Pagan and Christian

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Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.

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The Speaker and His Wife

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In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.

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Squandered Opportunities 


As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere. 

Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013):  its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.

Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass. 

Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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Waiting in the Wings

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When it comes to country houses, architectural historians and conservationists often, and understandably, focus their attention on the main property. But it is usually only one part of a larger conglomerate of buildings, all of which interact with each other and are also worthy of study – and preservation. Here are the two stable blocks at Bantry House, County Cork, added to the estate by Richard White, Viscount Berehaven (later second Earl of Bantry) around 1845 and very much intended to be seen as part of the site’s architectural ensemble. Distinguished by their copper-domed cupolas, from sufficient distance the pair appear to serve as free-standing wings to the house between them. While one has found alternative use in recent years, the other sadly awaits attention (and thus for the present is best seen from the aforementioned distance).

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A Central Idea Beautifully Phrased

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A few miles off the coast of north Dublin lies Lambay Island, extending to almost 600 acres and at its highest point rising some 416 feet. In 1904 the island was bought for £5,250 by Cecil Baring, later third Lord Revelstoke, a scion of the English banking family. As is well known, some years earlier Baring had created a stir in Anglo-American society by eloping with Maude Lorillard (whose father created Tuxedo Park in upstate New York) then wife of a business partner. Under these circumstances, it is understandable the couple welcomed a retreat on Lambay, although conditions when they first arrived there were primitive. The main accommodation consisted of a small stone blockhouse likely built in the fifteenth century to deter pirates but by the early 1900s occupied by lifestock. Bad storms in the year immediately previous had devastated the surrounding woodland, making the building even more inhospitable. Accordingly in 1905 the Barings commissioned the architect Edwin Lutyens to overhaul and extend the entire site. The original block is constructed from an indigenous blue-green porphyry flecked with feldspar crystals: this was retained for the newer sections but cut limestone used for window and door cases. Lutyens’ additions are wonderfully sensitive, respectful of what was already there, gracefully understated yet still able to make a powerful impression. The old building was extended and a new, larger wing added but set into rising ground so that it does not overwhelm: as though to maintain their separate origins, the two sections are linked internally only by a ground-level passage.

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Lambay’s quay lies on the western side of the island, close to which are a line of cottages and another, larger residence known as the White House, as well as an open air tennis court and, further away, a small chapel. Access to the main house, Lambay Castle is reached after a short walk across a meadow. One then reaches a pair of oak gates set into a stone encircling rampart. There was always some kind of defensive wall here, but Lutyens raised its height to create a battlemented walkway around which one can perambulate. The ramparts also provide shelter against the elements, necessary in such an exposed site, and they have allowed trees and vegetation to flourish within the enclosure more successfully than would probably otherwise have been the case. Within the walls and to the left is a large altar-tomb, again designed by Lutyens and erected by Cecil Baring to the memory of his wife following her early death in 1922. The other side of this section of the enclosed garden is mostly a plantation of trees serving as a further protective belt against high winds. This means that behind the main house there can be spacious lawns and, to the south, a walled kitchen garden.

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East of the old house Lutyens not only added additional accommodation but also a series of service and farm buildings. Lying immediately adjacent to the property, these might be intrusive but their impact has, once more, been softened by clever landscaping. Here the architect worked with his frequent collaborator, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Together they devised a series of compartmentalised spaces beginning with a courtyard, once more accessed via a pair of oak gates, that leads up to the front of the old building.  A stone path runs through the lawn and is in turn bisected by a narrow water course with small pools at either end. To one side another gateway opens into a further courtyard with views of the extension unobtrusively tucked behind terraced beds and flights of stone steps. So it goes on, with one space gracefully giving way to the next, none especially large, all complementing what has gone before, and what will come after. The planting in each case is slightly different but the entirety conforms to an observation made by Lutyens at the time that, ‘a garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased. Every wall, path, stone and flower should have its relationship to the central idea.’ More than a century after its creation, Lambay Island retains the same beautiful phrase, as clear and as welcome as when first uttered.

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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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