A Tour-de-Force




Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere is rightly notorious for having imprisoned his wife for over thirty years on the grounds of adultery with one of his brothers: she was only released after his death in 1774. At some date before then, the earl had embarked on building a new residence for himself in Dublin. Located on Great Denmark Street and looking down North Great Georges Street, the incomplete Belvedere House was inherited by the second earl who initially sought to dispose of the property, offering it for sale in 1777. However, either he was unable to find a buyer, or he decided to retain the house, work on which was finished in 1786. Since 1841 it has been owned by the Jesuit Order which runs a secondary school on the site. In plan and composition Belvedere House closely resembles 86 St Stephen’s Green, begun in 1765, the design of which is now attributed to Robert West who, in addition to being a fine stuccodore was also a part-time architect and property developer. When Belvedere House was offered for sale in 1777, interested parties were directed to West, thereby indicating that similarities between this building and 86 St Stephen’s Green were not accidental.




The attribution of Belvedere House’s design to Robert West is of significance because of the building’s remarkable interior decoration. The staircase hall and first-floor reception rooms contain some of Dublin’s most elaborate plasterwork, and divining who was responsible for this tour-de-force has been the subject of much analysis. In 1967 C.P. Curran’s Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the 17th and 18th centuries noted in the collection of drawings left by stuccodore Michael Stapleton several items directly relating to the design of ceilings in Belvedere House. Accordingly, this work was assigned to Stapleton. However, the fact that West was responsible for designing the house complicates matters, and the consensus now appears to be that both he and Stapleton had a hand in the plasterwork. Conor Lucey (in The Stapleton Collection, 2007) suggests that Stapleton may have been apprenticed to, or trained with, West and the fact that he was named the sole executor of the latter’s will in 1790 indicates the two men were close. The source material for the stucco work is diverse, that in the stair hall deriving in part from a plate in Robert Adam’s Works in Architecture, but the first-floor rooms feature a wider range of inspiration, much of it from France and Italy. The main reception room at the front of the building has an oval in the centre of its ceiling, which seemingly held a scene of Venus wounded by Love taken from Francois Boucher’s painting of the same name. However, when the Jesuits assumed responsibility for the house, the saucy nature of the work led to its removal. The adjacent room’s ceiling contains a roundel showing Diana in a chariot drawn by two stags: this was allowed to remain. In recent years a full restoration of these rooms has been undertaken by RKD Architects, allowing us better to appreciate how they must have looked when first completed, a tribute to the remarkable craftsmanship that existed in 18th century Ireland.




If Walls Could Talk…

The first floor rear room of 11 Parnell Square, Dublin. This was one of the first houses built on the square soon after leases were given in 1753, its original owner being Richard Steele. By 1770 it had come into the possession of John Butler, future 17th Earl of Ormonde, who enlarged the building by adding a further bay. In 1887 it became the premises of the National Club which, as the name indicates, was a nationalist organisation: ironically (or perhaps intentionally), the neighbouring house served as the Grand Orange Hall of Ireland. In 1901 11 Parnell Square became the headquarters of the recently-established Dublin County Council and it was then that the interior underwent extensive remodelling. This room became the council chamber and, no doubt in an effort to convey due gravitas to proceedings, the walls were lined with stained oak panelling, as Christine Casey has noted, in a peculiar mixture of Tudor and Celtic Revival styles. It was here that decisions were taken for many years on the development of the greater Dublin area, the consequences of which continue to be felt.

Ireland’s Ossuary


One of the country’s best-known families, the Butlers originated with Theobald Walter who in 1185 was granted by Prince John (future King John) the title of Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had already held the same title in England). Theobald’s successors established themselves in what is now County Kilkenny, their stronghold being in Gowran where they built a castle that would remain their principle residence until they established a presence in Kilkenny City at the end of the 14th century. As a result, the church in Gowran was greatly enriched by the presence of the Butlers. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier religious settlement, possibly a monastery founded by Saint Lochan who was connected with the region: Saint Patrick is also said to have passed through here on at least one of his seemingly innumerable perambulations around Ireland. 





In its present form, St Mary’s was a collegiate church, built in the late 13th century and served by a ‘college’ of clerics who lived communally in an adjacent dwelling but did not follow any monastic rules, as was the case for the likes of the Benedictines or Cistercians. The presence of the Butlers greatly enhanced its status. In 1312, for example, Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Lord Deputy of Ireland made a binding agreement before the Kings Justice in Dublin with the Dean and Chapter of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny to provide finance allowing four priests attached to St. Mary’s to say masses in perpetuity for himself, his wife Joan, his son James (future first Earl of Ormonde), his daughters, and other family members both living and dead. The church had a long aisled nave with substantial chancel to the east, the two parts linked by a great square tower, now taller than was originally the case. Inevitably it suffered onslaught over the centuries. In 1316 Edward Bruce and his army of Scottish and Ulster troops attacked and took the town of Gowran, with damage inflicted on the church. It suffered similarly during the Cromwellian wars of the early 1650s but by then, like many other religious buildings in the post-Reformation period, St Mary’s was falling into disrepair. Only at the start of the 19th century was refurbishment undertaken, with the chancel converted into a parish church for the local Church of Ireland community, access being directly beneath the great tower. The nave was left a ruin, as it remains to the present day. St Mary’s continued to be used for services until the 1970s, since when a series of further restoration programmes have been undertaken under the auspices of the Office of Public Works. 





The interior of St Mary’s today is notable for the number, and quality, of tombs displayed inside the former chancel. In some instances moved indoors from elsewhere on the site, these funerary monuments stretch across many centuries, the oldest being a partial slab carved with Ogham script. There are many slabs from the 13th and 14th centuries decorated with crosses and inscriptions in Latin. The central space of the chancel is dominated by two substantial table tombs, both early 16th century and perhaps carved by the O Tunneys, an important family of stone carvers at the time. One shows a single Knight, the other two Knights, all were members of the greater Butler clan. The entrance to the church is dominated by a vast classical memorial to James Agar, who died in 1733. Originally from Yorkshire, the Agars succeeded the Butlers as the dominant local family in the mid-17th century and remained so until the end of the 19th. It was James Agar’s widow who, one can read, ‘out of sincere respect to the WORTHY DECEASED has caused THIS to be ERECTED AS A MONUMENT TO HIS MERIT AND HER AFFECTION.’ Tributes to the deceased until relatively recently, one of the more recent being a stained glass window on the north wall designed by Michael Healy of An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) an Arts and Crafts studio established in Dublin in 1903: the window commemorates Aubrey Cecil White who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The range of monuments inside St Mary’s, and their exceptional calibre, make this church worthy of being described as Ireland’s ossuary.

Giving Credit Where Due


The drawing room ceiling in Killruddery, County Wicklow. This part of the house was designed for the tenth Earl of Meath by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison in the 1820s. Usually the names of craftsmen employed in such tasks remain unknown but specific information has been found about this ceiling. The principal plasterer was Henry Pobje of Dublin but he didn’t work alone. Fifty years ago in 1968 when Elizabeth, Countess of Meath was repainting the room, she discovered on top of one section of the cornice the name of Simon Gilligan, together with the date 24th April 1824, which was presumably when the plasterwork was completed.

Well Lodged

Hare Island, County Westmeath is located at the southern end of Lough Ree is said to derive its name from the number of hares that once inhabited its 57 acres. It appears there was a monastic settlement here established in the sixth century by St Ciarán before he moved on to Clonmacnoise. However, it was subject to repeated attack and plunder, and cannot have been a very secure place to live. At some point in the second half of the 12th century, the Augustinian canons settled on the island, perhaps under the protection of the local Dillon family who controlled this part of the country. They remained in possession of the island until 1653 when Sir James Dillon went into exile, having formed the famous Dillon Regiment which then fought in the French army. His estates passed into the possession of a Dublin merchant Ridgely Hatfield, who was sheriff of Westmeath and in the 18th century Hare Island next came into the ownership of the Hackett family. They sold it to the Handcocks, landowners in Westmeath whose main seat was at Moydrum Castle (see An Unforgettable Fire, August 15th 2018).






Originally from Lancashire, William Handcock was the first member of his family to settle in Ireland, arriving here during the 1650s. Within a decade he had become a member of the Irish parliament, representing Athlone as did many of his descendants. In this area he built a house called Twyford, which still stands but is now ruinous. The Handcocks prospered and in 1812 William’s great-grandson, also called William, was created the first Baron Castlemaine of Moydrum. Around the same time and presumably to mark his elevation to the peerage, he commissioned the design of Moydrum Castle from Richard Morrison. It is believed that the same architect was responsible for the lodge on Hare Island. A keen sportsman, Lord Castlemaine used the building for fishing and shooting expeditions.






Mark Bence-Jones comments that the lodge on Hare Island gives the impression ‘of having been concocted out of the “left-overs” from several different houses of various styles and periods. Among the elements incorporated are an 18th century classical pedimented doorcase, gothick windows, one of them with a mullioned bay and, on the exterior, a Regency veranda its wide eaves supported by slim iron columns. The main lodge is quite small and of one storey, the main room obviously serving for receptions, parties and dancing. Behind are a handful of smaller spaces, perhaps acting as accommodation. But behind the lodge are further ranges, including a pair of two-storey pavilions facing each other across a narrow courtyard. From what remains, these appear to have been for guests (Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria is said to have stayed on Hare Island in 1850 as a guest of the third Lord Castlemaine). Behind these pavilions are further outbuildings, probably for servants, livestock and so forth. The buildings remained in use until relatively recently, being available for rent. Unfortunately they have now fallen into serious disrepair and the lodge’s future does not look encouraging.

Well Oaked


An oak chimneypiece in the former Director’s Office of the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. It is one of ten designed for the building by architect Thomas Manly Deane in 1890 and carved by Carlo Cambi in Siena, much to the chagrin of Irish craftsmen who believed they should have been given this and similar commissions for the National Museum and National Gallery. The chimneypiece, and its companion on the opposite side of the library’s entrance hall in what was originally the Trustees’ Room, are judged to be the library’s two best, both featuring herms with flowing locks supporting an architrave scattered with birds and gryphons, the whole centred on a smiling putto.

 

 

Six of the Best

Milltown Park, County Offaly

Lambay, County Dublin

Castletown, County Kildare

Dublin Castle

Moore Hall, County Mayo

Mount Shannon, County Limerick

Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.

Ascending the Social Ladder

When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.





The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.





Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.

With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)

Well Red


It is now half a century since Castletown, County Kildare opened to the public. Constructed during the 1720s as one of our earliest and still greatest extant country houses, the building might have been lost had it not been for the plucky vision of the Hon Desmond Guinness in purchasing Castletown, and then the sterling work of the Irish Georgian Society in undertaking restoration work so that it could welcome visitors. Since 1994 Castletown has been in state ownership and the Office of Public Works, together with the Castletown Foundation, supports an ongoing programme of further improvements to house and contents.



One of the latest projects undertaken inside Castletown has been the conservation of the Red Drawing Room, part of an enfilade on the northside of the ground floor. The design of this space dates from the second half of the 1760s when much work was being undertaken in the house by Tom and Lady Louisa Conolly but the walls were hung in crimson hand-woven damask probably in the late 1860s/early 1870s. An early decision was made not to replace this much-weathered material but to preserve it in situ, carrying out necessary repairs while leaving evidence of age and wear-and-tear. This work is now complete and the room returned to inspection by visitors who will be able to admire a rehang of pictures and other additions to the decorative scheme, not least new curtains of damask woven to match that on the walls. An essay on the Red Drawing Room’s conservation by Christopher Moore is included in Volume XX of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal which has just been published.

A Master Carver


The glorious interiors of Glasnevin House, Dublin have been shown here before (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) with the focus o the building’s plasterwork. Since then the former entrance hall has been restored and now looks as splendid as the other ground floor rooms. Among the space’s outstanding features now properly revealed is a substantial chimneypiece. Dating from c.1760 it looks to be of stained pine and since the overdoors in other areas of the house are attributed to Dublin master carver John Kelly (in Irish Furniture, the Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007), it seems reasonable to assume this work also came from his hand.