Writing about Summergrove, County Laois almost half a century ago (Irish Georgian Society Bulletin XVI, October 1973), the late Maurice Craig declared, ‘Of all the houses which are neither ‘big houses’ nor farmhouses, Summer Grove has always seemed to me one of the most attractive, nor has a wider acquaintance with its rivals caused me to modify that opinion.’ While he admitted that ‘the elements of the facade: gibbsian doorway with side lights, venetian window, diocletian window, platband, stone cornice, hipped roof and symmetrical chimneys, are common to a great many mid-eighteenth century houses of about this size, as is the pediment over the breakfront in the centre,’ nevertheless, Maurice was seduced by the building’s irresistible charm. In part, he explained, this derives from ‘the mildly archaic flavour of its rather steep roof with its barely perceptible sprocketing, the interior decoration suggests a date some time around 1760 or even a little later. The Venetian and Diocletian windows go on so long in the provinces that they provide no reliable indication of dates. From the massive triple keystone of the front door projects an elaborate and splendid wrought-iron lamp-bracket, such as would be noteworthy even in Dublin, but in the country is of the very highest rarity. Before leaving the facade we should note the unusually small stones of which it is built, which from a distance seem hardly larger than bricks, and very nearly as regular.’ Thereafter, Maurice noted in his Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976), ‘the main interest in Summer Grove lies in the ingenuity of the planning. In the back half of the house three storeys are fitted into the same height as two on the entrance-front. It is surprising that this method of ‘mezzanine’ planning was not more widely used in country houses, since it results in a small number of high-ceilinged rooms and a rather larger number of low-ceilinged ones, a most desirable result not so easily achieved by conventional planning.’ Among the rere elevation’s most distinctive features are the pair of Venetian windows, one at either end of the top floor.
A date stone discovered some 20 years ago suggests that Summergrove was finished in 1766 but work on the house probably started much earlier. The original owner was one Thomas Sabatier whose Huguenot forebear – likely grandfather – François Sabatier had fled France in the aftermath of the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1707, he was listed as living in Mountmellick, a prosperous town just a couple of miles east of Summergrove. Like many other Huguenot families who settled here, the Sabatiers must have flourished, since in 1736, within one or two generations of arrival in this country, they were able to acquire tracts of land in the neighbourhood and embark on building a fine country house. The architect responsible is unknown: the Knight of Glin proposed Henry Pentland, but there is little evidence to support this name, or any other. Regardless, it would appear the costs involved in the building’s construction were greater than had been anticipated because in February 1774 Summergrove was advertised to let for such Term of Years as may be agreed’, the building described as ‘large and commodious, and fit for the immediate Reception of a Gentleman of Fortune,’ the interior being ‘well finished and stucco’d, with every other Necessary, such as Italian, Kilkenny and other Marble Chimney Pieces, Grates, etc.’ Nevertheless, the family remained in possession, if not always in residence, of Summergrove. Thomas Sabatier died in 1784 and was succeeded by his son John who, in turn, died in 1792, followed by two further generations likewise called John. Following the death of the last of these in 1859, the house changed hands for the first time, being acquired by Jonathan Pim, whose Quaker ancestors had settled in Mountmellick at the end of the 17th century. By the beginning of the 19th century the Pims were involved in brewing and other business enterprises, while Jonathan Pim was acting as agent for the Summergrove estate. Having taken over the property, he had little time to enjoy possession, since he died in 1864, being succeeded by his son William, who lived in the house until 1902. Having no children, he left Summergrove to his sister who in turn passed it to her son, William Anthony Robinson who, with his wife lived there until the 1950s when, once more, the house was offered for sale. Thereafter it passed through different owners, not all of whom occupied the building, before being bought 30 years ago by the present owner.
The interiors of Summergrove are quite as engaging as the house’s external appearance. To cite Maurice Craig again, ‘The small square entrance-hall has a Doric entablature over the door and window cases, a flowing rococo centrepiece to the ceiling and, on the inner wall, three elegant arches under a single wide arch, the three doors separated by fluted corinthian pilasters. The right-hand door gives directly on to the staircase, while the middle one is dummy, a device which recalls the entrance to the centre of the Long Gallery at Castletown. On the staircase side the same three doors are under a pediment with ornament a good deal less fruity than that on the hall side, but in the same free-flowing rococo vein. The right-hand room on the ground floor has a coved cornice and ceiling decorated in the Robert West manner with sprays, roses, bunches of grapes and pheasants.’ (Loath as one is to correct Maurice, the inner wall’s middle door is not a dummy, but now serves to provide access to the staircase beyond. Furthermore, the ground floor room with ceiling decorated in the style of Robert West is to the left – not the right – of the entrance.) The rococo plasterwork in Summergrove’s reception rooms varies in quality, that in the entrance hall being charming but somewhat perfunctory, while that in the dining room is of altogether finer quality and clearly by a superior hand. On the other side of the entrance hall, what is now a drawing room has a plain ceiling. The original drawing room – now a bedroom – can be found on the first floor, directly above the dining room has another fine rococo ceiling although this one lacks the latter’s coved frame. And, as the advertisement of 1774 noted, there are some fine chimneypieces, although a couple of these were taken out of the house prior to it being acquired by the present owner, who deserves credit for having found satisfactory replacements. Indeed, he merits praise for having undertaken such a meticulous restoration of Summergrove over the past three decades, so that today this glorious building glows, a burnished gem in Ireland’s Midlands and an example of what can be achieved with sufficient dedication and patience.