to a large, irregular stretch of water called Juggy’s Pond, beyond which the vista was closed by the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. Only in the 19th century did the scene begin to change, initially thanks to the sixth Viscount who in 1843 employed architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson to produce plans that would divide the sloping ground into a series of Italianate terraces, supposedly inspired by those at the Villa Butera (now Trabia) in Sicily. In a book about the estate that he published in 1907, the seventh viscount remembered being brought from his schoolroom one October morning to lay the first stone of this scheme. He also recalled how Robertson, who was forever in debt, would periodically have to hide in one of Powerscourt’s domes when the Sheriff’s officers came to arrest him. As for the gardens, Robertson, who found himself better able to work after sufficient quantities of alcohol had been consumed, in consequence suffered from gout. As a result, he ‘used to be wheeled out on the Terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen, but when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.’ However, in 1844 the sixth viscount, who had travelled to Italy to buy vases and sculptures for the intended garden, died of consumption before reaching home. Work on the site stopped during his young heir’s minority and it was not until the latter had reached adulthood in 1858 and assumed responsibility for the estate that the garden once more began to receive attention.
By the time the seventh Viscount Powerscourt started taking an active interest in the gardens of his country house, Daniel Robertson had died. However, the estate’s owner took a keen interest in finishing the incomplete job, visiting a number of key sites in Europe, such as the gardens at Versailles as well as those around the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna and the Schwetzingen Palace near Mannheim. He also consulted a number of landscape gardeners such as James Howe and William Brodrick Thomas. The second of these was also employed by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham in Norfolk. In the end, however, it was largely Lord Powerscourt himself and his Scottish head gardener, Alexander Robertson (no relation of the previously mentioned Daniel) who drew up their own scheme. Robertson, described by his employer as a very clever man with ‘more taste than any man of his class that I ever saw’ died in 1860 but by then the main outlines of the project had been agreed, and work started, not least on creating the terraces, on which it seems 100 men laboured for ten years. Lord Powerscourt reported that one of the difficulties faced was that because the ground had once been part of a glacier moraine, water kept coming to the surface of the ground and threatening to wash away the work; Robertson proposed thatbefore anything else was done, holes be dug at the back of each terrace so that the water inside, on coming to the surface ‘should fall down through the holes into the next stratum and disappear. This was done and we had no more trouble.’ Similar feats of engineering had to be undertaken to transform what had hitherto been Juggy’s Pond into the basin seen today: inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome, it has a central jet which can reach 100 feet. Another key feature added during this period is the Perron, a terrace situated part of the way down the central walk to the basin, designed by the English architect and astronomer Francis Penrose. This was intended to offer a viewing platform to what lies beyond, but also to break the monotony of the descent. The Perron has elaborate geometric mosaic paving, finished in 1875 and made from different coloured pebbles collected on the nearby beach at Bray. Meanwhile, Lord Powerscourt had continued to add to the collection of statuary and urns begun by his father, buying old pieces and commissioning new ones: the pair of figures representing Victory and Fame were made for him in 1866 by Hugo Hagen in Berlin: the same sculptor was also responsible for the pegasi down by the basin’s edge.
Lord Powerscourt never stopped adding new features to the grounds of Powerscourt, which extend much further than is indicated here. It is said that he did so because for a long time he and his wife had no children, and he did not want to leave anything for his somewhat disreputable younger brother Lewis Wingfield (and then, after 16 years of marriage, Lady Powerscourt had five children in succession). After he died in 1904, the family struggled to maintain the estate and eventually, in 1961 it was sold to the Slazenger family, which owns it still although, as is well known, the house was tragically gutted by fire in 1974. But the gardens remain much as they were during the seventh viscount’s time and draw large numbers of visitors. The pictures shown today were taken on a rare occasion when the grounds were entirely empty, allowing the Irish Aesthete to have the place to himself. In style, they are intended as a homage to those taken by Eugene Atget a century ago in the Parc de Saint-Cloud outside Paris.