Over 250 years ago a small group of ambitious Irish artists came together in Dublin to establish a new society dedicated to promoting their work. Within a couple of years they had not only organised an annual exhibition but also constructed a domed octagonal chamber in which this could take place. Known as the City Assembly House, it is the oldest extant public art gallery within these islands and very likely in Europe. Restored over recent years by the Irish Georgian Society, from today the space features ‘Exhibiting Art in Georgian Ireland’, a recreation of how the room would have looked when used by the Society of Artists between 1765 and 1780. All the work featured is by exhibitors in those original shows and among the more familiar names are Francis Wheatley, Thomas Roberts, Jonathan Fisher, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Robert Hunter and Samuel Dixon. Running until July 29th, the exhibition is a unique celebration of an earlier and still insufficiently appreciated era in Irish art. Admission is free.
As many readers will be aware, this weekend Ireland marks the centenary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the event deemed to mark the onset of the country’s drive towards independence from its neighbouring isle. The Easter Rising was marked by destruction, not least of human life: there were 485 fatalities, more than half of them hapless civilians who had the misfortune to find themselves caught up in the affair. There was also huge destruction of buildings in the centre of Dublin, most especially around the section of O’Connell Street closest to the river Liffey, since the rebels chose to centre themselves inside the General Post Office. This building, designed by Francis Johnston in 1814, was entirely gutted while another casualty was the Royal Hibernian Academy on adjacent Lower Abbey Street which the architect had not only designed but also funded in 1824.
An exhibition currently running at the Irish Georgian Society premises, 58 South William Street, Dublin unfolds the architectural history of O’Connell Street from its origins as Drogheda Street, through a long period as first Sackville Street, to its more recent incarnation. In many respects the show is unintendedly melancholy, since it forces the visitor to reflect on the thoroughfare’s steady decline from a heyday in the mid-18th century to today’s gimcrack circumstances in which O’Connell Street is predominantly given over to fast-food outlets and slot-machine emporia. Several of the photographs featured are of what was perhaps the finest property on the street known as Drogheda House. Filled with superlative rococo plasterwork, this was originally built in the 1750s for wealthy banker Richard Dawson before being bought in 1771 by Charles Moore, sixth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Drogheda from whence came the building’s name. Sold again after his death in 1822, the house was by the end of the 19th century divided in two, becoming respectively the Hibernian Bible Society and the Dublin United Tramways Company. Drogheda House stood sufficiently high up O’Connell Street to survive the Easter Rising, but this area was then caught up in fighting during the course of the Civil War in 1922: the building was entirely gutted, and later demolished. Over the course of this anniversary weekend, it is worth recalling what was (often unnecessarily) lost, as well as what was won.
‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.
As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).
The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.
In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.
Not necessarily the best photograph to have been shown here, but it gives some idea of an exhibition currently running at 5 Rutland Street, Limerick. The house dates from the 1770s and is one of a terrace that marks both chronologically and literally the onset of the city’s Newtown Pery district. After serving as a butcher’s shop, in recent years the premises – like its neighbours – has stood empty and neglected. However, overseen by conservation architect Cáit ni Cheallachain and historian Dr Ursula Callaghan, and as part of the local Irish Georgian Society chapter’s contribution to Limerick City of Culture leaks have been fixed, an outbreak of dry rot arrested, wallpaper stripped, paintwork cleaned (including all the staircase banisters), and the entire site given a fresh purpose: as a Pop Up Museum exploring aspects of Limerick’s rich cultural heritage from the Georgian era. This is an imaginative and exciting initiative showing what can be done in a building that otherwise risked becoming further prey to vandalism and decay. The Pop Up Museum is open at weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm and runs until the end of this month: pop in while you can.
This page from the Dublin Penny Journal of December 5th 1835 shows the casino at Marino, Dublin completed sixty years earlier to the designs of Sir William Chambers. As discussed here before (see Casino Royale, March 25th 2013) the casino was only one of a number of buildings erected in the grounds of the first Earl of Charlemont’s estate. Close to the casino, for example, stood a tall Gothic tower known as ‘Rosamund’s Bower’ and likely designed by Johann Heinrich Muntz, a Swiss-born painter and architect encouraged by Horace Walpole to move to England where he worked with Chambers. Unfortunately Lord Charlemont’s architectural ambitions exceeded his income, leaving his heirs somewhat impoverished and resulting in the park at Marino soon falling into decay: the Dublin Penny Journal notes that Rosamund’s Bower was already in ruins and strangers seldom visited the place any more.
Ultimately all except the casino was swept away, and at the moment that building plays host to a fascinating exhibition Paradise Lost: Lord Charlemont’s Garden at Marino which is demands to be seen (and is accompanied by a very smart and informative catalogue). Next Tuesday, June 10th the Office of Public Works and the Irish Georgian Society are holding a study day in the latter’s Dublin headquarters on South William Street exploring this long-vanished parkland and its legacy. For booking and more information, please see www.igs.ie/events.
Here is a portrait of Richard Boyle, fourth Earl of Shannon painted by a relatively little-known mid-19th century artist, the Hon Henry Richard Graves. Prior to inheriting his title, Boyle sat in the House of Commons representing County Cork. However, in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act with its attendant increase in the size of the electorate, he lost his seat, one of those returned in his place being Garret Standish Barry, the first Roman Catholic to enter Parliament since the Catholic Relief Act three years earlier.
Once notable landowners in East Cork where they owned the Castlemartyr estate, the Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle dynasty established in Ireland by Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork. Until the fourth Earl’s unseating, they had enjoyed an active association with this country’s politics: the first Lord Shannon Henry Boyle served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for more than two decades before being raised to the peerage in 1756.
The picture above is one of a collection depicting members of the family which from next week will be on show in the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, Dublin. To mark the opening of the exhibition, at 6pm on Tuesday, May 27th I will be holding a public discussion about his forebears with Harry Boyle, tenth Earl of Shannon. This event is free, but advance booking advised. For further information, see: www.igs.ie/events/detail/earls-of-shannon-portraits-launch
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death on May 8th 1989 of Mariga Guinness at the age of only 56. It seems an opportune moment to celebrate her life, especially since an entire generation has since grown up without having had the opportunity to meet Mariga and to benefit in person from her influence.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Marie-Gabrielle von Urach was born in September 1932, the only child of Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder. Her mother’s family were from the Scottish borders, her father’s a junior branch of the royal house of Württemberg in southern Germany; her grandfather was briefly King of Lithuania, a great-aunt Queen of Belgium and a great-grandaunt the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Although her father had been expected to succeed to the principality of Monaco (an extraordinary story in itself), in the aftermath of the First World War this arrangement was abandoned and so he came of age with little money and no prospects. Both Mariga’s parents were artists and in the mid-1930s they and their daughter moved to Japan where Prince Albrecht was attached to the German embassy as a government photographer. However in 1937 Rosemary von Urach decided the Japanese Emperor was being misled into aggression by his generals, and taking Mariga with her somehow gained admission into the imperial palace to offer him advice. Arrested and sedated by security guards, she was sent back to Britain where she had a breakdown followed by a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in a Scottish mental hospital. Meanwhile Mariga’s father continued working for the German government throughout the Second World War and did not see his daughter again until she was sixteen and he had remarried (when they reunited he did not tell her this himself and she only found out indirectly). In the intervening years Mariga had been raised in England by a septuagenarian unmarried friend of her grandmother’s who died in 1951, leaving her charge possessed of little other than great intelligence and beauty. That same year she was introduced to the Hon Desmond Guinness by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein. The couple married in June 1954 and moved to Ireland the following year.
Mariga first visited Ireland (at the invitation of the late Mark Bence-Jones) in 1953. He later remembered that she arrived in a ball dress having gone straight from a dance in London to catch an early flight. ‘The first thing they asked me when I got off the ‘plane was “Have you been on a farm?”’ she said with her unerring sense of the incongruous (there had recently been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England). Afterwards she wrote, ‘Ireland is HEAVEN, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps the Horse Show.’ Of course, after moving here Mariga took the country very seriously, not least in her ceaseless campaigns to preserve its architectural heritage and her founding with Desmond of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
The society was run from the couple’s home at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which they had bought and restored after looking at countless other houses around Ireland. Leixlip represented Mariga’s highly distinctive and influential taste. As architectural historian Mark Girouard has written, ‘In the 1960s Mariga Guinness made Leixlip Castle an unforgettable place: a solid, four-towered mediaeval castle converted in the early 18th century with huge, thick-barred windows and spacious, simple rooms looking down to the Liffey; a massive front door that was never locked; and inside an inspired assembly of mainly Irish 18th-century furniture and pictures, put together and set off with a sense of color and occasion, a mixture of informality and showmanship, to make a setting in which it seemed that anything could happen and anyone might turn up.
One would turn up oneself, pull open the front door and wander into empty rooms with log fires smoldering, until people would, perhaps, begin to appear: millionaires, Irish professors, Anglo-Irish lordlings, pop stars, German princes, architects, priests, art historians, students, all revolving around Mariga, with her drawling voice and mischievous smile, and Desmond, with his charm and blazing blue eyes.
A party might develop or a picnic, or both or neither; intrigues and dramas would get under way, champagne might or might not flow, and the whole charade was given point by the crusade for Irish Georgian architecture, to save or rediscover which forays would be made from the castle all over Ireland.’
Many people can testify, and have done so, to the abiding impact of Mariga’s exceptional taste. Interior designer John Stefanidis has remembered her ‘A wit, a tease, an intelligent and enchanting beauty, gifted with impeccable taste. She had panache…whether in a fur hat and muff, or in fancy dress with a large hat and feather boa, she always looked marvellous. A wonderful hostess, Leixlip Castle was an example on how to live in an historic house – despite it being freezing cold in winter (she longed for central heating).’
It was thrilling to stay there surrounded by marvellous furniture she had found and not an ugly thing in sight. She was the inspiration behind the founding of the Irish Georgian Society – not only did she find houses and restore them but also doggedly charmed her way through bureaucratic red tape in Dublin.’
Likewise in his 1985 book The Inspiration of the Past, architectural historian John Cornforth described Leixlip as ‘the key country house in the British Isles in the late 1950s and 1960s,’ before going on to write that ‘The process of restoring, decorating and furnishing the house was very much a shared enthusiasm, with complementary contributions from two remarkable people; but it always seemed to me that the overall look of the house owed more to Mrs Guinness, who has a rare gift for composing objects and rooms in a stimulating way and combining unlikely, and occasionally uncompromising, objects to create memorable effects…Ultimately it was the feeling for scale in the house and the combination of the Irish pictures and furniture with the simple decoration supported by prints, piles of books and quantities of shells that made it such a complete and convincing Irish country house, very carefully thought out but achieved with such brio and confidence that it seemed natural and not contrived. It managed to be stylish and unfussy; quite grand and yet informal and cut-back; and everywhere there was both a vivid historical air and a sense of fantasy.’ In this context, Cornforth referenced Nancy Lancaster before recalling an observation made by Christopher Gibbs that while Mrs Lancaster’s taste had been ‘patrician’ that of Mariga was ‘princely.’
Although less actively involved with the Irish Georgian Society during the last years of her life, Mariga’s commitment and engagement with the organisation during its early decades was of vital importance. After her death, the late Professor Kevin B Nowlan noted how, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s Mariga Guinness gave a sparkle to the grim struggle to save our heritage of 18th century architecture.’ Indeed, it was her crusading spirit and her exceptional ability to inspire other people that deserve to be forever remembered. As the Knight of Glin commented, ‘She had that vital talent of leading every sort of person into the then often unappreciated world of Irish architecture, decoration, furniture and paintings.’ The society’s membership swelled as a direct result of her passionate advocacy of conservationism; she was a force of persuasive charm impossible to resist. ‘Not a painter, not a writer, not a musician,’ wrote her great friend Maureen Charlton while Mariga was still alive, ‘what she does is to transform life itself into a work of art, to make each passing day a new creation.’
Mariga was always especially good at inspiring the young, who would quickly be beguiled into voluntarily working for the Irish Georgian Society, and in a thoroughly practical way too. During the course of an interview given less than two months before her death, she spoke of the restoration, indeed the salvation of Castletown, County Kildare in 1967 when students were at the top of ladders painting cornices, children scrubbed floors, ‘and even the oldest of the old were able to polish the beautiful door handles and do something to help.’ Mariga too threw herself into activity and led by example, being prepared to climb a ladder with a pot of paint, or wield a banner during a protest against the threatened demolition of an historically important building. A feature in the Irish Independent during this period noted of Mariga that when not in Leixlip ‘dispensing informal hospitality and discussing current such finds as a document-packed sealskin trunk or an ancient set of stocks in a Meath courthouse, she’s paint-stripping or picture hanging at Castletown.’ Although she could sometimes give the impression of being rather vague – she was notorious for introducing even relatively close friends as ‘Mr Thingummy’ – a strong core of practicality ran through her character. And there was a streak of seriousness too. As she told a reporter from the Irish Times shortly before her death, when speaking of the Irish Georgian Society, ‘It was definitely very serious, what we were doing.’
Although we met in passing on a couple of occasions when I was still a student, it was only after she had divorced and I had graduated that Mariga and I came to know each other. By then she had perforce moved out of Leixlip Castle and was living in Tullynisk, the dower house of Birr, County Offaly. It was definitely a house of contrasts, on the one hand a grim little kitchen (out of which surprisingly delicious meals were produced) and on the other the main rooms which were decorated with Mariga’s customary flair and discernment. Despite chaos forever appearing imminent, life at Tullynisk was actually rather well-ordered: overnight guests found their rooms perfectly prepared, logs neatly piled beside the grate (the house was always cold), fresh linen on the beds, and carefully chosen reading matter on an adjacent stand. No matter how late we had all scattered – and it was often very late – the followed morning Mariga would be the first to rise, moving about the house with trays laden for the breakfast table.
At the same time, disorder reigned behind the scenes: Mariga’s unparalleled collection of historical costume, for example, remained heaped in a tempting Everest on one bedroom floor, periodically raided for dressing-up on her instruction during parties. And her wonderful library, although the majority of books were eventually shelved, never had any real order put on it. Meanwhile she continued to drive a battered old Citroen, which periodically refused to move and would sometimes spend months outside the house. I remember Mariga’s bafflement when she was summoned to appear in court in Birr for failing to tax the vehicle, her logic being that since it was immobile no taxation ought to be required.
The truth was that during those final years Mariga was deeply unhappy, the melancholia to which I suspect she had always been vulnerable threatening to overwhelm her. Although she tried to keep herself busy and organised regular house parties and outings – a caravan of cars driving slowly down pot-holed laneways in pursuit of an alleged architectural gem that more often turned out to be an undistinguished farmhouse, its owners baffled by the spectacle of this troupe of eccentric gawkers – she was often alone. At such times she must have felt the world of which she had once been so vital a part had moved on and forgotten her. Of course it hadn’t, and more importantly it still hasn’t. All of us remained heavily indebted to Mariga Guinness and her inspirational leadership. Through her dynamism and commitment, Ireland’s architectural heritage became better known and appreciated, and preserved, than would otherwise have been the case. This week’s anniversary of her untimely death allows us an opportunity once more to pay due acknowledgement to a remarkable woman.
Mariga Guinness, 21st September 1932 – 8th May 1989
Since last October work has been underway restoring the City Assembly House on South William Street, Dublin. This week it will be possible for members of the public to see the results of this enterprise and to (re)discover an important part of the city’s 18th century architectural heritage.
The City Assembly House dates from the second half of the 1760s and was built by and for the Society of Artists of Ireland. It was an idealistic organisation which believed the best means of advancing interest in and awareness of the creative arts in the country was to have a venue where these skills could be taught and the results put on display. Thus the core of the building is a top-lit octagonal space 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. Today this is the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Britain and Ireland.
While the gallery occupies the rear of the City Assembly House, the front section was intended to hold offices for the society as well as rooms where students could learn to draw, paint and sculpt. It is this forward area which has now been restored by the Irish Georgian Society, wishing to give the old building a new lease of life.
The City Assembly House has had a somewhat chequered career, since the society responsible for its erection had gone out of existence by 1780. Thereafter the premises were used for debates, shows, balls, masques and so forth until the building was acquired by Dublin Corporation in the early 1800s. It then acted as City Hall for half a century before becoming a law court and, in more memory, a civic museum. The last of these ceased to operate out of the building a decade ago and since then the City Assembly House has stood empty.
Now the IGS has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for its complete restoration. The first phase was completed a few weeks ago, returning the front of the structure to its original understated elegance. Of particular interest is a top-lit staircase that cleverly climbs up and accommodates landings at different levels to front and rear. The stairs terminate in a handsome oval gallery beneath a glazed dome that provides light down to the ground floor and in particular draws attention to the pretty rococo cornice. Much of this had become indiscernible behind layers of paint and while certain sections required repair, a surprising amount of the original plasterwork has survived intact. Other discoveries included splendid neo-classical decoration in the large first floor room overlooking South William Street, and a granite wall on the ground floor return. Original floors have been cleaned and repaired, chimney pieces reinstated and doors repaired. The result is an absolute delight.
As of last month the City Assembly House is the headquarters of the IGS, but it has always been intended the building should open to the public. And so it will from Wednesday on, with a reception area and bookshop just inside the front door and the main gallery used for temporary exhibitions, beginning with photographs from the Vanishing Ireland project of James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury (until August 31st). Admission is free, so anyone visiting Dublin – or indeed living there – should take this opportunity to delight in one of the city’s lesser-known architectural gems, and to learn more about the work of the IGS. Incidentally, funds permitting it is hoped to begin full restoration of the main exhibition gallery next year.
For more information about the City Assembly House, and the work of the Irish Georgian Society, see www.igs.ie
Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin as depicted in a watercolour by the Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger in 1774. It shows the structure, built around 1583 for Adam Loftus, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Protestant Archbishop of Dublin as a semi-fortified residence, after it had been extensively altered by his descendants in the 18th century.
In state ownership since 1987, today and tomorrow Rathfarnham Castle is the venue for the Period Buildings Show, an event organised by the Irish Georgian Society & South Dublin County Council, in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Ireland’s leading conservation practitioners will demonstrate everything from sash window repairs and stained glass and fanlight conservation to stone carving and traditional wallpaper making. Inside the house will be talks on a variety of topics relating to conservation. The occasion ought not to be missed especially since, mirabile dictu, admission is free.
For further information see: http://www.igs.ie/Programmes/Conservation-Outreach.aspx
At the end of last week Castletown, County Kildare hosted a day-long conference in memory of Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin who died a year ago. It was an occasion for many of us who knew Desmond to gather together and, between listening to scholarly papers, exchange anecdotes and reminiscences about this most memorable man.
Desmond, the Black Knight, the Knight of the Valley, 29th and last Knight of Glin, was born in 1937, only son of fractious, unhappy parents. As noted by Christopher Gibbs, one of his oldest friends, Desmond grew up ‘a handsome, lonely boy in a rather threadbare castle on the Shannon.’ This is Glin, an 18th century Adam-esque house later tricked out in gothic flummery. The Knight’s ancestors never had much money and in his teens the family place was offered for rental, threatened with dereliction and then saved thanks to the generosity of a wealthy Canadian step-father who paid for the roof and walls to be made secure.
After time spent at the University of British Columbia followed by Harvard, Desmond returned to Ireland, living in the early 1960s in the little house tucked to the rear of Leixlip Castle. His landlords were Desmond and Mariga Guinness, from whom he – an eager student – learnt a great deal about Irish art and architecture. This knowledge provided the foundations for his own extensive research into the same subjects, subsequently published in a series of books written with collaborators such as Anne Crookshank and James Peill. Mariga was one of the great influences on Desmond’s life, as she was for many other young men and women, myself included, who crossed her path.
Here is a photograph of Desmond from those early days at Leixlip, with Mariga to the left splendid in a tartan skirt and 18th century military coat. She always had what used to be called good carriage, as well as a splendid profile. Desmond is on the right of the picture, also in costume and looking not unlike a young Cecil Beaton. Next to him can be seen his then-girlfriend Talitha Pol, one of the great beauties of the period; she went on to marry John Paul Getty.
Desmond meanwhile, had moved to London and taken a job at the Victoria & Albert Museum in what was then called the Department of Woodwork. Here he was able to continue his research into Irish decorative arts while also becoming part of a rather smart set that included not just Christopher Gibbs but also the likes of David Mlinaric, Mark Palmer, Jane and Victoria Ormsby-Gore and Nicholas Gormanston. As Christopher commented, Desmond’s scholarly life tended to be hidden from his London friends who remembered him ‘as the wildest of dancers in a chinoiserie jacket.’
In 1966 Desmond married Loulou de la Falaise, then still in her teens but already displaying the flair that would soon make her Yves St Laurent’s muse. Here is the couple in Desmond’s flat on Pont Street which he decorated (with the help of David Mlinaric) with Irish pictures and furniture discovered in London’s antique shops. The distance between Desmond and his wife in this picture, and their respective expressions, indicate all was not well with the marriage and indeed it lasted barely 18 months but they always remained friends and kept in contact, and Loulou was to die just a month after Desmond.
Fortunately within a few years he had met and married Olda Willes and this union proved much happier, producing three beautiful daughters, Catherine, Nesta and Honor, the Sirens of the Shannon. Speaking at the end of last week’s proceedings, Olda observed that in many ways Desmond had been an 18th century man mysteriously transposed into the 20th, ‘as ready to fight a duel as to negotiate a settlement.’
In the mid-1970s Desmond, throughout his life plagued by extreme mood swings, suffered a complete collapse, left the V&A and settled to Ireland where he was soon appointed representative for Christie’s. It was an ideal job, encouraging him to travel throughout the country looking at houses and their contents, work that enhanced his own research. Soon he began producing the books that have done so much to improve Irish scholarship and encourage further investigation into areas hitherto rather neglected. Today so much work is written and published on Irish architecture and decorative arts, one can easily forget that when Desmond began his enquiries this was unexplored territory.
Desmond’s enthusiasm for these topics never waned. Visiting him in hospital about a month before his death, I mentioned a newly published book of essays on Irish houses. A week later I returned to discover he had since ordered, received and read the book. At supper the evening prior to the Castletown gathering, Penny Guinness recalled also visiting Desmond and hearing him say that throughout his life he had been very lucky. So were those of us fortunate to have known him.