A Scene Extremely Picturesque

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As its name indicates, Belle Isle is an island located at the very top of Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Inhabited since the 12th century, it was originally called Ballymacmanus an abode of the MacManus family from which they controlled fishing and trade on the lake. In the 15th century, one of their number Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa, who was not only a chief but also a cleric, was principal compiler of the Annals of Ulster (the original manuscript of which is now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin).
In 1610 Ballymacmanus was part of the estate granted to Paul Gore, a soldier who had come to Ireland some years earlier: in 1622 he was created a baronet. It was his great-grandson Sir Ralph Gore, fourth baronet, who built the core of the present house on the island and renamed the place Belle Isle in recognition of its natural beauty. The latter was much enhanced by his younger son the sixth baronet also called Ralph, who was born on Belle Isle in 1725. For much of his life a soldier, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1788 he became Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. Over the previous decades he had been created Baron Gore, Viscount Belle Isle and finally Earl of Ross. Between his military duties he found time to improve the island, employing Thomas Wright on the design of the grounds, and building a temple, a grotto and a thatched hermitage, described by Jonathan Fisher in his Scenery of Ireland (1795) as being ‘a handsome cottage with a kitchen and other conveniences, in a sweet retired part [of the demesne].’
Arthur Young had likewise been full of praise for the site, writing in August 1776, ‘To Belleisle, the charming seat of the Earl of Ross. It is an island in Loch Earne, of two hundred Irish acres, every part of it hill, dale, and gentle declivities; it has a great deal of wood, much of which is old, and forms both deep shades and open, cheerful groves. The trees hang on the slopes, and consequently show themselves to the best advantage. All this is exceedingly pretty, but it is rendered trebly so by the situation. A reach of the lake passes before the house, which is situated near the banks among some fine woods, which give both beauty and shelter. This sheet of water, which is three miles over, is bounded in front by an island of thick wood, and by a bold circular hill which is his lordship’s deer park; this hill is backed by a considerable mountain. To the right are four or five fine clumps of dark wood – so many islands which rise boldly from the lake; the water breaks in straits between them, and forms a scene extremely picturesque. On the other side the lake stretches behind wood in a strait which forms Belleisle. Lord Ross has made walks round the island, from which there is a considerable variety of prospect. A temple is built on a gentle hill, commanding the view of the wooded islands above-mentioned, but the most pleasing prospect of them is coming out from the grotto. They appear in an uncommon beauty; two seem to join, and the water which flows between takes the appearance of a fine bay, projecting deep into a dark wood: nothing can be more beautiful. The park hill rises above them, and the whole is backed with mountains.’

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John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture of 1825 remarked that Belle Isle was ‘charmingly diversified by hills, dales and gentle declivities, which are richly clothed with old timber through which gravel walks are constructed, and a temple erected, from which a panoramic view is obtained, not only of this but all the other wooded islands of the lough.’  It is interesting to compare these observations with those made in by Jonathan Binns just over a decade later in The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (1837): ‘Belleisle, the property of the Rev. Gray Porter, is situated on the higher lake, and in addition to its beauty, is remarkable as being the first grant made in Ireland after the confiscation. It contains upwards of 300 acres, and was originally the property of a Lord Ross, who from this island took the title of Lord Belleisle. It descended by marriage to Sir H. Hardinge, who sold it to the present proprietor. The house, once famed for its hospitality, is now a ruin.’ An explanation for these circumstances is easily provided. The Earl of Ross had died in 1802, predeceased by his young heir. The estate accordingly passed to his only surviving child, an illegitimate daughter Mary who married Sir Richard Hardinge. The couple had no children and following the death of Lady Hardinge in 1824, and that of her husband two years later, the estate was left to the nephew of Sir Richard, the Rev. Sir Charles Hardinge of Tonbridge, Kent who seems to have had no interest in owning a property in Ireland. Accordingly in 1830, he sold the Belle Isle estate for £68,000 to another cleric, the Rev. John Grey Porter of Kilskeery, County Tyrone whose father had enriched himself while serving for over twenty years as the Anglican bishop of Clogher. Descendants of the Porter family would remain thereafter resident at Belle Isle until 1991.

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While much work had been carried out on the island’s grounds over the previous century, the house bought by the Rev. Porter remained predominantly the modest two-storey lodge built in the early 1700s by the fourth Gore baronet. At some point during the brief Hardinge era a bow-fronted drawing-room had been added to the left-hand end of the original range, and a new staircase added to its rear, lit by an octagonal lantern. John Grey Vesey Porter, who inherited the estate on his father’s death, added the stable courtyard in 1856 and at some date in the 1880s further extended the house and altered its appearance to resemble what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; producing a gabled entrance front with mullioned windows, a projecting porch and a tall church-like, battlemented tower.’ Meanwhile, inside ‘arches were opened up between the staircase hall and the rooms on either side of it…and oak staircase with barley-sugar balusters replaced the original stairs; the walls were panelled in oak or decorated with half-timbering.’ Yet more work was undertaken in the first decade of the last century when the architect Percy Richard Morley Horder was employed to extend the entrance front with a wing in the Tudor style; this holds a long high chamber with timbered roof, elaborate chimneypiece and overmantel, and a minstrels’ gallery, the balustrade of which it has been suggested contains woodwork dating from the late 17th century or early 18th century woodwork and brought from elsewhere. Thus as seen today Belle Isle represents an amalgam of the tastes of some three centuries, harmoniously brought together within its setting. Twenty-five years ago the last of the Porters to live here, Lavinia Baird, sold the estate to the fifth Duke of Abercorn who with his wife has since undertaken an extensive programme of refurbishment to house and grounds alike, with different sections serving as a cookery school or available for weddings, sporting activities, events and self-catering holidays. Today Belle Isle amply lives up to the name bestowed on it by an earlier owner.

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For more information on the estate, see http://belle-isle.com

Preserving the Past

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Bowelk, County Monaghan is one of a number of houses built by the Jackson family, members of which developed the linen industry in this part of the country from the last quarter of the 18th century onwards. The business’s prosperity allowed them to buy land and construct residences such as this one which according to surviving evidence in the house dates from the 1850s. Bowelk has been carefully restored in recent years by new owners keen to preserve features such as the main doorcase with its elliptical fanlight and side lights filled with ornamental leadwork. Not yet restored but still intact is a thunderbox tucked into one corner of the adjacent walled garden, the door of which retains its decorative fretwork.

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A Grand Outpost

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‘From Artramont, I proceeded to the castle of Carrick, by Edmond, the seat of Mr. Bell, Mount Anna, that of Colonel Hudson, and Sanders’-court, the once respectable residence of the late Earl of Arran. When I arrived within view of the splendid arch and lodges, which, on an elevated position above the public road, form a grand outpost to this concern, and through which, though never carried into effect, an approach was meditated by the late Earl, my mind became unexpectedly introduced into a train of reflection on the ruinous consequences to this country, of that absentee system, which since our union with England has become so much the fashion. This splendid portal, with the degraded state of the mansion-house and offices, (now wholly deserted by the proprietor and his family,) and which form a striking contrast to each other, were well calculated to impress this subject upon the mind…I felt my heart impelled by a sentiment of sympathy; a feeling not likely to be obliterated, by the neglected and ruinous aspect of Sanders’-court, no longer the seat of nobility, nor of that munificence and national hospitality of which it was so eminently remarkable.’ From A. Atkinson’s The Irish Tourist (1815).

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Saunderscourt, County Wexford derives its name from Colonel Robert Saunders who came to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell and was apppointed Governor of Kinsale, County Cork. However, he is said to have quarreled with Cromwell and having supported the restoration of Charles II was allowed to keep his grant of 3,700 acres in Wexford. In 1730 the Colonel’s great-granddaughter Jane Saunders, an only child, married Arthur Gore, later first Earl of Arran and thus Saunderscourt passed into the ownership of this family. It was the couple’s son, the second Earl of Arran whose decease (in 1809) was lamented by Atkinson since his heir abandoned the place which soon fell into ruin, as described above. Interest in the estate revived following the succession of the fourth earl in 1837, after which work was undertaken on the demesne by noted landscape gardener James Fraser. However, eventually Saunderscourt was sold c.1860 to an Arthur Giles who undertook restoration work on the main house. Believed to date from the second half of the 18th century, this was a two-storey, seven-bay property described following its refurbishment as being ‘a fine courtly building of considerable extent that displays its rich and handsome façade consisting of a centre and characteristic wings to the south-west.’ Saunderscourt changed hands again before the end of the 19th century and the main house was soon after demolished so that no trace of it remains today.

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What survives at Saunderscourt is the ‘splendid arch’ and adjacent lodges that so moved Atkinson to eloquent reflection in 1815. Tucked down a quiet country road, this building appears to have been constructed during the time of the second Earl of Arran and, as is mentioned, was intended to be the start of a new approach to the house but this never happened. Thus it would seem always to have stood in glorious isolation, a monument to unrealised ambition. Attributed recently to Waterford architect John Roberts (who certainly worked in the area on a number of properties), the entrance, as can be seen, consists of a towering triumphal arch with the same treatment to both front and rear: engaged Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment, while a semicircular arch with moulded architrave is supported on Tuscan piers. This all executed in limestone although the greater part of the structure is of brick. The same material is also used for the single-storey quadrants and lodges. The former, which each have a pair of round-headed niches, are interesting because – like the arch itself – they are identical on either side. The effect is to create concave spaces which acted as yards for the lodges, with their Gibbsian door- and windowcases in limestone. The whole effect is tremendously grand, although somewhat incongruous in its present setting, shared with a series of cow sheds. The Saunderscourt arch has of late benefitted from attention paid to its welfare by the Irish Landmark Trust but that organisation’s limited resources have meant work has not progressed beyond stabilization and certain key repairs, particularly to roofs and drainage. Provided the necessary funds are forthcoming, no doubt further remediation will be undertaken and the property fully restored so that it can begin generating an income (and thereby better secure its future).

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Another Lost Treasure

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Mention was made here last week to Edward Synge, one-time Bishop of Elphin. His immediate predecessor in that diocese was Robert Howard whose eldest son Ralph in the early 1750s made the customary Grand Tour to Italy. While wintering in Rome in 1750-51 the younger Howard (who in due course became Baron Clonmore and then Viscount Wicklow) had his portrait painted by the city’s most fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni. The picture was brought back to Ireland and hung in the Howard’s seat, Shelton Abbey where its presence is recorded in an inventory of the house’s contents conducted by Bennett’s in July 1914: at that date the work was valued at £210.

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Sadly Ralph Howard’s descendant, the eighth Earl of Wicklow was unable to maintain Shelton Abbey and accordingly in October 1950 a great sale of the house’s contents was held, an event so substantial that it lasted almost a fortnight. Among the lots was number 1740, the Batoni portrait, although by then its sitter seems to have been forgotten, since he is simply listed as a ‘gentleman in crimson with fur-edged coat.’ In addition, the work’s value had significantly decreased since 1914, as it only fetched £90. Today it hangs in the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

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I shall be discussing the Shelton Abbey sale, and several others, next Thursday at 7pm in Lismore Castle, County Waterford during the course of a talk called ‘Art in Historic Irish Houses: Its Collection and Dispersal.’ For further information, see: http://www.lismorecastlearts.ie/events

 

Light and Shade

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After political events of the past week, many people across the globe are understandably overwhelmed with feelings of melancholia and premonitions of catastrophe. However the study of history teaches us that our forebears went through worse afflictions – and somehow survived. They faced infinitely more terrible examples of hatred and low conduct, and found the strength to carry on. They did so because, for all its failings and foibles, the human spirit is resilient. So too is the urge, the need to create beauty, even in the midst of turmoil and disorder. The determination of previous generations to overcome adversity, and to find the beautiful in the midst of ugliness can serve as our own inspiration.

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The gardens at Huntington Castle, County Carlow demonstrate how beauty is able to survive across centuries of war and upheaval. The origins of settlement here go back to the Middle Ages when a Franciscan friary was established on the site: a souvenir of that period is the Yew Walk, comprising 120 English yews planted along a stretch of ground 130 yards long and believed to be at least six centuries old. In the 17th century the property passed into the ownership of the Esmondes who in the 1680s laid out much of the rest of what can be seen today, including the parterre and a French lime avenue. Other elements from this period include the stew ponds (for the cultivation of fish that could be eaten) and an ornamental lake, while later work further enhanced the gardens thanks to various specimen trees that continue to thrive. More recent additions include the creation of a rose garden and the planting of thousands of snowdrops.

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The gardens at Huntington remain an ongoing project, tended by the latest generation of the family that first came here almost 400 years ago. Over that period, and well before, this country experienced many instances of upheaval, war, famine and other dreadful afflictions. And yet somehow the gardens at Huntington not only endured but were regularly augmented and improved by their owners. Those owners and the outcome of their labour offer us an example of how, even under the worst circumstances, the human spirit continues to crave beauty. Taken one afternoon in early autumn, today’s photographs show that light and shade naturally co-exist, without the latter ever being able to crush the former. In these dark days, we should remember that. The light still shines through.

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More on Huntington Castle in the coming weeks…

Vastly More Beautifull Than I Expected

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Writing to his daughter Alicia in May 1747, Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, County Roscommon described the new residence he was then building: ‘The Scaffolding is all down, and the House almost pointed, and It’s figure is vastly more beautifull than I expected it would be. Conceited people may censure its plainess. But I don’t wish it any further ornament than it has. As far as I can yet judge, the inside will be very commodious and comfortable.’ He had to wait a further two years to find out whether or not this was the case, but finally in early June 1749 was finally able to advise Alicia, ‘The House is as dry as you could wish. I lay last night as well and as Warm as ever I did in my life, and quite free from the only nuisance I fear’d, the smell of paint and am, I bless God, as well to day, as I was, when I wrote from Palmer’s…’ The design of the Bishop’s Palace at Elphin is attributed to Dublin architect Michael Wills, not least because a ‘Mr Wills’ is frequently mentioned in Synge’s correspondence in relation to the house’s construction. Very much in the Irish Palladian mode, it consisted of a three-storey, east-facing central block, its first-floor Venetian window of the same style and proportions as the main entrance below: quadrants linked this building to wings on either side. Unfortunately the main block was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1911 and subsequently demolished, leaving the quadrants and wings on either side looking rather lost. In recent years, the south wing as been restored as a family residence. However, its match to the north is a ruin with a bungalow built immediately in front, making the site look even more lop-sided.

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This Little St Cloud

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‘I went on Friday last to receive you remainders of rents in the county of Wicklow and lay at Killruddery two nights…Capt. Ed Brabazon has and will make great improvements there, the park for his colts is long time since finished and he is making also a deer park and decoy. The decoy will be the finest in the kingdom or I believe in the 3 kingdoms. The pond is already made and the reed wall is making, round a out which he will built a wall at so great a distance that the fowl shall not be frightened thereat, the south and north ends of which wall shall without and against the other two…a dry wall. Against the south wall without and against the north wall within he will plant fruit of all sorts and will make a treble ditch without the south wall and quickset the fen to the end that the deer may not get to the fruit and that the park may be completed.’
Letter from Oliver Cheyney, agent to the third Earl of Meath, 1682.

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‘Killruddery…being a large house with four flankers and terraces, and a new summer-house built by the said earl…with pleasure garden, cherry garden, kitchen garden, wilderness, gravel walks, and a bowling green, all walled about and well planted with fruit trees, with several canals or fish-ponds, well stored with carp and trench…’
From a report in The Dublin Intelligence, April 1711.

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‘The demesne of Kilruddery [sic] occupies a narrow valley, which separates the mountain termed the Smaller Sugarloaf from the promontory called Bray Head, and is marked by many circumstances of great natural beauty. The grounds are laid out in a manner peculiarly adapted to the character of the present building, and present nearly a unique instance in this country of the old Dutch style of gardening. From the natural grandeur of the surrounding country, the formality of this mode stands revealed with peculiar distinctness. The enclosing mountains rise boldly and at once, with all their brilliancy of purple and brown colouring, above the long avenues of stately elms, the close cut yew hedges, and regular terraces of this little St Cloud.’
From The Beauties of Ireland by James Norris Brewer, 1825.

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