Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.
Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.
An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.
In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.
Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’
The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
‘A lot done, more to do’ was the slogan used by an Irish political party in a general election fifteen years ago. It might also apply to the study of this country’s architectural history about which the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. There are certain areas in which a considerable amount of research has been undertaken, but many others where next to nothing has yet been done. With regard to the latter, investigation into the design and character of ancillary buildings on country estates is a subject that has hitherto not been explored in any depth. Yet these structures – the stable- and farmyards and so forth – were as important to the successful management of an estate as was the large house at its centre. Today there is much interest in what took place beyond the green baize door inside a country house, so that the lives of domestic servants and the quarters they occupied are given increasing notice. However, their outdoor equivalents – those who lived and worked in ancillary buildings – do not seem to attract much attention. Nor do the buildings themselves, even though they were often as well designed, constructed and finished as the big house they were there to sustain. Indeed they are often so sturdy that in instances where the country house has either fallen or been pulled down, the outbuildings remain. Such is the case at Donore, County Westmeath.
For hundreds of years Donore was occupied by a branch of the Nugent family the first of whom, Hugh de Nugent, came to Ireland in the 12th century and received lands in Westmeath. In the fifteenth century one of his descendants, James Nugent, married the heiress Elizabeth Holywood and it appears that through her inheritance the lands of Donore passed to the couple’s heirs. In the 17th century, the Nugents of Donore fought with their Irish compatriots in the Confederate Wars and were duly indicted, yet somehow despite consistently remaining Roman Catholic they managed to retain their property. In fact, by judicious marriages they improved their circumstances. In the 18th century, for example, James Nugent, first baronet, married Catherine King, elder daughter and co-heiress of Robert King of Drewstown, County Meath: that house was discussed here last week. And so it continued into the middle of the last century when, shortly before her death in November 1957 the widowed Aileen, Lady Nugent sold the estate to the Franciscan order which had re-settled nearby on land gifted to the friars by the Nugents. According to the present head of the family, the price paid for this transaction was £20,000. Apparently Lady Nugent had insisted as a condition of the sale that the house would be preserved. However this was not to be. The Franciscans subsequently sold on the greater part of the estate to the Land Commission, Donore was duly condemned, and pulled down. Today a bungalow occupies the site.
There seem to be no photographic records of Donore other than an aerial image of the site, located on rising ground to the south of Lough Derravaragh. However, according to the family it bore striking similarities in design to Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. Now called St Raphael’s and owned by the St John of God religious order, Oakley Park dates from 1724 and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Burgh. Of three storeys over basement, it has a seven-bay façade with a three-bay breakfront centred on the groundfloor doorcase incorporating a segmental pediment. The similarities between this property and Donore are interesting, because the latter is generally considered to have been built at the end of the 18th century, and to have been of little consequence. In his guide to Irish country houses, Mark Bence-Jones summarily dismissed Donore as ‘A plain 3 storey Georgian block,’ and the place does not merit even a mention in Casey and Rowan’s guide to the buildings of North Leinster.
Yet if it dated from the 1720s and shared stylistic traits with Oakley Park, then this would explain the appearance of a once-grand yard still standing to the east. Although now in pitiful condition, it is still possible to see how magnificent this complex must once have been. Employing crisply defined limestone, the southern entrance takes the form of a simplified but rugged triumphal arch, which is then topped by an hexagonal tower at least twice the height of the arch. Inside the yard, the northern side is focused on an equally immense three-bay pedimented breakfront coachhouse, while to the west is another arched entrance, the upper portion of which is occupied by a dovecote. Throughout the complex, the sophistication of both design and execution is remarkable. Bold and confident, its appearance suggests the now-lost house must have possessed the same traits and that, contrary to received wisdom, Donore was built at least half a century earlier than the date of 1790, which is usually given for its construction. If this is the case then its loss, and the lack of a decent photographic record, are all the more tragic. We are nowhere near fully understanding Ireland’s architectural history. A lot done, more to do.
Exactly fifty years ago this month, writing inthe Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin, the late Knight of Glin proposed that Francis Bindon had been responsible for the design of Drewstown, County Meath. Aside from the presence of certain stylistic details, of which more in due course, one of his reasons for this attribution, given in a footnote, was ‘Verbal information from George McVeagh of Dublin whose family owned the house from c.1780-1950.’ The Knight also noted, as have others, that the house was built for a certain Barry Barry: in the 1993 guide to North Leinster written by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, the authors state ‘Little is known of its reputed builder, Barry Barry, who was evidently a man of some sophistication.’
Barry Barry was indeed a man of sophisticated taste, since in due course he would commission work from James Wyatt, but he was not the owner of Drewstown at the time it was built. Barry Barry was born the Hon Barry Maxwell, second son of John Maxwell, first Baron Farnham. In 1757 he married Margaret King whose father Robert owned Drewstown and to which, it appears, she was the co-heiress. But his mother had also been an heiress, her name being Judith Barry of Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), County Wexford. In 1771, when his mother died and presumably for the advantage of an inheritance, Barry Maxwell changed his name to Barry Barry. At that stage it must have seemed unlikely he would inherit the main Maxwell estate in County Cavan. However, in 1778 his elder brother’s only son died, as did the elder brother just a year later. Accordingly the Farnham estate passed to Barry Barry who reverted back to his original surname of Maxwell, and in due course – like his late sibling – he was created Earl of Farnham. Tellingly the Drewstown estate was sold to the McVeagh family the year after he had come into possession of that in Cavan where he asked Wyatt to work on the house. One can see why, until now, confusion has arisen so at least in this respect there is clarification.
To revert to Drewstown, the Knight’s attribution of its design to Francis Bindon is one of a number he made in 1967. Astonishingly these have never since been reconsidered. Bindon’s name has occurred here many times before (as recently as last Saturday), and in regard to such houses as Bessborough, County Kilkenny (In the Borough of Bess, November 25th 2013), New Hall, County Clare (New Blood for New Hall, August 25th 20014), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and St John’s Square, Limerick (When New Becomes Old, March 24th 2014). The Irish Architectural Archive’s Dictionary of Irish Architects features twenty-one entries for Bindon, the majority of them once more relying on the Knight’s attributions. Yet one must wonder whether Bindon was capable of producing as much as has been proposed, given that he was also a portrait painter, a Member of Parliament and a landowner in Counties Limerick and Clare.
We do not know the date of Bindon’s birth but he is recorded as being in Italy in 1716, the year in which his brother Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Cootehill, County Cavan and aunt of the architect Edward Lovett Pearce. As an architect he was an amateur, in the sense that it was not his full-time profession. In his work in this field, he was associated with Pearce and also with Richard Castle, while as a painter he produced portraits of friends such as Jonathan Swift (no less than four such likenesses) and in Dublin was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke (to which all painters belonged) in 1733. Some years later he received an official pension of £100 and was reported to have died ‘suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ in June 1765.
Here is the Knight’s fifty-year old description of Drewstown, with an explanation why he believed the house to have been designed by Bindon: ‘There, in the detailing, we see the usual concern with moulded block architraves, for the ground floor of the seven-bay entrance is composed with them. A later porch makes the front more awkward than needs be, though as a whole the windows are uncomfortably placed. The richly voluted and pilastered central first floor widow with its segmental entablature carries up to a further pilastered and segmcntally capped attic window which in typical Bindon manner breaks through the frieze of the house. A bow window forms the main ornament on the East front which faces the lake in not dissimilar fashion to Castle’s Rochfort, Co. Westmeath. As an exterior it is best viewed from the south-east for here the contrast of bow and breakfront make a not unsatisfying, solidly plump and peaceful image. The front door opens immediately into a galleried panelled hall with a grand staircase at one end. Heavy segmental and triangular pedimented doors lead off into the other rooms, all of which are relatively plain. The plasterwork in the hall is somewhat crude though the Apollo and rays surrounded by trophies over the stairs are pleasingly executed. As an interior feature this galleried hall is an important hallmark for it rarely occurs in houses of this date in Ireland and it seems always to be associated with buildings that are attributable to Francis Bindon…’
Casey and Rowan were, rightly, more harsh in their description of Drewstown’s design, commenting on ‘ill-conceived classical decoration in the central entrance bay’ of the façade, adding that while the quality of the stonework is good, ‘the detailing is ungainly and ill-proportioned, characteristics which are even more in evidence in the interior.’ With regard to the latter, the authors note the entrance hall’s debt to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones at least a century earlier. The space is a large square with the stairs to the rear leading to a gallery that runs around the entire first floor. Whoever was responsible clearly miscalculated the proportions, as the segmental-headed door pediments ‘collide with the room cornice and with the underside of the gallery.’ Furthermore, inside the hall the entrance itself is slightly off-centre leading to an adjacent window being partially concealed by the wall of the adjoining room.
Drewstown is provincial in the best sense of the word, and suggests that someone even more amateur than Bindon came up with its design: perhaps Robert King who would have owned the property in the mid-1740s when it is believed to have been built. Most wonderfully, the entire original double-entrance hall has survived intact (unfortunately the same is not true of other rooms) with all its panelling, staircase and gallery balustrading. As mentioned, around 1780 Barry Maxwell sold the estate to Major Joseph McVeagh who a few years later married Margery Wynch, daughter of a wealthy East Indian ‘Nabob’, Alexander Wynch, Governor of Madras. Their descendants remained at Drewstown until 1952 when the house and sixty-eight acres of land were sold to an American mission agency which first ran an orphanage and then a boarding school on the site. In more recent years Drewstown has operated as a Christian retreat centre.