The façade of Slane Castle, County Meath. This dates from c.1785 for William Burton Conyngham who four years earlier had inherited the estate from a childless uncle. In 1773 and 1775 the latter had asked English architect James Wyatt to come up with designs to replace an old house on the site but nothing came of these. Only after Burton Conyngham came into possession of the place were Wyatt’s proposals realised (James Gandon having previously been consulted). Writing in 1820 Francis Johnston (who later worked on the house’s interiors), Wyatt visited Slane in 1785 ‘for that purpose.’ If this is so, it was the only time he actually came to Ireland, despite having many clients here.
Mention has been made recently of George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, and the time he spent with his mistress Lady Conyngham in Slane Castle, County Meath. Here is a view of the ceiling in the castle’s saloon on which – if any horizontal position was assumed during the time spent there – he likely gazed. The history of the building’s construction and decoration is complex, and seems to have involved a number of architects. It has been proposed that an amalgam of Francis Johnston and Thomas Hopper was responsible for the design of the saloon, its historically inaccurate but delightful Gothic dome from c.1813 featuring twenty miniature fan vaults which lie between the same number of ribs all leading to a central boss from which is suspended the single candelabra.
So much attention is paid to country houses, their owners, contents and staff that the importance of auxiliary buildings on an estate can be overlooked. One thinks, for example, of a television series like the ubiquitous Downton Abbey in which all scenes are filmed either within or in close proximity to the main house. Scarcely any notice is paid to the people and properties required to sustain this seemingly contained world. Yet a country house required a vast range of services, and premises in which these could take place, if it were to operate satisfactorily. In this way, the place would resemble a self-sustaining village – and require just as much working space.
Even if we insufficiently appreciate an estate’s outlying buildings today, this was certainly not the case in previous centuries, as can be testified by how well designed and constructed are the majority of farm and stable blocks. Indeed frequently when the main house has fallen down, supposedly secondary complexes remain standing. This is not surprising given their primary purpose was functional rather than decorative. Nevertheless, because these structures were substantial and potentially visible in the landscape, an architect was commonly commissioned for their design. And just as much care had to be taken over their layout as was the case with the main house: an ill-considered scheme could hinder the smooth running of an estate. Externally and internally all had to be fit for purpose. Of course, the problem now for many owners of such properties is finding what that purpose might be. What is to be done after the horses have, so to speak, bolted?
In 1762 James Fitzgerald, first Duke of Leinster wrote to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then living on the outskirts of London, offering him £1,000 to cross the Irish Sea and create a picturesque garden at Carton, County Kildare. The invitation was declined, Brown allegedly replying ‘he had not yet finished England.’ It should not be imagined, however, that as a result of his refusal to make the journey this country missed the opportunity for its parklands to undergo what a contemporary admirer called ‘Brownifications.’ The links between Brown’s English patrons and Ireland were plentiful: one of his earliest supporters, the sixth Earl of Coventry for whom he worked at Croome Court, Worcestershire from 1751 onwards, was married to the beautiful Maria Gunning from County Roscommon. Twenty years after he had started in the gardens of Stowe, Buckinghamshire in 1741 on an annual salary of £25, Brown’s gross income was £6,000 a year, allowing him to send his sons to Eton and later to underwrite the cost of one of them becoming an MP. And he was besieged by requests for his services, hence the inability ever to cross the Irish Sea. Landowners sought Brown not just for the redesign of their parks, but also of their buildings: beginning with Croome he was the architect of several country houses in England. But even more, in his capacity as a landscape designer he frequently produced drawings for the offices and yards which were needed to sustain an estate. And so, although he never saw it in person, one example of such an endeavour can be found in Ireland: the stables at Slane Castle, County Meath.
The lands on which Slane Castle stands have belonged to the same family since 1701 when they were bought by General Henry Conyngham, veteran in the service of William III at the Battle of the Boyne eleven years earlier. Soon afterwards General Conyngham built himself a residence, Conyngham Hall, on the foundations of an older castle formerly belonging to the Flemings. It was his grandson, another Henry Conyngham who, although largely absent from his Irish estates, around 1770 invited Capability Brown to produce a design both for the landscaping of the parkland at Slane, and also for a new stable block. In the collection of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin a drawing survives of Brown’s proposal for the latter. It is not unlike the finished building, but more elaborate than what we see today. For estate buildings Brown often liked to use the Gothick mode which he would likely have first seen at Stowe where James Gibbs’ Gothic Temple was begun around the time he started to work there. So at Slane he proposed, for example, quatrefoil windows above the arched openings on either side of the entrance, a line of gothic corbels beneath the breakfront cornice, and finials on top of the two extreme and centre castellations, not unlike those he designed a decade earlier for the Bath House at Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Minus those additional decorative elements and built of local limestone, the eventual stable block facade is a simplified version of Brown’s proposal but still clearly reflects his engagement with Gothick. Meanwhile the yard behind, for which an unattributed design also exists in the IAA is scrupulously utilitarian both externally and internally, but at the same time highly attractive.
At some date after he had commissioned the stables at Slane, Henry Conyngham asked Brown to come up with a design for the house in order to make it likewise more gothic in spirit. Perhaps this happened around the time he was created Earl of Mount Charles in January 1781, but unfortunately he died two months later (as did Brown two years after) and while a number of drawings exist (also in the IAA’s collection), the proposal was not executed. Conyngham’s nephew and heir, Francis Burton, second Baron Conyngham, subsequently invited James Wyatt to design the exterior of Slane Castle as it is today, and in turn his son (the first Marquess Conyngham) employed Francis Johnston to design the main rooms. Thus the only completed example of Capability Brown’s architectural practice at Slane, and indeed in Ireland, is the stable block. Unfortunately, like many such complexes on estates throughout the country, over the past century this one became increasingly redundant and began falling into disrepair. The good news is that the stables at Slane are about to find a new use: housing a whiskey distillery and visitors’ centre. Restoration work has already begun and the premises are expected to open by 2016. As his nickname suggests, Capability Brown would be delighted to see that a range of buildings he designed to serve one practical purpose have found another, and will thus continue to help keep an estate functioning successfully.