Et in Arcadia…


Closing the fifteenth annual Historic Houses Conference at Dublin Castle last week, Professor Christopher Ridgway urged the importance of ‘moving the narrative beyond the litany of loss and destruction.’ This site might sometimes seem to deal only in the latter currency, to offer a ceaseless round of bad news, of historic properties fallen into disrepair, of estates permitted to slide into ruin. On occasion however, a more cheerful story can be told, one that has nothing to do with loss and destruction. Such is the case this week at Oakfield, County Donegal.




Oakfield is of interest for many reasons, not least its links to one of the loveliest estates in England: Rousham, Oxfordshire. The main house at Oakfield, built in 1739 at a cost of £1,680, was commissioned by William Cotterell, then-Dean of Raphoe. Cotterell was a younger son of Sir Charles Lodowick Cotterell who, like his father before him (and several generations of the same family thereafter) held the court position of Master of Ceremonies. In 1741 Dean Cotterell’s brother, Sir Clement Cotterell who performed the same role in the royal household, inherited the Rousham estate from a cousin. William Kent had already been working on the gardens at Rousham but now also undertook improvements to the house. Clearly the Cotterell brothers were men of taste and this can also be seen at Oakfield even if Kent did not work there. In fact the house’s elevations are stylistically somewhat anachronistic and seem to harp back to the late 17th century. Nevertheless, tit is a handsome building in an admirably chosen setting: on a bluff offering views across to Croaghan Hill some five miles away. 




Oakfield remained in use as a deanery until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 when it was sold to Thomas Butler Stoney, another younger son (this time of James Stoney of Rossyvera, County Mayo). A Captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, Stoney also occupied all the other positions expected of someone in his position: County High Sheriff, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Justice of the Peace. Following his death in 1912 Oakfield was inherited by his only son, Cecil Robert Vesey Stoney, a keen ornithologist who eventually moved to England in the early 1930s. The house and surrounding lands thereafter passed through several hands before being bought twenty-one years ago by businessman Gerry Robinson who together with his wife Heather has since undertaken an extensive restoration of the property. 




Over the past two decades, not only have the Robinsons restored the residence at the centre of Oakfield, but they have created a 100-acre parkland around it. Some of this is based in the old walled gardens immediately adjacent to the house but the rest is spread over two areas bisected by a road. This division applies also to the spirit of the two sections, the upper garden having a more classical aspect thanks to elements such as a Nymphaeum on one side of the lake. The lower garden’s principal architectural feature is a newly-created castellated tower house overlooking another stretch of water. Between this pair of substantial structures are other, smaller buildings to engage a visitor’s interest. Oakfield is an admirable demonstration of what imaginative vision allied with sound taste can achieve. Walking around the grounds, it is hard to believe this is County Donegal. But that is what sets Oakfield apart: like Rousham on the other side of the Irish Sea, once inside the gates one is temporarily transported to Arcadia.


For more on Oakfield, see: http://www.oakfieldpark.com

At the End of the Day


Evening Light at Drummin, County Kildare. The core of the house dates from the mid-18th century when it was built by the Rev. William Grattan. At that time the west facade, seen here, was the entrance front, the door being located where the arched window is now in the middle of the breakfront. At some point in the 19th century, lower wings were added on either side that to the left (north) side becoming the new entrance.

Hardly At All Altered



Galtrim, County Meath was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as being ‘a handsome residence in a well-planted demesne.’ By this date the building was some 35 years in existence, having been constructed c.1802 for the Rev. Thomas Vesey Dawson who was then the local rector.  He was a member of the Dawson family, later Earls of Dartrey, who were responsible for developing the Dawson’s Grove estate in County Monaghan (for more on the Dawsons, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, 15th September 2014). Clearly the Rev. Vesey Dawson inherited an interest in architecture, since he invited Francis Johnston to design Gatrim. But there was an additional reason for the commission: during the previous decade Johnston had been employed by Blayney Townley Balfour on the design of Townley Hall, County Louth. The Rev Vesey Dawson’s wife Anne Maria was Townley Balfour’s sister (not his daughter, as is often stated) and was in her own right a talented architectural amateur who is believed to have had an input into Townley Hall (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, 10th June 2013) . And in 1806 Johnston would be hired by the Vesey Dawson’s to make alterations and additions to another of their properties, Loughgilly House (now derelict). Thus Galtrim is likely as much to reflect the taste of Mrs Vesey Dawson as her husband.




In Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig described Galtrim as ‘probably the best of Francis Johnston’s smaller houses’ and drew attention to features of its design shared with a couple of other properties, Kilcarty close by in County Meath (by Thomas Ivory and from the 1770s) and Emsworth, County Dublin (by James Gandon, in the mid-1790s). Galtrim is a late-Palladian villa, with a central block of two storeys over basement and single storey wings. The four-bay entrance front is focussed on the tripartite Doric frame that incorporates both door and hall windows. The outer windows of the main block and those in the wings are set within shallow relieving arches. Meanwhile the dominant feature of the garden front is the generous central bow of the drawing room: Casey and Rowan suggest this was originally intended to be thatched ‘to give the house the picturesque cottage orne effect then in vogue during the Regency period. It is flanked by substantial tripartite windows lighting the dining room and morning room respectively. The bow theme is echoed by various features internally, in both the aforementioned morning room and in the staircase hall, and at the east side of the entrance hall. Rightly Casey and Rowan call the result both simple and sophisticated: ‘a meeting of vernacular farmhouse classicism with the suave neo-classicism associated with James Gandon. When Craig wrote of Galtrim in 1976 he noted that the house had been ‘hardly at all altered.’ By then it was occupied by the late Eileen, Countess of Mount Charles who lived there until shortly before her death last November and throughout this period took exemplary care of the place. Now the house is on the market. Time to pray that whoever buys it will respect the building’s distinguished architectural pedigree and ensure that Galtrim continues to be hardly at all altered.’


Imperilled


A scrolled pediment over the main entrance to Millbrook, County Laois carries the date 1885, the year this house was built as a residence for the agent of the de Vesci estate. Its architect was William Chambers (no relation of the 18th century architect of the same name), who just four years later would design Britain’s first purpose-built mosque in Woking, Surrey. Broken windows, lost slates and encroaching vegetation all indicate that Millbrook is now in an imperilled condition.

A View to Die For


The memorial shown here is situated
on rising ground at Brittas, County Meath and is inscribed as follows:Beneath this Monument Are interred the remains of Thomas BLIGH, Lieutenant General of his Majesty’s  forces. General of horse at the battles of Dettinggen, Val, Fontenoy and Melle. And the commander in chief of British Troops at Cherburg, Who after spending many years In the service of his country with unwearied application Retired to a private life Therein to prepare his old age For a change to a better state And to enjoy with unspeakable comfort The hopes of a happy immortality. Born A.D. 1695 Died Aug. the 17th, 1775 Aged 80 years.’ To one side of the monument are planted a series of trees ranked in the same formation as were the general’s troops during one of his campaigns. To the other the land drops away to offer a view of the house where he retired to enjoy the aforementioned private life and to prepare for ‘a happy immortality.’

Unravelling the Mysteries


Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.





Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.





An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen  (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18
th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.





In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.

Laid Out with Great Taste


Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’