Robin Bury’s recently-published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland is, appropriately enough, something of a curate’s egg. However, the book provides a valuable account of the decline in Protestantism within this country, as testified by the numbers of people identifying themselves as such here. According to the 1911 census, there were some 327,000 Protestants living in the 26 counties, accounting for approximately ten per cent of the population: this figure excluded members of the British army stationed in Irish garrisons. A century later, the 2011 census indicated there were 137,000 Irish Protestants, accounting for three per cent of the population. Then as now the spread was uneven. The late R.B. McDowell’s Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (1997) reveals that at the start of the last century about a third of the total Protestant population in the 26 counties lived in Dublin and the adjacent counties of Wicklow and Kildare. In the prosperous south Dublin suburbs running from Rathmines/Rathgar out to Dalkey, over sixty per cent of the residents were Protestant. On the other hand, the further south and west one travelled, the fewer Protestants were to be found: in Munster they totalled six per cent of the population, in Connacht under four per cent. Inevitably as numbers started to drop from 1920s onwards, it was in these areas that church attendance, and subsequent closure, was most immediate and widespread.
Looking down an enfilade of rooms on the ground floor of the 1903 Milltown Wing at the National Gallery, Dublin. This portion of the building was designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (following his death in 1899, its completion was overseen by his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane). A notable decorative feature is the doorcases carved in walnut by the Italian woodworker Carlo Cambi. The picture below shows the equivalent sequence of rooms on the first floor which, like much of the rest of the gallery, have been closed to the public for the past six years: once fully re-hung with pictures from the collection, they are due to reopen in mid-June.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
‘Oh! solitary fort, that standest yonder,
What desolation dost thou not reveal!
How tarnished is the beauty of thine aspect,
Thou mansion of the chaste and gentle melodies!
Demolished lie thy towering battlements –
The dark loam of the earth has risen up
Over the whiteness of thy polished stones;
And solitude and ruin gird thee round.
Thy end is come, fair fortress, thou art fallen –
Thy magical prestige has been stripped off –
Thy well-shaped corner-stones have been displaced
And cast forth to the outside of thy ramparts.’
‘The reason that he left thee as thou art
Was lest the black ferocious strangers
Should dare to dwell within thy walls,
Thou fair-proportioned, speckled mansion!
Lest we should ever call thee theirs,
Should call thee in good earnest Dun-na-gall,
This was the reason, Fortress of the Gaels,
That thy fair turrets were o’erthrown.
Now that our kings have all been exiled hence
To dwell among the reptiles of strange lands,
It is a woe for us to see thy towers,
O, bright fort of the glossy walls!’
Exactly fifty years ago this month, writing inthe Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin, the late Knight of Glin proposed that Francis Bindon had been responsible for the design of Drewstown, County Meath. Aside from the presence of certain stylistic details, of which more in due course, one of his reasons for this attribution, given in a footnote, was ‘Verbal information from George McVeagh of Dublin whose family owned the house from c.1780-1950.’ The Knight also noted, as have others, that the house was built for a certain Barry Barry: in the 1993 guide to North Leinster written by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, the authors state ‘Little is known of its reputed builder, Barry Barry, who was evidently a man of some sophistication.’
Barry Barry was indeed a man of sophisticated taste, since in due course he would commission work from James Wyatt, but he was not the owner of Drewstown at the time it was built. Barry Barry was born the Hon Barry Maxwell, second son of John Maxwell, first Baron Farnham. In 1757 he married Margaret King whose father Robert owned Drewstown and to which, it appears, she was the co-heiress. But his mother had also been an heiress, her name being Judith Barry of Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), County Wexford. In 1771, when his mother died and presumably for the advantage of an inheritance, Barry Maxwell changed his name to Barry Barry. At that stage it must have seemed unlikely he would inherit the main Maxwell estate in County Cavan. However, in 1778 his elder brother’s only son died, as did the elder brother just a year later. Accordingly the Farnham estate passed to Barry Barry who reverted back to his original surname of Maxwell, and in due course – like his late sibling – he was created Earl of Farnham. Tellingly the Drewstown estate was sold to the McVeagh family the year after he had come into possession of that in Cavan where he asked Wyatt to work on the house. One can see why, until now, confusion has arisen so at least in this respect there is clarification.
To revert to Drewstown, the Knight’s attribution of its design to Francis Bindon is one of a number he made in 1967. Astonishingly these have never since been reconsidered. Bindon’s name has occurred here many times before (as recently as last Saturday), and in regard to such houses as Bessborough, County Kilkenny (In the Borough of Bess, November 25th 2013), New Hall, County Clare (New Blood for New Hall, August 25th 20014), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and St John’s Square, Limerick (When New Becomes Old, March 24th 2014). The Irish Architectural Archive’s Dictionary of Irish Architects features twenty-one entries for Bindon, the majority of them once more relying on the Knight’s attributions. Yet one must wonder whether Bindon was capable of producing as much as has been proposed, given that he was also a portrait painter, a Member of Parliament and a landowner in Counties Limerick and Clare.
We do not know the date of Bindon’s birth but he is recorded as being in Italy in 1716, the year in which his brother Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Cootehill, County Cavan and aunt of the architect Edward Lovett Pearce. As an architect he was an amateur, in the sense that it was not his full-time profession. In his work in this field, he was associated with Pearce and also with Richard Castle, while as a painter he produced portraits of friends such as Jonathan Swift (no less than four such likenesses) and in Dublin was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke (to which all painters belonged) in 1733. Some years later he received an official pension of £100 and was reported to have died ‘suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ in June 1765.
Here is the Knight’s fifty-year old description of Drewstown, with an explanation why he believed the house to have been designed by Bindon: ‘There, in the detailing, we see the usual concern with moulded block architraves, for the ground floor of the seven-bay entrance is composed with them. A later porch makes the front more awkward than needs be, though as a whole the windows are uncomfortably placed. The richly voluted and pilastered central first floor widow with its segmental entablature carries up to a further pilastered and segmcntally capped attic window which in typical Bindon manner breaks through the frieze of the house. A bow window forms the main ornament on the East front which faces the lake in not dissimilar fashion to Castle’s Rochfort, Co. Westmeath. As an exterior it is best viewed from the south-east for here the contrast of bow and breakfront make a not unsatisfying, solidly plump and peaceful image. The front door opens immediately into a galleried panelled hall with a grand staircase at one end. Heavy segmental and triangular pedimented doors lead off into the other rooms, all of which are relatively plain. The plasterwork in the hall is somewhat crude though the Apollo and rays surrounded by trophies over the stairs are pleasingly executed. As an interior feature this galleried hall is an important hallmark for it rarely occurs in houses of this date in Ireland and it seems always to be associated with buildings that are attributable to Francis Bindon…’
Casey and Rowan were, rightly, more harsh in their description of Drewstown’s design, commenting on ‘ill-conceived classical decoration in the central entrance bay’ of the façade, adding that while the quality of the stonework is good, ‘the detailing is ungainly and ill-proportioned, characteristics which are even more in evidence in the interior.’ With regard to the latter, the authors note the entrance hall’s debt to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones at least a century earlier. The space is a large square with the stairs to the rear leading to a gallery that runs around the entire first floor. Whoever was responsible clearly miscalculated the proportions, as the segmental-headed door pediments ‘collide with the room cornice and with the underside of the gallery.’ Furthermore, inside the hall the entrance itself is slightly off-centre leading to an adjacent window being partially concealed by the wall of the adjoining room.
Drewstown is provincial in the best sense of the word, and suggests that someone even more amateur than Bindon came up with its design: perhaps Robert King who would have owned the property in the mid-1740s when it is believed to have been built. Most wonderfully, the entire original double-entrance hall has survived intact (unfortunately the same is not true of other rooms) with all its panelling, staircase and gallery balustrading. As mentioned, around 1780 Barry Maxwell sold the estate to Major Joseph McVeagh who a few years later married Margery Wynch, daughter of a wealthy East Indian ‘Nabob’, Alexander Wynch, Governor of Madras. Their descendants remained at Drewstown until 1952 when the house and sixty-eight acres of land were sold to an American mission agency which first ran an orphanage and then a boarding school on the site. In more recent years Drewstown has operated as a Christian retreat centre.
The houses of Dublin’s Henrietta Street have featured here more than once, and deservedly so since even if many have suffered long periods of neglect those that remain are among the most important such buildings in the capital. Henrietta Street was the first major scheme undertaken by the 18th century’s enlightened and far-seeing property developer Luke Gardiner (would that his present successors displayed such taste and perspicacity). From 1721 onwards he began to construct large domestic residences on what had hitherto been open ground to the north of the existing city. Nothing better demonstrates confidence in such an enterprise than the developer himself living on site, and around 1731 Luke Gardiner built his own house, the architect responsible being the most fashionable of the era, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. This is 10 Henrietta Street which remained in ownership, even if increasingly intermittent occupation, through successive generations of the original family until 1829 when Charles Gardiner, Earl of Blessington died without a male heir. His fascinating second wife, born Marguerite Power, is believed to have visited the house only once and it eventually became used by members of the legal profession (not surprisingly since the Gardiner estate thereafter became immersed in long and costly litigation). In 1899 the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, members of which order continue to live there still.
Unlike many other properties on Henrietta Street, the interiors of No.10 remain relatively unaltered, the most notable changes occurring during the 18th century when the house was still owned and lived in by the Gardiners. On the ground floor, a rear room originally known as the Breakfast Parlour, appears least changed from the original decorative scheme, with a splendid doorcase flanked by Corinthian columns and topped by a pedimented entablature: the ceiling here, unlike most of the others, exemplifies sober early 18th century classicism, compartmentalised in low-relief geometric plasterwork patterns.
Structurally the most significant intervention was a reconfiguring of the entrance hall and staircase. When the house was first built, it featured a double-height entrance containing stairs leading to the first-floor. However, some years after the death of Luke Gardiner in 1755 his son Charles reordered this space to create a single-storey entrance hall, behind which a new staircase hall was instated. Probably around the same time a number of rooms were given new ceilings in the rococo manner. These decorations are important because in the majority of cases they are made not of plaster but papier-mâché. The use of this medium is unusual but not unique – a number of other examples survive elsewhere in the city and in Carton, County Kildare – but it seems strange to find it here. One of the attractions of papier-mâché was its relative cheapness (relative to stuccowork, that is) but the Gardiners were certainly affluent to afford anything they wished. On the other hand, its great merit is easier (and cleaner) installation than plaster, so perhaps this is why papier-mâché was preferred for the redecoration of existing rooms.
It was not used, on the other hand, for the saloon, or ballroom (now used as a chapel), which in its present form looks to have been either added or extended at the time when Charles Gardiner was re-fashioning other spaces in the house. The saloon ceiling (central photograph above) while stylistically not unlike the others on this level is of plasterwork, and the other striking decorative feature is a substantial Venetian window in the centre of the west wall.
An inventory survives for 10 Henrietta Street, taken in November 1772 and itemising the contents of each room in the house. It adds immensely to our understanding not just of this property but also of how rooms in an 18th century urban residence were furnished. The answer is: relatively sparsely. The two interlinked first-floor drawing rooms, for example, each contained a large pier glass (valued at £12 & 10 shillings, and £9 respectively), and a marble-topped table (£4 and £3) but only a handful of other items, at least those considered worth recording. The Ante Chamber – formerly the upper portion of the entrance hall – featured ‘2 Large Landscapes in Gilt frames’ (£22 & 15 shillings), a large Dutch market scene (£7) and a mahogany dressing table (just 15 shillings). The most notable items were in the saloon which held two marble-topped tables with brass borders (£9), two ‘large Pictures of the Cartoons Gilt Frames’ (a pair of cartoons attributed to Raphael and valued at £50), two full-length portraits in gilt frames of George I and the Duke of Bolton (£17), a similar portrait of the Earl of Stafford and his secretary (£7), a pair of mahogany card tables (£1 & 16 shillings) and ‘2 Plates of Glass in late Mr Gardiner’s frames’ (£17). And so it goes on through the house, giving us an insight into living conditions at the time. Coupled with the preservation of the house itself (which benefitted some years ago from a major restoration programme that saw many of the rooms brought back to their initial state), 10 Henrietta Street sheds clearer light than perhaps any other such property in Dublin on how a grand urban residence looked in the Georgian period.
Three years ago this site drew attention to the scandalous condition of Aldborough House in Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014). The last great aristocratic townhouse to be built in the capital (and, other than Leinster House, the largest) the building’s name comes from the man responsible for its construction Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough. Although the earl already possessed a fine residence next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, he was determined to construct a new one that would testify to his wealth and social position, in addition to serving as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to anticipate further development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a steep decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house marooned.
Five years in construction, and costing over £40,000, Aldborough House was only enjoyed by its owner for a short period since he died in January 1801. The property passed to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead a mere eighteen months later. Then came a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to ‘Professor’ Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. (Incidentally, it is proposed that the word ‘finagle’ derives from the professor’s name and reflects his dodgy pedagogical methods). Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds. As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. At the end of the 19th century all the chimneypieces, supposedly by Pietro Bossi, were removed and placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments and over the next nine years it fell further and further into disrepair.
Today’s photographs were taken during a recent opportunity to inspect the interior of Aldborough House, and they testify to the building’s poor condition. The vast central staircase, of cantilevered Portland stone with wrought-iron balusters, is now supported by a number of metal poles rising the height of the building: the glazed dome at the top has been covered over, so no natural light reaches here. Many of the other areas are likewise boarded up, and can only be seen with the aid of a torch. The main rooms on ground and first floors are today principally striking for their scale, immense bare spaces stripped of whatever decoration they had once been given (although in the ballroom scagliola pilasters with Corinthian capitals survive beneath layers of paint). Long windows running almost the full height of the walls provide ample views of what was once largely open countryside but is now urban sprawl. Some of the overdoors, on which classical figures recline and putti frolic indifferent to the decay around them, remain but others have been pulled out. The chimneypieces, as already mentioned, are long gone, even in rooms on the attic storey. Tantalising hints of former splendour appear here and there, but in the main the impression is of long-term neglect with inevitable consequences for the building. Aldborough House changed hands once more in autumn 2014 and initially little seemed to be happening to improve the site. More recently however, clearance and stabilisation work has taken place, as well as the advent of decent security to ensure the place is no longer vulnerable to vandalism. There are proposals now being developed to give Aldborough House a viable future and if these are allowed to proceed the property would be restored and brought back to use. For too long it has sat empty and untended: anyone who cares for our architectural heritage must hope that this situation will soon change and Aldborough House no longer be a thundering disgrace.