Inside the walled garden at Powerscourt, County Wicklow: a view of the Bamberg Gate, its upper section of ironwork designed to give the illusion of a lengthy vista beyond. This work of art was originally constructed in Vienna in 1770 and installed in Bamberg Cathedral, Northern Bavaria. Probably in the late 1820s, when all Baroque additions were stripped from the building, the gate was removed and sold: around 1870 Mervyn Wingfield, 7th Viscount Powerscourt bought it from a London dealer and placed it in the present position. On the opposite side of the walled garden is the so-called Chorus Gate, the design supposedly based on a 17th century original (although this has not been found) and likewise purchased in London. Its intricate ironwork features myriad winged seraphim blowing trumpets. Both gates have recently been cleaned and re-gilded.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, an Atlantic Ocean current originating in the Gulf of Mexico, there are portions of Ireland’s south-west coastline that enjoy a more temperate climate than might otherwise be expected. As a result, the area has long attracted garden enthusiasts keen to exploit the opportunities provided. One of those was Belfast-born John Annan Bryce, who having enjoyed a successful business career in Asia, retired to become a Liberal MP and to spend more time in his country of origin. Bryce and his family had already visited this part of County Cork on many occasions when in 1910 he decided to buy a small island called Garnish or Illnacullin (meaning island of holly) off Glengarriff Harbour in Bantry Bay. Until then owned by the British War Office, the island runs to just 37 acres and at the time of its purchase was composed primarily of rock with a Martello Tower erected at the highest point in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Otherwise Ilnacullin had little to recommend it as a site, and certainly bore no resemblance to its appearance today when visitors can easily gain the impression they have somehow stumbled into a garden in Italy.
Bryce’s first task was to make the island capable of supporting plantlife. For three years until the outbreak of the First World War, some 100 workmen were employed to bring over soil from the mainland, as well as to detonate explosives in the rock so that trees could take sufficient root in the cracks created. A large number of Scots and Austrian pines together with wind-resistant Californian conifers were placed around the outer perimeter of the island, thereby creating a shelter for the inner portion where the more formal gardens would be established. Thanks to the protection this dense belt of trees offers camellias, magnolias, azaleas and tree ferns now all flourish in abundance. While Bryce was a highly knowledgeable plantsman, he was not a designer. Therefore he called on the expertise of the English landscape architect Harold Peto who produced a master plan for the island. Not all of Peto’s work was eventually executed: the most notable missing element is a five-storey house meant to have been build adjacent to the Martello Tower (one floor of which was to serve as a music room). Instead the gardener’s cottage was adapted as a residence for the family.
The outstanding aspects of Peto’s design to have been accomplished and still visible are the walled garden and the formal grounds beyond. With stone towers at each corner (one climbs higher than the others to act as a bell tower) the walled garden is entered through a series of gates at mid-point of each wall, those at the top and bottom being more elaborate in design than the other two. That at the lowest point provides access to a wide expanse of lawn at the far end of which is an Italianate pavilion called the Casita, built of Bath stone with oak beams. Loggias on either side lead to the central tea house in which Bryce originally hung his collection of old master drawings. Similarly many pieces of antique sculpture were once generously scattered about the site but many of these had to be sold by the next generation: sufficient remain in situ to give a sense of how it must originally have looked. Meanwhile beyond the Casita lies a sunked garden focussed around a lily pool beyond which steps lead to an open-air gallery where Rosso Antico columns with white marble Ionic capitals frame a view across the bay towards the Caha Mountains. Ilnacullin remained in the ownership of Bryce’s son Roland until his death in 1953 when the island was bequeathed to the Irish state, in the care of which it has remained ever since.
A summer morning at Ballyfin, County Laois. When the house and demesne were restored some years ago, this cascade and pool were added by gardener Jim Reynolds on rising ground immediately behind the main building. In the foreground a river god reclines on a plinth while the vista is closed by a Doric temple designed for the site by architect John O’Connell.
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
Hillsborough Castle, County Down has long been misnamed since there is nothing castle-like about its appearance. The core of the house dates from the 18th century when it was built for the Hill family who were created Marquesses of Downshire. Owners of some 1115,000 acres in Ireland, it was said the Hills could travel from Larne in County Antrim to Blessington, County Wicklow without ever losing sight of their land. At Hillsborough, it appears there was a house on the site by c.1760 but this was enlarged in the mid-1790s for the second marquess to designs of Robert Brettingham. Further additions were made in the late 1820s for the third marquess who employed a local architect, Thomas Duff of Newry. It was at this time that the pedimented portico with four giant Ionic columns was added on the garden facade. This had hitherto been the entrance front, but that was now moved to face the main square of Hillsborough town. Hillsborough Castle remained in the ownership of the Hills until 1922 when sold by the sixth marquess to the British government. The house then served as a residence first for successive governors of Northern Ireland and then for Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. Since 2014 Hillsborough Castle has been managed by Historic Royal Palaces.
Over the past three years, both the house and grounds at Hillsborough have benefitted from considerable, and ongoing, attention. The gardens run to almost 100 acres and originally incorporated the main road to nearby Moira which ran in front of the Ionic portico and followed the line of the Yew Walk. However here as elsewhere the desire for privacy led the family to enclose this part of their land and lay it out for their own pleasure with the development of water features, ornamental bridges, the Doric Lady Alice’s Temple and a rusticated ice house.
When the scheme of improvements was initiated at Hillsborough in 2014, landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin, was appointed to oversee a revitalisation of the gardens. Collaborating with her regular business partner, landscape architect Mark Lutyens, she drew up a master-plan which is being gradually implemented. So far the most notable feature introduced has been the re-working of the terrace outside the drawing room: here a harsh gravel surface has been replaced with reclaimed stone intermingled with diverse planting. Immediately beyond, the Jubilee Parterre has similarly been softened, while thousands of bulbs were planted on either side of the Yew Walk. This is very much a project in progress with much more yet to be done, as is also the case inside the house where extensive refurbishment is likewise underway. The intention is that in the years ahead, Hillsborough will receive in the region of 200,000 visitors, thereby generating revenue that can in turn be used for further developments: an excellent enterprise that merits being emulated elsewhere in Ireland.
The gardens of Lismore Castle, County Waterford photographed last summer during the annual opera festival held here. The upper section of the walled grounds, the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland, was originally laid out in the early decades of the 17th century for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In recent years it has been revitalised by head gardener Darren Topps and his team.
There is no better time to enjoy the gardens of Lismore Castle than in early June, which is when the opera festival takes place and this season’s production – of Donizetti’s enchanting L’Elisir d’Amore – will be perfectly in tune with the mood of these pictures, full of light and colour and sparkle. Very much recommended.
For further information on the Lismore Opera Festival, see: http://www.lismoreoperafestival.com
After political events of the past week, many people across the globe are understandably overwhelmed with feelings of melancholia and premonitions of catastrophe. However the study of history teaches us that our forebears went through worse afflictions – and somehow survived. They faced infinitely more terrible examples of hatred and low conduct, and found the strength to carry on. They did so because, for all its failings and foibles, the human spirit is resilient. So too is the urge, the need to create beauty, even in the midst of turmoil and disorder. The determination of previous generations to overcome adversity, and to find the beautiful in the midst of ugliness can serve as our own inspiration.
The gardens at Huntington Castle, County Carlow demonstrate how beauty is able to survive across centuries of war and upheaval. The origins of settlement here go back to the Middle Ages when a Franciscan friary was established on the site: a souvenir of that period is the Yew Walk, comprising 120 English yews planted along a stretch of ground 130 yards long and believed to be at least six centuries old. In the 17th century the property passed into the ownership of the Esmondes who in the 1680s laid out much of the rest of what can be seen today, including the parterre and a French lime avenue. Other elements from this period include the stew ponds (for the cultivation of fish that could be eaten) and an ornamental lake, while later work further enhanced the gardens thanks to various specimen trees that continue to thrive. More recent additions include the creation of a rose garden and the planting of thousands of snowdrops.
The gardens at Huntington remain an ongoing project, tended by the latest generation of the family that first came here almost 400 years ago. Over that period, and well before, this country experienced many instances of upheaval, war, famine and other dreadful afflictions. And yet somehow the gardens at Huntington not only endured but were regularly augmented and improved by their owners. Those owners and the outcome of their labour offer us an example of how, even under the worst circumstances, the human spirit continues to crave beauty. Taken one afternoon in early autumn, today’s photographs show that light and shade naturally co-exist, without the latter ever being able to crush the former. In these dark days, we should remember that. The light still shines through.