Highly Idiosyncratic



‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The
 Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.






In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.






Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.


 

Dairy Made

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The dairy at Mount Stewart, County Down. This was built onto the exterior wall of the 18th century for Edith, Lady Londonderry in the 1920s and because of its location has a flat entrance front, unlike the curved wall seen above. The cone-shaped roof was taken from the old Ice House located not far away. The cool interior contains handsome glazed tiles and a marble basin.

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Up and Away

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The oval glazed dome that lights a narrow passage directly behind the dining room in Mount Stewart, County Down. This is one of the clever interventions made to the house when it was enlarged for the third Marquess of Londonderry in the second half of the 1820s by William Vitruvius Morrison.

A Cheeky Welcome

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Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.

Life is Colour

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Through dense planting, a glimpse of the lake at Mount Stewart, County Down. The gardens around the house, created from the mid-1920s onwards by Edith, seventh Marchioness of Londonderry, are justly famous but the attention they attract can mean the rest of the estate receives less attention. This part of the demesne dates from the first half of the 19th century, following the marriage of the third Marquess to the great heiress Frances Anne Vane-Tempest: her wealth allowed the creation of the lake to the north of the house on the site of a former gravel pit, and extensive planting around its borders.

Masking the Obvious

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A window shutter in the library of Mount Stewart, County Down. This is located in what is now the west wing, the section designed by English architect George Dance the younger c.1804. Dance had visited the house in 1795 when he came to Ireland with his supposed lover Lady Elizabeth Pratt, sister of the new Lord Lieutenant Lord Camden. She was also sister-in-law of Mount Stewart’s then-owner Robert Stewart, first Baron Londonderry (later first Marquess of Londonderry) who early in the new century decided to enlarge his property and called upon Dance’s services. However, we know the architect did not come to Ireland again until 1815, instead sending drawings from London which were executed by John Ferguson, the estate carpenter. Note how the shutter’s prosaic function is concealed by being lined with leather bindings in imitation of those books filling the surrounding library shelves, a deft touch on the part of either Dance or Ferguson.

The Wind Beneath My Wings

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A key figure in the emergence of neo-classicism in the 18th century, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart was apprenticed as a child to a London fan painter. In 1742 at the age of 29 he set out on foot for Italy – no Grand Tour for this impoverished young man – and once there worked as both a painter and a guide to antiquities. At some point he met the affluent Suffolk gentleman Nicholas Revett and in 1748 the two men, together with painter Gavin Hamilton and architect Matthew Brettingham visited Naples in order to study Greek monuments in that part of the country.

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As a result of their Neapolitan excursion, Stuart and Revett determined to travel to Greece to measure and record some of that country’s antiquities; while detailed scholarly studies of Roman ruins had already been undertaken, no equivalent work existed for Greek remains. The pair sought funds to undertake a “new and accurate description of the Antiquities &c. in the Province of Attica.” Under the auspices of the Society of Dilettanti and with donations from other patrons, in 1751 Stuart and Revett set off for Greece – then part of the Ottoman Empire – and remained there for several years during which they took accurate measurements and made drawings of various ancient buildings examined.

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Although Stuart and Revett returned to London in 1755, it was only seven years later that the first of their influential five-volume Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece appeared. Among the buildings included in this work was the Tower of the Winds or Horologium in Athens. Erected around 100-50 B.C. by Andronicus of Cyrrhus to measure time, it is an octagonal structure 42 feet high and 26 feet wide; each of the building’s eight sides faces a point of the compass and was decorated with a frieze representing a different wind deity and a sundial below. Originally the roof was topped with a weather vane in the form of a bronze triton while the interior contained a water clock to record time when the sun was not shining. By the mid-18th century only half the tower was above ground and in order to produce accurate drawings Stuart and Revett had to organise for a fifteen-feet deep trench to be dug, and for a further seven feet of debris to be removed from its interior, then being used by whirling dervishes.

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The ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens was the inspiration for two garden buildings designed by Stuart, the first a Temple of the Winds completed in 1765 at Shugborough, Staffordshire and originally surrounded by an ornamental lake. Almost twenty years later Stuart revisited the concept to create another Temple of the Winds, this time at Mount Stewart, County Down for Robert Stewart, future first Marquess of Londonderry. As their surname indicates, the Stewarts were a Scottish settler family; their wealth was immeasurably increased when Robert’s father married Mary Cowan, an heiress with shares in the East India Company. It was her money that paid for the purchase of the Mount Stewart estate overlooking Strangford Lough. The site chosen for Stuart’s Temple of the Winds is at the top of a rise in the parkland, and offers sweeping views across the lough and towards the Mourne Mountains.

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Stuart, who died only a couple of years after the building’s completion, never visited Ireland to see his design put into effect. Nevertheless the quality of workmanship throughout is flawless. Mount Stewart’s Temple of the Winds owes much of its inspiration to the Athens original but is not an exact copy (see the gouache of that building made by Stuart while still in Greece). Faced in local Scrabo sandstone, it does not have a frieze running around the upper walls, and the side porticos are not pedimented but have balustrades or viewing platforms to take advantage of the views. To the rear, as at Shugborough, there is a domed three-quarter-round extension holding a spiral staircase. The interior is of three storeys: a basement for services; a relatively plain ground floor reception room; and, the real glory of the building, a saloon or banqueting hall on the first floor. Every detail of this space is superlatively decorated, from the marble chimneypiece supplied by London carver John Adair through the low relief plasterwork ceiling by Dublin stuccadore William Fitzgerald to the complementarily decorated marquetry floor composed of mahogany, walnut, sycamore, box and bog oak: the result is a room of restrained sumptuosity. In the care of the National Trust for the past half-century, the Temple of the Winds is without question one of the most perfect small buildings in Ireland.

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Within a Budding Grove

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The west front of Mount Stewart, County Down speckled in sunlight last weekend. This was the original entrance to the house designed c.1804 by English architect George Dance the younger. Some thirty years afterwards Mount Stewart was greatly enlarged by William Vitruvius Morrison and Dance’s work relegated to being a mere wing. The elaborate gardens are of a later date, created by Edith, seventh Marchioness of Londonderry between the two world wars (see In Circe’s Circle, November 28th). Now in the care of the National Trust they have recently benefitted from extensive replanting.

In Circe’s Circle

Mount Stewart, County Down formerly belonged to the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry but was given to the National Trust in 1977. However the family retain private quarters in the house including this drawing room which opens onto the gardens created by Edith, 7th Marchioness between the two World Wars. Known as Circe, she can be seen over the chimney piece in a 1913 portrait by Philip de László.