Relics of Auld Decency

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The upper section of the double-height stair hall in 7 Henrietta Street, Dublin. The house dates from the early 1740s and retains some of its original interior, albeit in a much mutilated condition. For example, as can be seen below with a handful of exceptions the carved balusters were removed over a century ago when the building was divided into tenements and replaced with coarse timber uprights. But the walls retain their plaster panelling, a battered recollection of how splendid this space must once have been.

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Living History

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Since the majority of Ireland’s extant country houses date from after 1700, they are inclined to have a rational, linear character, with rooms arranged in sequence off straight corridors. The kind of organic, almost haphazard development found in equivalent properties elsewhere around Europe is largely absent here, even in older buildings where order was often subsequently imposed by their owners. Only occasionally does one come across a house which unashamedly revels in being an amalgam of several centuries and makes no attempt to conceal its heterogeneous heritage. Huntington Castle, County Carlow is one such place.

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Huntington is built on the site of a 13th century Franciscan priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s the land passed into the hands of Laurence Esmonde, whose family had long been settled in this part of the country. Esmonde was a convert to Anglicanism and served in the armies of first Elizabeth I and then James I, for which services he was raised to the peerage in 1622 as Lord Esmonde. It appears that a few years after receiving this honour he built the core of the present house, now buried within subsequent accretions but still discernible as a three-storey fortified dwelling. The first alterations and additions to that core were made c.1680 by his grandson, Sir Laurence Esmonde and a wing was constructed by the latter’s own grandson (another Sir Laurence) around forty years later. In the 19th century, Huntington passed through marriage to the Durdins (now, again through marriage, the Durdin-Robertsons) and around 1860 a further extension to the rear once more increased the castle’s size.

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The interior of Huntington makes no attempt to conceal its centuries-long evolution. The drawing room, for example, has 18th century classical plaster panelled walls beneath a 19th century Perpendicular-Gothic ceiling. Some passages on the ground floor retain their original oak panelling, a number of bedrooms above being panelled in painted pine. The dining room has an immense granite chimneypiece bearing the date 1625, while those in other rooms are clearly from a century later. In keeping with this satisfying chronological mishmash, the interior is replete with short flights of stairs and narrow corridors, each leading to another part of the castle. The passage of centuries has left everything a little off beam, a touch unaligned. There is no overall plan, no impression that anyone ever tried to impose coherence on the building. Instead it was allowed to grow as circumstances dictated and, no doubt, as funds permitted. Huntington has never passed out of the hands of the first Laurence Esmonde’s descendants and one suspects continuity of ownership played a part in ensuring it avoided undergoing radical make-over: a new owner would no doubt have wanted to put his or her stamp on the place. Huntington exults in its idiosyncratic character and by so doing offers a fuller sense of evolving history than would a more rationally designed house. If only there were more like it.

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Another Sibling

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Following a recent note on two remarkably similar staircases, one in County Tipperary, the other in County Westmeath (see The Missing Twin, December 28th 2016), here is a third which has featured here before but is worth showing again as it might be deemed to belong to the same family. The stairs belong to the Red House, Youghal, County Cork, built in the first decade of the 18th century for the wealthy Uniacke family: the design has been attributed to a Dutch architect called Leuventhen. Whereas the other two examples have balusters fluted in the upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower, here these designs alternate. But otherwise the work has much in common, not least the Corinthian columns on each return and, on the gallery, a richly worked apron. There is more work to be done…

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Let’s Go On

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And so 2016 draws to its close, a year which for many people around the world has been so crowded with shock one suspects its departure will not be much mourned. But like Barthelemy Cramillion’s mid-18th century stucco bird (originally in Mespil House, now in Dublin Castle, for more see Head in the Clouds, March 2016) we must try to soar above our present circumstances and hope the future will bring better times. And like the elephant below in the entrance hall of Huntington Castle, County Carlow, we can do our best to move forward slowly and steadily. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: Well, shall we go on? Yes, let’s go on.

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The Irish Aesthete wishes a very Happy New Year to all friends and followers.

The Missing Twin

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Above are three images of the main staircase in the former Archbishop’s Palace, Cashel, County Tipperary. Long attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and dating from c.1730 this building is rightly deemed important for retaining much of its original interior, not least these stairs in red pine. Its features include a richly carved apron below the first-floor gallery and the balusters, those on the return capped with Corinthian columns, the others being fluted in their upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower.
One of the past year’s happiest moments has been the discovery of the Cashel Palace staircase’s ‘twin’ in a house in County Westmeath. Although the two buildings have little in common externally (and the latter is usually dated much later), both share this interior feature which in design and execution alike are essentially identical, the Westmeath apron being slightly more elaborate. More research needs to be undertaken on the subject: something to look forward to in 2017…

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And Now for Something Completely Different

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As the picture above shows, until the late 1860s Bessmount, County Monaghan was a fairly standard, medium-sized country house, of two storeys over basement and with a five-bay façade onto which the box-like porch had been added. With a Wyatt window on the first floor being the only feature of interest, it looks to be of indeterminate date, both 1722 and 1807 having been proposed as when originally constructed. Either or indeed any time in between are possible, since the building gives the appearance of being solid but unimaginative in its design. In the 18th century the land on which it stands belonged to a branch of the Montgomery family and in 1758 an eldest daughter, Mary Montgomery married Alexander Nixon of the now-demolished Nixon Hall, County Fermanagh. The couple’s second son, Alexander Nixon Montgomery, inherited Bessmount where he lived until his death in 1837.

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Although Alexander Nixon Montgomery and his wife Eliza (nee Stanley) had no less than nine children, Bessmount was sold a few years after his death. The purchaser was John Hatchell, a wealthy Monaghan brewer who a few years later married Elizabeth Anne Speer from nearby Glaslough. Their daughter Frances Maria in turn married William Henderson whose own family were associated with the linen industry and it would seem that the couple, having sufficient funds from their forebears’ respective businesses, decided to recast Bessmount, transforming what had been a rather staid residence into something completely different.

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Despite its extraordinary appearance, and relatively late date, we do not know who was the architect responsible for Bessmount’s makeover. Two names have been suggested, one being the Newry-born William Barre who worked mostly in the Ulster region and whose Danesfort House in Belfast has a very similar entrance tower. But Barre died in 1867 (that is, before work began at Bessmount) so the other architect proposed is John McCurdy, then working nearby on Monaghan’s District Lunatic Asylum (now St Davnet’s Hospital), the largest such institution in the country. Whether one of these gentlemen or another party, whoever received the commission clearly had a field day with the project, no doubt encouraged by his clients whose carved portraits can be seen in medallions on either side of the entrance porch (Mrs Henderson being tricked out to look like Queen Elizabeth I: perhaps a play on the house’s name?). Bessmount metamorphosed from a dull Georgian block into an extravagance of Ruskinian Gothic, thanks to the use of certain devices such as bands of yellow and red brick especially in the aforementioned tower (which originally served the practical purpose of holding the house’s water tanks). Asymmetry rules across the intentionally stepped façade, so that the eye is constantly moving from one feature to the next, whether the large gable featuring crests of the Hatchell and Henderson families, the trefoil-headed canted bay window that lights the drawing room or the first-floor oriel turret on the opposite side of the house. Meanwhile the south-facing garden front is enlivened by a Gothic conservatory raised on arcades, while to the immediate north a short link leads to the only major extension to the property, a large ‘music room’ that both inside and out resembles a Victorian village hall.

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The interiors of Bessmount are not as remarkable as the exterior, perhaps because funds – and imagination – ran low. To a considerable extent they retain their pre-refurbishment appearance, albeit here and there tricked out in gothic finery. The majority of chimney pieces, for example, were in the original house, but their interiors now lined with pretty Minton tiles. Really the fun is on the outside, not least the porch where whoever received the commission to carve the capitals (the late Jeremy Williams proposed the Fitzpatrick brothers of Belfast) didn’t hold back. The ornamentation is lavish in the extreme, a bestiary of animal life ranging from bats and monkeys to frogs and rabbits, many of them peeking out of the undergrowth to pull a face as though determined to ruin a staid animal kingdom portrait. It is all rather droll, conveying the impression that the earnest intentions behind Ruskin’s advocacy of the Gothic mode are here being guyed. Fortunately the opportunity to relish this architectural humour remains since Bessmount still stands intact and in good order. The property changed hands in the last century when it once more became a Montgomery house, as is the case to the present. The owners are well aware of the building’s importance and have undertaken repair work where feasible. A cheering note with which to approach the year’s end.

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Presents of Mind IV

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If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00

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The Irish Aesthete wishes a Happy and Peaceful Christmas to all friends and followers.