The Speaker and His Wife

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In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.

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Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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Waiting in the Wings

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When it comes to country houses, architectural historians and conservationists often, and understandably, focus their attention on the main property. But it is usually only one part of a larger conglomerate of buildings, all of which interact with each other and are also worthy of study – and preservation. Here are the two stable blocks at Bantry House, County Cork, added to the estate by Richard White, Viscount Berehaven (later second Earl of Bantry) around 1845 and very much intended to be seen as part of the site’s architectural ensemble. Distinguished by their copper-domed cupolas, from sufficient distance the pair appear to serve as free-standing wings to the house between them. While one has found alternative use in recent years, the other sadly awaits attention (and thus for the present is best seen from the aforementioned distance).

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A Central Idea Beautifully Phrased

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A few miles off the coast of north Dublin lies Lambay Island, extending to almost 600 acres and at its highest point rising some 416 feet. In 1904 the island was bought for £5,250 by Cecil Baring, later third Lord Revelstoke, a scion of the English banking family. As is well known, some years earlier Baring had created a stir in Anglo-American society by eloping with Maude Lorillard (whose father created Tuxedo Park in upstate New York) then wife of a business partner. Under these circumstances, it is understandable the couple welcomed a retreat on Lambay, although conditions when they first arrived there were primitive. The main accommodation consisted of a small stone blockhouse likely built in the fifteenth century to deter pirates but by the early 1900s occupied by lifestock. Bad storms in the year immediately previous had devastated the surrounding woodland, making the building even more inhospitable. Accordingly in 1905 the Barings commissioned the architect Edwin Lutyens to overhaul and extend the entire site. The original block is constructed from an indigenous blue-green porphyry flecked with feldspar crystals: this was retained for the newer sections but cut limestone used for window and door cases. Lutyens’ additions are wonderfully sensitive, respectful of what was already there, gracefully understated yet still able to make a powerful impression. The old building was extended and a new, larger wing added but set into rising ground so that it does not overwhelm: as though to maintain their separate origins, the two sections are linked internally only by a ground-level passage.

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Lambay’s quay lies on the western side of the island, close to which are a line of cottages and another, larger residence known as the White House, as well as an open air tennis court and, further away, a small chapel. Access to the main house, Lambay Castle is reached after a short walk across a meadow. One then reaches a pair of oak gates set into a stone encircling rampart. There was always some kind of defensive wall here, but Lutyens raised its height to create a battlemented walkway around which one can perambulate. The ramparts also provide shelter against the elements, necessary in such an exposed site, and they have allowed trees and vegetation to flourish within the enclosure more successfully than would probably otherwise have been the case. Within the walls and to the left is a large altar-tomb, again designed by Lutyens and erected by Cecil Baring to the memory of his wife following her early death in 1922. The other side of this section of the enclosed garden is mostly a plantation of trees serving as a further protective belt against high winds. This means that behind the main house there can be spacious lawns and, to the south, a walled kitchen garden.

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East of the old house Lutyens not only added additional accommodation but also a series of service and farm buildings. Lying immediately adjacent to the property, these might be intrusive but their impact has, once more, been softened by clever landscaping. Here the architect worked with his frequent collaborator, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Together they devised a series of compartmentalised spaces beginning with a courtyard, once more accessed via a pair of oak gates, that leads up to the front of the old building.  A stone path runs through the lawn and is in turn bisected by a narrow water course with small pools at either end. To one side another gateway opens into a further courtyard with views of the extension unobtrusively tucked behind terraced beds and flights of stone steps. So it goes on, with one space gracefully giving way to the next, none especially large, all complementing what has gone before, and what will come after. The planting in each case is slightly different but the entirety conforms to an observation made by Lutyens at the time that, ‘a garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased. Every wall, path, stone and flower should have its relationship to the central idea.’ More than a century after its creation, Lambay Island retains the same beautiful phrase, as clear and as welcome as when first uttered.

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The Theory of Evolution

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Increasing study of country houses, here and elsewhere, has led to better understanding of these properties’ decorative histories. Almost without exception the process has been one of consistent change as successive generations adapt buildings for their own specific needs and uses, and reflect differences in taste. There can be no absolutes, nor notions that a particular style of decoration is ‘right’, only a willingness to respond to the present while respecting the past. Above is a view of the dining room in Borris, County Carlow as it was until recently, and below a view of the same room as it is now. A new wall colour and a re-hang of pictures has brought forth another aspect of the space’s character.

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…To New

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As mentioned in the last post, when the Musgraves gave up living in the old tower house and its additions at Tourin, County Waterford, they moved into a new residence on higher ground. Dating from the early 1840s the house’s rendered exterior, its design sometimes attributed to local architect Abraham Denny, is relieved by wonderfully crisp limestone used for window and door cases, quoins, pilasters, cornice and stringcourse . Here is the garden front, centred on a single storey bow.

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A Garden of Earthly Delights

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In the mid-1830s George Harpur, a merchant based in Drogheda, County Louth who had made his money in the salt trade, bought an estate called Killineer a few miles north of the town. A century earlier the land here had been granted by the local corporation on a 999-year lease to Sir Thomas Taylor, whose family lived at Headfort, County Meath. It then passed to the Pentlands whose main residence was to the immediate east at Blackhall. At some date in the 18th century a house was built on the property: it appears on early maps but little now remains other than one room which still retains sections of plaster panelling. Located to the rear of the walled garden, this space now serves as a toolshed.

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Following his purchase, George Harpur embarked on the construction of a new house, on a site a little below the earlier one. Unfortunately we do not know who was the architect responsible for designing this building, which is not dissimilar from the Pentlands’ nearby Blackhall. Of two storeys over basement, it has a six-bay rendered façade centred on a Tuscan portico. Deep windows admit abundant light into the four ground-floor reception rooms which have elaborate plasterwork cornice friezes. But the most striking features of the house are its octagonal entrance hall with arched niches on four sides, and the splendid imperial staircase leading to that long-standing feature of the Irish country house: the first floor top-lit gallery from which bedrooms are accessed. One of the reasons we know so little about the house’s early years is that when George Harpur died in 1888 he left no heir and Killineer accordingly changed hands, passing into the ownership of another local family, the Montgomerys of Beaulieu. When it was next offered for sale in 1918, the auction notice advised prospective purchasers ‘Everything that taste or comfort could suggest for the embellishment of the house and demesne was done by the late owner regardless of expense.’

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In addition to building himself a new house, George Harpur also laid out gardens at Killineer, beginning with a series of formal Italianate terraces that descend from the front of the main building. Eventually these reach a long serpentine stretch of water, created from what was shown on earlier maps as a relatively small pond. A series of islands on this lake help to break up the vista so that the prospect constantly alters as one wanders along paths meandering on either side. To the immediate east is a woodland garden, rich in ferns, mosses and other moisture-loving plants, while to the north west is a great laurel ‘lawn’, a piece of 19th century garden design once common but now more rare: that at Killineer is today the largest in the country. On this side also is a lakeside summer pavilion, its façade a miniature version of the house. Behind the stables and yards is the old walled garden which runs to an acre and a half and is still used for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers: it is here the remnant of the original Killineer can be found. Dotted around the grounds are garden ornaments originally made for other properties, some of which have since been lost, including St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dundalk House further north in County Louth, and Stackallen, County Meath. As today’s photographs testify, Killineer’s present owners keep the place in marvellous repair and make it a garden of earthly delights.

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