The Theory of Evolution

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Increasing study of country houses, here and elsewhere, has led to better understanding of these properties’ decorative histories. Almost without exception the process has been one of consistent change as successive generations adapt buildings for their own specific needs and uses, and reflect differences in taste. There can be no absolutes, nor notions that a particular style of decoration is ‘right’, only a willingness to respond to the present while respecting the past. Above is a view of the dining room in Borris, County Carlow as it was until recently, and below a view of the same room as it is now. A new wall colour and a re-hang of pictures has brought forth another aspect of the space’s character.

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Hanging On

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In mid-December 1761 outside Lifford Gaol, County Donegal John MacNaghten was hanged not once but twice. A month earlier he had killed a young woman to whom he claimed to be married. More than twenty years earlier MacNaghten had inherited an estate at Benvarden, County Antrim with an annual income of some £600, but his addiction to gambling meant he was obliged to sell or mortgage the greater part of the property. Circumstances improved following marriage to Sophie Daniel, daughter of the Dean of Down who brought with her an impressive dowry. Unfortunately MacNaghten soon resumed his old ways and by 1756 had accumulated such significant debts that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Around this time his wife died in childbirth, leaving him penniless once more. In a further attempt to improve his fortune he managed to be appointed to the lucrative post of tax collector for Coleraine but then gambled away £800 of the state’s money: his estate was now sequestered and by 1760 he was without recourse to funds. An old family friend, Andrew Knox who lived at Prehen, County Derry took pity of MacNaghten and offered him support. Knox had a fifteen-year old daughter Mary Anne who was already in line to inherit £6,000 and possibly much more should her elder brother not have any children. MacNaghten and Mary Anne Knox developed some kind of romantic relationship and even seem to have gone through a form of marriage ceremony before her father discovered what was taking place and forbade further contact between the two. He was in the process of travelling with his daughter to Dublin in November 1761 when their carriage was intercepted by MacNaghten, intent on carrying off the young girl. In an exchange of gunfire, Mary Anne was accidentally and fatally wounded. It did not take long before MacNaghten was arrested, tried at Lifford Courthouse and sentenced to death for her murder. When the day came for him to be hanged, the rope broke and so he had to be strung up a second time. Forever after he has been remembered as Half-Hanged MacNaghten.

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Originally from Scotland, the Knox family settled in Ireland during the 17th century, the first of them to come here being an Anglican clergyman Andrew Knox who in 1610 was appointed Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal. In 1738 his great-grandson, the aforementioned Andrew Knox, father of the unfortunate Mary Anne and long-time MP for Donegal in the Irish Parliament, married Honoria Tomkins, heiress to the Prehen estate. The following decade the couple built themselves a new residence here overlooking the river Foyle and some two miles upstream from the city of Derry. The house’s design is attributed to Michael Priestley, about whom relatively little is known except that he was responsible for a number of buildings in north-west Ulster. Incidentally, among his other commissions was Lifford Courthouse and Gaol, outside which John MacNaghten was twice-hanged: a curious architectural link with Prehen, although probably of little interest to the condemned man. Built of rubble with ashlar dressings, the house has two storeys over basement and is of four bays, the centre two being slightly advanced and featuring a handsome sandstone Gibbsian doorcase and at the top a pediment with the Knox coat of arms. The interior is equally fine for the period, beginning with a substantial flagged entrance hall off which open a series of reception rooms to left and right while symmetrical doors to the rear give access to a main and service stairs respectively. A similar arrangement pertains on the first floor where the central space to the front of the building is taken up by a substantial gallery with coved ceiling.

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The Knoxes remained at Prehen until the outbreak of the First World War when, for reasons that need to be explained, the estate was seized by the British government. Back in the mid-19th century Colonel George Knox married a Swiss girl, Rose Virgine Grimm and in turn one of their daughters Virginia was married to the German scholar and former student of Nietzsche Dr Ludwig von Scheffler of Weimar. Their son, Georg Carl Otto Ludwig von Scheffler became Adjutant to the Commander of the Cadet Corps Governor of the Royal Pages in the Prussian Army and was raised to the rank of baron by the Kaiser. On the death of his maternal grandfather George Knox in 1910, he inherited Prehen and assumed the additional surname of Knox. The Baron stayed at Prehen until August 1914 when war was declared between Britain and Germany. Initially placed under house arrest, he escaped and returned to Germany. In his absence, however, Prehen and its lands were confiscated by the government as enemy property. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the estate was liquidated at public auction under the terms of the 1916 Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act: Baron von Scheffler Knox only returned to see Prehen in the 1950s accompanied by his son, Johann Von Scheffler Prehen Knox who only died five years ago.

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By the early 1970s Prehen was in poor condition. Requisitioned during the Second World War for troop accommodation, the house had been internally subdivided, a secondary door inserted into one of the main entrance’s sidelights, and there were large holes in the roof. On the verge of complete dereliction the property was then bought by Julian Peck and his American-born wife Carola: the couple had previously restored Rathbeale, County Dublin. Julian Peck had a family link with the place, his mother being author Winifred Peck (née Knox), one of a remarkable band of siblings whose other members included Monsignor Ronald Knox, Roman Catholic priest and detective story writer, Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, who worked as a code breaker during both the First and Second World Wars (he was employed at Bletchley Park until his death in 1943), the Church of England clergyman Wilfred Knox, and the poet and editor of Punch Edmund Knox (whose daughter was the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald). The Pecks rescued Prehen, bringing the house back to life and filling it with animation. Several of the rooms have had their walls painted, those in the entrance hall being covered with frescoes by Alec Cobbe. Meanwhile the dining room was decorated by Carola Peck in a style that blends Pompeii with Puvis de Chavannes. Julian Peck lived in the house  until his death in 2001, followed by his wife in 2014. Their surviving son Colin sadly died last August, thereby ending a long connection between the Knoxes and Prehen. However the house survives as a testament to this remarkable family, and to the curious history of Half-Hanged MacNaghten.

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Studying the Classics

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Often overlooked by visitors to Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery is the institution’s remarkable collection of classical sculpture casts. Derived from those in the Vatican, the casts were made on the instructions of Pope Pius VII and under the supervision of Antonio Canova. They were originally presented to Britain’s Prince Regent (the future George IV) but he having no desire for them, the casts languished until William Hare, Lord Ennismore (later first Earl of Listowel), then President of the Cork Society of Arts persuaded the Prince to have the collection shipped to Ireland where they duly arrived in 1818. Initially displayed inside a converted theatre on Patrick Street, the casts subsequently passed into the care of the Cork School of Art and thus came to reside in what is now the Crawford Gallery. Above, the Belvedere Torso can be seen through the form of the Lancellotti Discobolus. The latter also figures below, sighted beyond the Borghese Gladiator and the Apollo Belvedere.

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Opportunity Knocks

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Opportunism and those who practise it are not, as a rule, judged very favorably. Yet there are times when our verdict on opportunists can be inaccurate or imperceptive. Much of Georgian Dublin is a manifestation of opportunism at work: the result of a handful of perspicacious developers – another now-detested term – recognising an opportunity and responding to it. This was certainly the case with the first Luke Gardiner who piecemeal built up landholdings on the northside of the city and there created new streets and terraces to meet growing demand for residential property. Gardiner’s first venture in this arena, and the basis of his future success, was the development from the late 1720s onward of Henrietta Street.

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Luke Gardiner was a man of modest origins, far removed at the start of his professional life from the wealth he would come to enjoy. Much the same could be said of his protégé Nathaniel Clements who, although enjoying somewhat less humble beginnings, was the youngest of five sons and very much expected to make his own way. This he did, like Gardiner, by building houses and then selling them on: the parallels between the past and the present can sometimes be discomfiting. Henrietta Street was also Clements’ first venture into property development, as he took on several sites from Gardiner. One of these was number 4 (originally 5) Henrietta Street which he completed around 1740-41 and sold to George Stone, then Bishop of Ferns. Stone occupied the building but did not finish paying for it, until 1747 when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, in turn, opportunistically moved into a still-grander residence on the street before selling No.4. Its second owner was John Maxwell, MP for County Cavan who nine years later would be created first Lord Farnham. Of Scottish ancestry, Maxwell was the descendant of three generations of clerical opportunists: the Farnham estate in County Cavan had originally been purchased by his grandfather, the Anglican Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. When John Maxwell acquired No.4 Henrietta Street, it came with a plot of land to the immediate east, perhaps serving as a garden. In 1754 Maxwell’s only daughter married another MP, Owen Wynne of Sligo, likewise the descendant of opportunists, although in this instance they had been army men. Around the time of his marriage the plot next to No.4 passed into Wynne’s hands and a house was built here. Today it is No.3 Henrietta Street.

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There are unanswered questions remaining about the history of 3 Henrietta Street, not least who was responsible for its design. The house is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Clements because like its neighbour – which he almost certainly did build – there is a semi-circular bow at the back of the building. On the other hand, by the time of No.3’s construction, Clements had moved on to other projects and, more critically, he and Maxwell were political opponents, so it seems unlikely his assistance would have been sought here. Perhaps when Wynne embarked on the enterprise he decided to copy some features of his father-in-law’s adjacent residence. The interior shows alterations believed to date from 1830. Originally the entrance hall – like other houses on this side of the street – would have been of two storeys with the stairs visibly rising to the first floor. In the 19th century this staircase was taken out and a smaller one inserted, divided by a wall from the front of the house with the new entrance hall made just one storey high. But the first floor reception rooms retain much of their original decoration, the pair to the front of the room having a deep frieze with strapwork and festoons, while below the walls are sectioned by plaster panelling. To the rear at this level is a wonderful room with rococo stuccowork in the coved ceiling which extends into the bow, and gives the space a more intimate character than any of the others possess.

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As already mentioned, in the 19th century 3 Henrietta Street, like almost all other houses in the vicinity, underwent changes both of design and usage. The advent of the King’s Inns at the top of the street, and the gradual departure of private owners in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union meant many of the buildings came to be used as solicitors’ offices: in the decades leading up to his death in 1885 some three-quarters of the street were bought by the lawyer Tristram Kennedy and let to other members of his profession. However, his property portfolio was subsequently acquired by another – altogether less attractive – opportunist, former Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Meade. Seeing a chance to get a good return on his investment, notoriously he converted most of the houses into tenements. The original interior spaces were divided to fit in more rooms for entire families to occupy and valuable items such as chimney pieces were stripped out and sold off. This was the fate of 3 Henrietta Street for a large portion of the last century, and evidence of its decline, as much as of its glory, can still be seen in the building. But the house is now on the market, and awaits a new owner who can offer it a viable future. What will happen next? As has been the case here over the past two and a half centuries, opportunity knocks – and 3 Henrietta Street once more awaits the advent of an opportunist.

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A Vision Realised

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The second half of the 19th century witnessed a frenzy of church building in Ireland. In Cobh, County Cork for example, the construction of a vast new cathedral designed by Edward Pugin and George Ashlin began in 1867. That building, like the majority of others, was commissioned by the Roman Catholic church intent in the aftermath of penal reform to make its mark across the country. By contrast the Anglican Church of Ireland, which until around 1830 had engaged in a similar ferment of church building, primarily (although not exclusively) funded by the Board of First Fruits, was now in retreat. The Irish Church Act of 1869 (it came into force two years later) broke a long-standing link between the Anglican church and the state, and repealed legislation requiring all citizens to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland. As a result, the Church of Ireland’s ability to engage in construction or even restoration of property severely contracted. All the more interesting therefore to see that not far from Cobh and during the same decade as work on its cathedral began a similarly ambitious project was initiated by the Irish Anglican community: the rebuilding of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in the centre of Cork city. The site on which it stands is believed to have been a place of worship since a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and named after the local patron saint Fionnbarr (meaning ‘fair headed’). The city of Cork grew up around this religious settlement and in turn the monastic church became the city’s cathedral. This mediaeval structure was damaged during the Siege of Cork in 1690 and largely replaced in the following century: the most important extant feature of that much earlier building is the Dean’s Gate: now inserted into the southern boundary of the Cathedral grounds’ wall it was originally an archway in the west portico of the bell tower.

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Only a couple of photographs taken shortly before its demolition give an idea of the appearance of Cork’s 18th century cathedral. Other than retaining the ancient tower at the west end, it looks to have been not unlike places of worship erected elsewhere in Ireland during the same era, such as the Anglican cathedrals then built in Cashel, County Tipperary and Waterford city. Commentators today, perhaps dazzled by its successor, tend to be unfairly disparaging about the old St Fin Barre’s since it probably had ample architectural merit, given some of the cultural pedigree of the bishops involved. Richard Caulfield’s Annals of St Fin Barre’s published in 1871 gathered together all source material on the building’s history and reported that in November 1733 ‘Whereas it appears to the Dean and Chapter that the Cathedral is in very bad repair, and in great danger of falling, & that an application be made to the Bishop by the Dean, Archdeacon, and Oeconomus [the bursar], that his Lordship would be pleased to give his advice about pulling down and re-building same Cathedral…and that the Dean, &c., should indemnify the Bishop.’ In September of the following year ‘The Cathedral was ordered to be taken down, the Oeconomus to employ workmen, and the Bishop to be requested to direct such a plan as he may think proper.’ Soon afterwards Robert Clayton was appointed bishop of the diocese and it was during his term, and that of his successor, that the new cathedral was built. Clayton, who would later have troubles over his religious beliefs (at the time of his death in 1758 he was facing charges of heresy having publicly espoused the doctrines of Arianism), was a man of considerable taste: his splendid Dublin townhouse on the south side of St Stephen’s Green was designed for him in the mid-1730s by Richard Castle (it is now part of Iveagh House). One therefore imagines that the cathedral works over which he presided in Cork would have displayed equal taste, even if in this instance we do not know who was the architect responsible. Yet work on the new St Fin Barre’s proceeded slowly, in part due to shortage of funds. In March 1737, for example, it was noted ‘The Dean and Archdeacon to wait on the Bishop to represent the state of the Cathedral, that all their money has been expended, and to seek his Lordship’s advice’ and later that same year, ‘The Dean and Chapter, not having sufficient means to finish the Cathedral, make a lease to John Supple of the great and small tytles of the Oeconomy of the Cathedral, for four years, at a yearly rent of £108 15s.; and as it would greatly retard the finishing of the Church if the Dean and Chapter were to wait till the rents became payable, &c., John Supple has advanced the four years’ rent in the whole sum of £435.’ Ultimately it appears the job had still not been finished by the time Clayton moved on to the diocese of Clogher in 1745, his place being taken by a local cleric, Jemmett Browne. He was likewise interested in architecture, reconfiguring his family house outside the city at Riverstown where the Ticinese sibling stuccodores Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini are credited with decorating the interior. A photograph of the chancel arch of 18th century St Fin Barre’s shows its walls to have been covered in elaborate rococo plasterwork on either side of a large Venetian window and this has been attributed by Joseph McDonnell to the same Lafranchini brothers. All of which suggests that the cathedral must have had a rather fine interior.

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Time passes and tastes change, and the following century it was again resolved to demolish St Fin Barre’s. One suspects that this decision, officially taken in 1862, was due to the arrival that same year of a new bishop, John Gregg, appointed to the position on the recommendation of his admirer and then Lord Lieutenant, the seventh Earl of Carlisle. Evidently keen to leave a mark on his diocese, the strong-minded Gregg declared that the building he had inherited ought to be taken down and replaced with ‘a structure more worthy of the name, Cork Cathedral.’ One suspects the existing St Fin Barre’s was rather too secular in style to suit the Gregg’s brand of evangelical Christianity. Accordingly an international competition was held for an architect to design a new cathedral. This attracted sixty-eight entrants, William Burges being declared the winner, even though – as some of the losers pointed out – his proposal excluded from the prescribed budget of £15,000 the monies needed to build towers, spire and sculpture. The eventual cost would climb to more than £100,000 (on the other hand, reverting back to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Cobh, its original construction budget of £25,000 overran to a final total of £235,000). Moreover Burges declared himself ‘unconcerned’ over any difference between intended and ultimate cost of building his vision. In the future, he informed Bishop Gregg, ‘the elements of time and cost being forgotten, the result only will be looked at. The great questions will then be, first, is this work beautiful and, secondly, have those to whom it was entrusted, done it with all their heart and all their ability.’ These sentiments were not perhaps altogether appreciated by the people of Cork who, in the aftermath of the Church of Ireland’s disestablishment, had to find the funds for St Fin Barre’s. But Burges’ background explains his own indifference to budgetary matters: born in London in 1827, he inherited a fortune from his engineer father and therefore never had to worry about earning a living. After years of travel and working in the offices of both Edward Blore and Matthew Digby Wyatt, he set up his own practice in 1856. Thereafter despite providing designs for various competitions he was aged thirty-five before he finally won his first major commission: St Fin Barre’s. His proposal involved the total demolition of the building then on the site, including the mediaeval west tower, because Burges was an architectural ideologue whose preferred style – Early French Gothic – trumped all others: ‘I was brought up in the thirteenth century belief,’ he once wrote, ‘and in that belief I intend to die.’ No qualms here about clearing away anything that might impede the execution of his vision.

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Both Burges and Bishop Gregg died before work on St Fin Barre’s had been completed, the former in 1881, the latter three years earlier but since he was succeeded in the diocese by his son Robert Gregg, the work continued seamlessly. Thus the cathedral as we see it today is essentially the expression of these two men’s aesthetic and religious beliefs: Burges’ intentions are understood but the importance of Gregg in the development of St Fin Barre’s has been less discussed. It is not difficult to understand why this should be the case, as Burges – who in today’s parlance might be reckoned a control freak – was responsible for the design of every part of the building: nothing was permitted to escape his attention and approval. He drew the designs for all of St Fin Barre’s sculptures inside and out, for the majority of its seventy-four stained glass windows, the mosaic pavement in the chancel, the pulpit, altar and bishop’s throne. An indication of his personal commitment was Burges’ gift of the Resurrection Angel made of copper covered in gold leaf that crowns the sanctuary roof at the east end. Given how elaborate the decorative scheme is, and the increasing demands of his work schedule elsewhere notably with the third Marquess of Bute in Cardiff, no wonder Burges died at the age of 53. Although the cathedral is relatively small (it was intended to hold a congregation of 700 souls, no more than the average for a London parish), it is smothered in embellishment. The exterior is built of Cork limestone, the interior of Bath stone and the walls are lined with red Cork marble. As was the case with mediaeval cathedrals, internally and externally St Fin Barre’s is intended to be ‘read’ by the faithful as the building narrates the story of Christianity. For example, the west rose window illustrates the story of creation according to the book of Genesis, while the windows on either side of the nave feature tales from the Old Testament. Those in the ambulatory deal with the life of Christ. While the cathedral was consecrated in 1870, its decorative work in accordance with Burges’ intentions was only finished in the mid-1930s. In this respect, it bears similarities with the slow construction of such buildings in the Middle Ages, and indeed with that of its 18th century predecessor. Today St Fin Barre’s is rightly admired as one of the finest and most complete expressions of Gothic Revival architecture in these islands. It also represents a final flourish on the part of the Anglican church in Ireland before the onset of a long decline.

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The photograph above is a detail of a half-scale plaster model of a sculpture above the rose window on the inside of St Fin Barre’s. Depicting an architect at work, it is believed to represent William Burges.

Forgotten Virtuosi

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The stuccowork found in Irish houses is rightly renowned for its exceptional combination of vivacity and virtuosity. Yet the attention given to this field of design has focussed primarily on practitioners in the 18th century, with little notice paid to those who came later. It is curious that this should be the case: in the decades between the 1800 Act of Union and the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s several waves of house building occurred across the country, and many of these properties were elaborately decorated. By this date plasterwork was no longer created ‘free-hand’ on site but instead frequently made elsewhere in sections and then installed under supervision. But who were the people who carried out this work? While we often know who was responsible for the architecture, the names of firms and craftsmen who created the interiors seen today seem to be unknown, or at least not to have excited scholarly interest. The three houses featured today demonstrate that more could be done to honour and celebrate these virtuosi who did so much to enhance the properties on which they were employed.

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Although a much older property existed on this site, Borris House, County Carlow was comprehensively redesigned for the McMorrough Kavanaghs in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Richard Morrison (see An Arthurian Legend, November 4th 2013). In terms of decoration, the finest room in the building is the one seen first by visitors: the entrance hall. We believe Morrison was responsible for every element of the design here, ceiling plasterwork, scagliola columns, doorcases and chimney piece. Although the room is almost square it appears to be a circular space due to a radiating ceiling and the carefully proportioned screen of paired columns forming a ring around the perimeter wall. On the ceiling eight beams emanate from a central coffered section to meet florid plaster embellishment that includes festoons of fruit, flowers and leaves resting on masked heads, sheaves of wheat and the crescent moon, and a sequence of immense eagles, their heads thrusting into space beyond outstretched wings. The capitals on top of the columns display equal creativity, as they do not correspond to any of the classical orders but are of Morrison’s own design, incorporating a band of lion heads. The skill involved in carrying out this programme of work is outstanding – but who did Morrison employ to transform his ideas on paper into a three-dimensional reality?

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Emo Court, County Laois has been discussed here on a couple of recent occasions (see Seen in the Round, February 1st last and Of Changes in Taste, March 14th last). Designed in the 1790s by James Gandon, the house’s interiors were only gradually completed over the next seventy years. One of the first spaces to be completed was the dining room, decorated in the early 1830s under the supervision of London architect Lewis Vulliamy. It is likely that Gandon would have proposed a spare, neo-classical scheme here but Vulliamy came up with something altogether more sumptuous, especially on the ceiling which has been divided into a series of sections centred on a rectangle containing a highly elaborate rose (looking more like a chrysanthemum) from which a chandelier would have been suspended. On either side thick bands running the length of the ceiling are filled with ribboned hexagons from which overflow vine leaves and bunches of grapes: this same motif is used again on the perimeter of the ceiling. Meanwhile a pair of demi-lunes immediately above and below the chandelier rose contain an eagle standing on a rippling band of ribbon, its wings stretching beyond crown of oakleaves encircling the bird. Closer again to the edge bare-breasted maidens are flanked by spirals of foliageputti stand on either side of ornamental urns and pairs of doves flutter within floral coronets. Extravagantly absurd and yet executed with such assurance and aplomb somehow the whole scheme comes together. Who deserves the credit for this feat?

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Ballyfin, County Laois (see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014) has been superlatively restored in recent years and now functions as an hotel that sets a standard for all others in this country and beyond. Ballyfin was designed for the Coote family in the early 1820s by Sir Richard Morrison, on this occasion partnered by his son William Vitruvius. The entire house is an exercise in opulent splendour of the kind John Nash was then creating for George IV at Buckingham Palace. Nowhere is this more manifest than the saloon which at either end has screens of green scagliola columns beneath rich Corinthian capitals. These lead the eye up to the coved ceiling over which once more ornament has been incited to run riot. Here panels contain figures of bare-breasted maidens surrounded by scrolled foliage so similar to those found on the dining room ceiling at Emo Court that both must have been executed by the same craftsmen. Likewise in the corners of the saloon ceiling in Ballyfin are pairs of putti, in this instance jointly supporting a lyre. The bordered runs of vine leaves and grapes seen at Emo are here replaced by long garlands of flowers but the spirit and style are consistent between the two houses. The most striking difference can be found on the Ballyfin’s ceiling entablature where snarling lions (or perhaps leopards) face each other separated by a crowned mask. It’s both deft and daft, and above all thrilling to realise craftsmanship of this calibre was available to patrons in 19th century Ireland. Time surely to celebrate the persons responsible, and to ensure their names and contribution to our heritage no longer remain unknown.

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