The coffered and vaulted ceiling of the entrance hall at Westport House, County Mayo. Designed around 1731 for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont, it is a rare surviving example of an interior design by Richard Castle.
Tag Archives: Westport House
A (Neo)Classic Design
Although Robert Adam is today represented in Ireland by just one house – a suite of rooms at Headfort, County Meath – examples of work by his rival James Wyatt can be found throughout the country. Indeed as Wyatt’s most recent biographer John Martin Robinson has noted, despite the fact that the architect only crossed the Irish Sea once, in 1785, ironically a much higher proportion of his houses survive in Ireland than in England. Wyatt’s earliest Irish commission was for the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum, County Monaghan dating from c.1772 and therefore contemporaneous with the architect’s famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street, the Pantheon, with which it shares many features albeit on a smaller scale (for more on the Dartrey Mausoleum, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, September 15th 2014). Thereafter for the next quarter century he never wanted for patrons here, aided by an excellent Irish agent, Thomas Penrose, member of a well-known Cork Quaker family. Ann engineer and architect, Penrose worked first with the Sardinian-born Davis Duckart before being employed by the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners: in 1784 he was appointed Inspector of Civil Buildings in succession to the recently-deceased Thomas Cooley. It is indicative of the close working relationship between Wyatt and Penrose that elements of several buildings which the former designed are attributed to the latter. In any case, we know that thanks to Penrose’s presence in Dublin, Wyatt was able to send drawings from his London office to Ireland and be confident his intentions would be properly executed. The relationship only ended with Penrose’s death in 1792 but Wyatt’s appointment four years later as Surveyor General of the King’s Works in England meant he no longer had time for further Irish commissions.
Even without his physical presence in the country, Wyatt’s impact on Ireland was substantial and long-lasting. His style of neo-classicism continued to be admired and emulated for decades after the architect’s death in 1813. One well-known example of this abiding influence is the set of hall seats Wyatt designed in 1797 for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh and manufactured by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Distinctive features such as splayed saber legs and corresponding arms means it is easy to trace other items copied from these seats, beginning with a set of six originally produced for Dunsandle, County Galway and possibly ordered directly from Wyatt. Thereafter cabinet makers took up the design and would sometimes alter it to make the seat into a broader bench: one such piece features in the soon-closing exhibition, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 at Chicago’s Art Institute. That particular example was made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton possibly as late as 1842, in other words three decades after Wyatt’s death. John Martin Robinson points out other features from his architectural repertoire which entered into the Irish mainstream, ‘including his particular type of stucco arabesque, the use of Coade stone and the Wyatt tripartite form of sash window.’ The Wyatt window in particular became a staple of Irish domestic architecture, but as Robinson also observes, ‘There are dozens of surviving houses in Dublin with Wyatt-type stucco ceilings and wall decorations, which were probably not directly designed by him, and many country houses have Wyatt-derived rooms, which are not by Wyatt himself, but local craftsmen copying him.’ All of which makes it challenging to discern which buildings were indeed designed by the architect rather than by admirers.
The list of extant houses for which we are confident Wyatt produced designs includes the likes of Lucan, County Dublin; Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow; Abbeyleix, County Laois; and Slane Castle, County Meath. Others like the Oriel Temple, County Louth have been considerably altered since first constructed and it is therefore difficult to appreciate how they were intended to look. However, one of Wyatt’s most significant interior schemes still to survive is for the Picture Gallery, or Great Room in Leinster House, Dublin; this space now serves as the Senate Chamber in Dáil Éireann. The building had been designed by Richard Castle in 1745 as a town residence for the future first Duke of Leinster. After the latter’s death in 1773, the second Duke was left with a large incomplete space in the north end of the building and therefore invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for its decoration: in September 1776, having married the heiress Emilia St George the previous year, he wrote to his mother ‘Mr Wyatt has sent me…the most beautiful finishing for my Gallery at L. House which I shall prepare and hope to do next Spring as have the furniture ready for it.’ Dating from 1777, the resultant room is rightly judged to be one of the finest interiors of the period, its plasterwork sometimes attributed to the stuccodore Michael Stapleton although Conor Lucey has commented that the factors leading to such an attribution ‘are no longer wholly reliable.’ No matter, the end result as Robinson remarks ‘launched the taste for Wyatt’s neo-classical decoration’ and led to a flood of further commissions, one of them being the dining room at Westport House, County Mayo.
Like Leinster House, the core of Westport House was designed by Richard Castle who in 1731 designed a new residence for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont. Towards the end of Lord Altamont’s life he commissioned designs to extend the building from Thomas Ivory and while it is not certain whether these or other proposals were adopted, Westport House was enlarged towards the end of the 1770s. As often happened, it was left to a later generation to finish off the interior decoration of the newer parts of the property. In this case the third earl (subsequently created first Marquess of Sligo), a year after inheriting the family estates in 1780 invited Wyatt to come up with a scheme for Westport’s dining room. Drawings for the design remain in the house and show how faithfully the architect’s proposals, as can be seen in today’s photographs. The dining room at Westport is not unlike that at Curraghmore, County Waterford designed by Wyatt a couple of years earlier for the first Marquess of Waterford. In both instances the elaborate decoration of walls and ceiling is broken up by medallions featuring classical figures. But whilst those at Curraghmore are painted in colour and grisaille, the Westport figures are moulded in low relief. Given the blue colour scheme of the walls, the overall effect is not unlike stepping into the world of Josiah Wedgwood whose Jasperware was then deemed the height of fashionable popularity. Set inside square and rectangular plaster panels the medallions are both round and oval, sometimes with one, sometimes with several figures, sometimes cheerful (putti playing with bows and arrows), sometimes sombre (a woman elegantly leaning on a funerary urn). Their immediate frames are picked out in gold, as are other elements in the scheme such as festoons and garlands. The ceiling on the other hand has a more complex colour scheme incorporating shades of pink and cream and brown, providing a contrast to the walls’ blue tones. Dated February 1781, the original drawings have a scheme of green and white: the present polychrome colouring dates from a repainting exactly a century ago. Nevertheless, now over 230 years old Wyatt’s dining room at Westport House continues to delight and helps to explain why his work has for so long been admired in this country.
Granted a royal charter in December 1600 to trade as as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, the East India Company was the first such organisation established in Europe. A joint-stock company its task was to develop closer trade links with Asia, which in practice came to mean the Indian subcontinent and Imperial China. Shares in the business were owned by merchants and wealthy landowners, some of whom became even richer as a result of their association with the company. The British government possessed no shares but exercised indirect control thanks to a series of acts passed during the 18th century as the East India Company expanded. Eventually the company came to be responsible for half the world’s trade, with a focus on certain commodities such as cotton, silk, salt and tea. But the need to secure this dominance led the East India Company into warfare both with the indigenous population and with rival businesses from other European states such as France. As a result, it came to maintain a private army and to seek control over parts of the countries in which it operated, most notably India. Only with the 1858 Government of India Act did the British government assume direct control of the subcontinent; the East India Company itself was wound up sixteen years later. Mention has been made of the principal goods in which the company traded, but there were many secondary ones, luxury items like porcelain, spices, lacquerwork and silk for which demand steadily increased. And then there was what came to be called India paper, even though it was made in China.
The taste for Chinese wallpaper developed in the 18th century and led to the emergence of a specific trade in this item. Initially ships returning from Asia brought other luxury goods like screens, porcelain and pictures intended as gifts for royal residences. The exotic appeal of the work led to increasing consumer demand so that items were no longer brought back as gifts but as tradeable commodities. In his invaluable book on Irish wallpaper published last year, David Skinner notes that such goods seldom appear on cargo lists but instead were treated as ‘private trade’ by ships’ captains: paper had the advantage of being easily rolled up and fitted into available space in the hold. Then once in Europe, it could be sold at auction in the East India Company’s London headquarters. Skinner cites a single vessel belonging to the company in 1776 carrying 2,236 pieces of paper, enough to cover the walls of around one hundred rooms. That figure gives an idea of how keen demand had become for this commodity by the third quarter of the 18th century. In turn it led to increased production in China, aimed at the European market but without pictorially concealing its country of origin, unlike Chinese porcelain which often incorporated western decorative motifs. Wall paper, on the other hand, retained its indigenous imagery and featured birds, insects and plants unfamiliar to Europeans. So too were the costumes of human figures, the buildings they occupied and the landscape through which they moved. The paper’s appeal lay precisely in the depiction of difference, combined with evident technical finesse. Hand painted Chinese paper tended to offer varying scenes, almost like a narrative, so that no part of the run around a room’s walls looked the same. This differed from the repeat pattern of its printed western equivalent.
By the 1750s Chinese wall papers were being offered for sale in Dublin. However, when Emily, Countess of Kildare (later first Duchess of Leinster) undertook the decoration of a small drawing room at Carton, County Kildare she sourced her material in London, presumably because it could offer a wider selection. Her husband was often dispatched on such errands when in England, on one occasion writing to her, ‘As to the India paper you want, there are patterns gone to Chester of every kind in London for you to choose out of; so that you will please yourself.’ The problem was that Lady Kildare had trouble finding a sufficient quantity of the same type of paper. Her scheme for the room was elaborate, since the walls were not simply covered with paper; it formed only one part of the decoration. The design of the imported paper, as described by David Skinner, features ‘a landscape with a river winding towards distant mountains, past villas and gardens whose well-to-do inhabitants engage in leisurely rural pastimes, and villages where rustic figures are at work fishing and farming. As always with Chinese papers, the landscape is evocative rather than strictly topographical, yet is still recognisable as that of southern China in the middle of the Qing period.’ All of this is found set within painted paper borders designed to resemble carved jade, and carved and gilded rococo filets. It is a complex, almost overly rich style of decoration that is difficult for our own era to appreciate.
The Chinese Room at Carton is the earliest extant example of this form of decoration in Ireland. Somewhat later is the room shown here, that on the first floor of Westport House, County Mayo, home to successive generations of the Brownes, Earls of Altamont and later Marquesses of Sligo. The core of the house was designed in the early 1730s by Richard Castle but then enlarged in the 1770s and 1780s following designs by Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt. The paper here was most likely installed after completion of the latter’s work on the property. In many ways the paper hung here is similar to that in Carton, again featuring groups of figures depicted moving among villas and gardens in an imaginary landscape. The paper is uninterrupted by other elements but as a result of the low coved ceiling height, it had to be cut down. So there is no sky, which gives the room a slightly claustrophobic character. Although there no information has been found in the Westport papers, David Skinner believes that while the paper is from the late 18th century, it was only put up here in the 19th century, not least because three earlier patterned papers have been found underneath. At the moment, the room is undergoing a gradual programme of restoration by English conservator Mark Sandiford who has undertaken similar commissions in other buildings, including Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. To see it at the moment, when this process remains incomplete, is especially fascinating since the techniques involved in the paper’s creation and hanging are more apparent than would otherwise be the case.
Sunlight and Shadow
A shaft of sunlight falls across the floor of the drawing room in Westport House, County Mayo. The parquet was laid by George, third Marquess of Sligo in 1855, one of a number of changes he made to the building during that decade, which also included a new principal staircase of Sicilian marble. Westport House was originally designed by Richard Castle in the 1730s but was thereafter subject to a variety of alterations and additions incorporating work by amongst others Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt.
More about Westport House in the near future.