Frank Browne, better known as Fr Browne, was without doubt the finest photographer working in Ireland during the middle decades of the last century. Taking some 42,000 pictures, all of which he carefully catalogued before his death in 1960, he left behind an astonishingly rich record of daily life throughout the country over that period. Even more remarkably, photography began, and remained, an extra-curricular hobby because Frank Browne was first and foremost a Jesuit priest. His activities as a photographer had to be fitted in – and sometimes set aside – as and when was required by his superiors in the order. This makes his achievement in the medium all the more impressive. It is clear that he could have made a comfortable living from his work, but chose not to do so. All financial compensation he received for his work, and during certain busy periods the amounts were substantial, he was not permitted to retain: the money was immediately forwarded to the Provincial Treasurer of the Jesuit order. Among the payments he received were those for a series of images of Ireland’s country houses, commissioned by the Irish Tatler & Sketch. Published monthly, the photographs were accompanied by Browne’s own texts, in which he discussed the building in question and its history. It says a great deal about the man’s character that he managed to gain the trust of so many owners, who allowed him access to their properties, which were then still private and not open to the public. The pictures he took on these occasions are a fantastic but hitherto insufficiently explored resource, since they show interiors of many houses either since lost or radically altered. What’s particularly interesting is to look at how such buildings, still occupied by their original families, were then furnished as it is indicative of decorative taste at the time, often little altered from the 19th century. The pictures also provide viewers with a wistful awareness of what has been lost, usually sold at auction and frequently taken out of the country. Some of these images are included in a newly-published book, Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne, and they are shown here.
Killruddery, County Wicklow is today one of Ireland’s most popular and visited country houses, enjoying the benefits of being located on the edge of Dublin. It has been home to successive generations of the Brabazon family, Earls of Meath, since the early 17th century. The core of the building dates from that period, but heavily encased in a number of later additions, the most substantial being made by father and son architects Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison during the 1820s when they greatly enlarged the house and transformed its exterior to resemble an immense Tudor mansion, further alterations being made some forty years later when William Slater added a Dutch gable and Oriel window to the south front. A decade earlier, the present conservatory was constructed, replacing an earlier one that was part of the Morrisons’ contribution. Browne’s photographs were taken in 1947 when all of this was still in place. But just a few years later, extensive dry rot was discovered in parts of the building and the fourteenth Earl of Meath took the decision that demolition was the only option. Accordingly, in the early 1950s the entire entrance front on the north side was pulled down and the remainder remodelled by Claud Phillimore. At least a third of the house was lost including the double-height entrance hall seen here, along with an equally monumental dining room and other spaces. Browne’s pictures provide an invaluable record of how Killruddery appeared before these revolutionary changes were instigated.
The Howard family came from the village of Shelton in Nottinghamshire, and remembered this when they chose to name their Irish house Shelton Abbey. The original building here is thought to have been constructed for Ralph Howard, first Viscount Wicklow, in the mid-1750s, its design attributed to English architect Matthew Brettingham. In 1819 Howard’s grandson, William-Forward Howard, 4th Earl of Wicklow invited the Morrisons père et fils to remodel the building so that it might resemble ‘an Abbey erected in the fourteenth century, and…formed into a baronial residence shortly after the Reformation’ although the architects complained the result was less perfect than they might have wished since the owner wished to retain as much as possible of the original fabric. Some of the interiors, such as the library and dining room, retained their classical decoration but others, not least the main drawing room, were made over in Tudor Gothic style with wonderful fan vaulted ceilings. During the 1740s the first Ralph Howard had undertaken a Grand Tour during which he was painted by Pompeo Batoni and acquired a number of old master works and antiquities. Subsequent further generations of the family married well and added to Shelton Abbey’s contents so that by the time the eighth, and last, Earl of Wicklow inherited the place it was filled with treasures. Unfortunately, his bank balance was less well stocked and in 1947 he decided to open his home as an hotel. Just before this happened, Browne was invited to photograph the building, the first such job he undertook for Irish Tatler & Sketch. His pictures therefore show Shelton Abbey when still a private property. Sadly, the earl’s scheme was not a success – it was perhaps too early for the allure of a country house hotel to be appreciated – and in 1950 he made the decision to sell the estate. A sale of the contents duly followed and took an astonishing 13 days, an indication of how impressive they were, with dealers coming from England and the United States to snatch up many bargains. Today Shelton Abbey is an open prison and its interiors, bereft of their former contents, have suffered from indifferent maintenance. This gives Browne’s pictures a particular poignancy, not least one showing Mr Virtue, the house’s long-serving butler, looking apprehensively out the front door as he awaits the arrival of paying guests.
Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne is published by Messenger Publications (www.messenger.ie) and now available in all good bookshops.