Take Three

Door 2
This week the Irish Aesthete celebrates its third birthday. When first posting in September 2012, I had no idea that the project would develop as it has since done, nor that it would attract such a loyal following (and certainly not that I would still be doing this now). A sincere thanks to everyone who has been reading these pages over the intervening period, and for your support and encouragement which – as any writer can confirm – make such a difference. Your own contributions and comments continue to be most welcome although a courteous tone is necessary if you wish for a response.
Over the past three years many posts have been gloomy or dispiriting in character, reflecting the problems faced by Ireland’s architectural heritage, and its want of sufficient support from public and private quarters alike. But given today’s occasion demands a more celebratory spirit, here is a trio of historic houses which have been featured before, all of them restored and brought back to vibrant life thanks to the imagination and passion of their respective owners.

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Rokeby Hall, County Louth which first featured here in February 2013 (Building on a Prelate’s Ambition) was built in the 1780s as a country retreat for then-Archbishop of Armagh Richard Robinson. As his architect Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston: born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. The house’s severe limestone façade hides a more inviting interior, of three storeys over basement, since Rokeby contains a particularly generous attic concealed behind the parapet, centred on a circular room lit by glazed dome. A similar circular landing on the first floor provides access to the main bedrooms.
Descendants of the Robinson family remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation, of Rokeby until the middle of the last century. Thereafter the property passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen. Over the past twenty years, a process of reclamation has taken place, driven by the correct balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. Most recently the present owners have impeccably restored Rokeby’s mid-19th century conservatory.

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The County Cork farmhouse shown above was discussed here in May 2014 (A Dash of Panache). when I noted that far too many such buildings in Ireland are abandoned to the elements ‘for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose.’ This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Indeed, one has only to venture into the countryside to see bungalows considered the ne plus ultra of modernity a few decades ago now drifting into a ruinous condition. More regrettably the same fate befalls far too many of Ireland’s handsome old farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness could be given fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate: mouldering into dereliction.
That looked the only prospect for this property until it was taken on by the present owner and brought back to life after a half-century of being left unoccupied. A low-key and sympathetic approach was adopted to the rescue programme. The old kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building, as does the large glazed space that now runs along the ground floor. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the artwork was acquired in the same way or came via friends. The result serves as a model of how to transform an apparently unsalvageable old farmhouse into a comfortable and smart private residence

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The double-height entrance hall of Gloster, County Offaly featured here last month (Spectacle as Drama) but the rest of this house merits equal attention. Gloster is believed to date from the third decade of the 18th century and to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, a cousin of then-owner Trevor Lloyd. The original two-storey building was of nine bays but two further bays were later added on either side making the facade exceptionally long. A series of terraces in front offer views to a lake and then mountains beyond, while another vista is closed by an arch flanked by obelisks. The sense of baroque theatre evident in Gloster’s siting continues indoors, and not just thanks to its spectacular entrance hall. To left and right run further rooms providing a wonderful enfilade rarely found in Ireland. These reflect changes in taste after the house was first constructed. The cornicing in the sitting room above, for example, is evidently from later in the 18th century as is the chimney piece but there is no sense of disharmony anywhere and diverse stylistic elements comfortably co-exist.
Gloster remained in the ownership of the Lloyds until 1958 when it was sold to the Salesian order of nuns who opened a convalescent home in the house and built a large school to the rear. When I first visited in the early 1980s the nuns were still in occupation but it was already evident that they were struggling to maintain the property. Indeed in 1990 they closed down operations and Gloster’s future looked uncertain, especially since it changed hands on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the present owners bought the place in 2001 and since then they have worked tirelessly and splendidly to turn around Gloster’s prospects. Inevitably, given the scale of the undertaking, this remains a work in progress. But already an enormous and admirable programme of restoration and refurbishment has been undertaken. Gloser demonstrates what can be done, even on limited means, provided the task is accompanied by sufficient courage and verve.

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My thanks again to all readers and followers of the Irish Aesthete for your ongoing support. Please encourage more people to become interested and engaged in Ireland’s architectural heritage. You can also discover me on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete), Twitter (@IrishAesthete), Pinterest (irishaesthete) and Instagram (The.Irish.Aesthete).

Building on a Prelate’s Ambition

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In 1751 an impoverished but well-connected Anglican clergyman came to Ireland and within a year had been consecrated as Bishop of Killala. Over the next decade he advanced through two further sees before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1765. Richard Robinson (1709-94) was the sixth son of a Yorkshire landowner and as such it was inevitable that after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford he should have considered the Church as a lucrative career. Few of his clerical contemporaries, however, acquired so much or spent so lavishly.
He arrived in Dublin as chaplain to the then-Lord Lieutenant, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset, whose support helped secure that first episcopacy. But it is clear that Robinson was always destined to make a mark. After his death it was said that during his time there Armagh had been converted ‘from an unsightly crowd of mud cabins into a handsome city of stone dwellings.’ Among the buildings for which he was responsible are the public library, the Royal School, the barracks, a county gaol, the public infirmary and, most famously, in 1793 the Armagh Observatory for which he created an endowment. Long before that date, finding the Archbishop’s residence unsatisfactory, he had a new one built for him on a 300 acre demesne, together with stables, farmyard and a chapel. No wonder Methodism’s founder John Wesley accused him of being more interested in building that in the care of souls.

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Robinson behaved like a continental prince-bishop. In his memoirs the playwright Richard Cumberland, whose father was Bishop of Clonfert, recalled accompanying the Archbishop to Armagh Cathedral one Sunday: ‘He went in his chariot with six horses, attended by three footmen behind… On our approach the great western door was thrown open, and my friend (in person one of the finest men that could be seen) entered, like another Archbishop Laud, in high prelatical state, preceded by his officers and ministers of the church conducting him in files to the robing-chamber and back again to the throne.’
Robinson’s lofty aspirations – the reliably-waspish Horace Walpole judged him ‘a proud but superficial man’ – led him to seek secular as well as religious preferment and in 1777 he was created Baron Rokeby in the Irish peerage. Some years later he acquired an estate in Marlay, County Louth and here built a house which was given the name Rokeby Hall (www.rokeby.ie). By so doing he evoked the Robinson family’s Yorkshire seat which his older brother Sir Thomas, an amateur architect but professional spendthrift, had been obliged to sell in 1769. So the new Rokeby in Ireland was intended not just to serve as a country retreat but also to replace a lost estate and provide an alternative dynastic base: although the Archbishop never married, there were several potential heirs among his siblings’ offspring.

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As his architect for the house, Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. Nevertheless, although the younger architect oversaw Rokeby’s construction surviving plans show just how much its layout is as originally devised by Cooley.
Rokeby’s limestone exterior looks somewhat severe, the facade relieved only by the slightly advanced three centre bays with first-floor Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. To the immediate right and reticently recessed is a long extension which might appear to be a later addition but is in fact contemporaneous with the main house and originally contained many of the necessary services such as a large kitchen. The main house is often described as being two-storey over basement. However there is a splendid attic storey tucked behind the parapet and centred on a striking circular room lit by glazed dome; as a result of an acoustic trick when you stand directly beneath this your sense of hearing is affected.

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While obviously not a small house, Rokeby is by no means palatial and the appeal of its interiors lies in their neo-classical refinement devoid of superfluous ornamentation. This is evident in the entrance hall where the space is simply but effectively divided by the intervention of two Doric columns. There is relatively little plasterwork decoration, except on the main staircase and the upper landing. The latter is one of the finest features of the house: a circular lobby off which open various bedrooms and dressing rooms, every second door topped by an oculus providing light for this space.
These rooms look to have retained their original chimneypieces, sadly not the case on the groundfloor. On his death Archbishop Robinson left Rokeby to a nephew, John Robinson, Archdeacon of Armagh (created a baronet in 1819) but he fled Ireland after his father-in-law, Captain James Spencer of Rathangan House, County Kildare, was killed by rebels during the 1798 Rising. Rokeby was then rented to a sequence of tenants; James Brewer’s The Beauties of Ireland published in 1826 noted that the house ‘is now, we believe, in the hands of a farmer, and the chief apartments are let furnished to casual inmates.’ Only some time after Archdeacon Robinson’s death in England in 1832 did his son Sir Richard return to Rokeby and presumably embark on a programme of refurbishment necessary after almost half a century of neglect. Hence the chimneypieces in the main rooms are of a later date as are some doors, evident in the different disposition of their panelling.

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Descendants of the Robinsons remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation of Rokeby until the middle of the last century, after which the house passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen.
Over the past eighteen years, a process of gradual restoration has taken place at Rokeby, driven by just the right balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. At the moment, the owners are undertaking the restoration of Rokeby’s most notable 19th century addition: a substantial conservatory designed c.1870 by Richard Turner. This is due to be reinstated later in the spring. One feels confident that even if members of his family are no longer in residence, Archbishop Robinson would be delighted to see the country house he commissioned so well maintained and loved.

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A mezzotint produced in 1764 by Richard Houston and based on a portrait of Richard Robinson painted by Joshua Reynolds the previous year and now in Christ Church, Oxford. Reynolds painted Robinson three times and a version of the last of these hung in Rokeby until the last century. Today it is in the collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham.

Take a Seat

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An Irish mahogany chair in the entrance hall of Rokeby, County Louth. The house was built for Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, initially to the designs of Thomas Cooley (1740-1784) and then, following the architect’s early death, the job was taken over by Francis Johnston (1760-1829). This handsome chair is one of a set believed to date from the end of the 18th century and attributed to Mack Williams and Gibton. However, since that business was only established around 1812, the chairs could be earlier, made perhaps when John Mack was still working by himself (until 1801). They all bear a peer’s coronet so certainly belong to some date after Archbishop Robinson was created first Baron Rokeby in 1777. Perhaps the commission for them came from his third-cousin Matthew Robinson-Morris who succeeded to the title in 1794?
More on Rokeby soon.