Hey Good Lucan
Heir today, gone tomorrow. Around 3,000 Irish country houses have “done a Lord Lucan” (the not so lucky 7th Earl) and disappeared over the last century. Finnstown House in his erstwhile squiredom ain’t one of them. It opened as a hotel in 1987 and for the last decade has been run by Jim Mansfield. The Dublin businessman has a penchant for antiques; there are plenty of period rooms to fill. No Victorian dining room is complete without a taxidermy hostess mirror.
The Riding on the Wall
Tate Britain is the quieter relative of the extended family. Tate Modern has Herzog + de Meuron’s sexy ziggurat with its brilliant incidental installation (Watch Rich People In Their Apartments). Tate Britain has James Stirling’s paean to contextual irony. Lost on most, the less said the better. Thankfully, the Rex Whistler Restaurant is located in the basement of the original sturdily neoclassical gallery. Or is it? Entrances at varying degrees above ordnance data dictate an enjoyable disorientation. Lower ground floor? Garden level? Sub piano nobile?
Rex. The name conjures up a dilettantish dandyish raffish character. Definitely a Bright Young Thing. Julia Flyte’s American beau in Brideshead Revisited. Rex Bart Beaumont, chum of Charles Howard Bury, last owner of Belvedere House in Mullingar. Known to all and sundry as “Sexy Rexy”. The pair enjoyed jaunts to Tibet accompanied by a pet bear. No aggressive normalcy there, then.
Paintings are best seen from a seat. The Garrick Club gets that with its dining room wallpapered by in Zoffany. Before Carl Laubin (who completed a capriccio of Castle Howard estate buildings in 1996) and even before Felix Kelly (who painted the Garden Hall murals at Castle Howard in 1988) there was Rex Whistler. His 1937 murals can be admired traipsing through the National Trust dining room of Plas Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey but how much more relaxing to soak in his 1927 murals at the Tate lounging over lunch. At least that was the plan.
Gloriously out of sync with the modernist spirit of the age (more country house than Bauhaus), The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats is a whimsical adventure chronicling a party in search of epicurean delights. Follies and fortresses, temples and turrets… it’s an escapist setting, an ageless fantasy, Chinese wallpaper without the paper. Trompe l’œil gargoyle headed grotesques support the pedimented entrance doorcase. Half moon windows are treated as grottos. All the more remarkable given that Rex undertook this feat as a 23 year old Slade student. Tragically just 17 years later, the artist was killed on his first day of action in The Great War. Rex Whistler’s legacy continues to inspire and enthral. His portraits of Lady Caroline Paget and her brother, later 7th Marquess of Anglesey, both recently sold for twice their estimates.
Lunch is served in the leafy garden along the Thames Embankment. Fresco to alfresco. A moveable feast. Fête champêtre. The meal is bookended by bubbly. Isn’t all hydration good for you? That’s a fair enough excuse for flutes of Coates + Seely Brut (£11.50). “Complex citrus infused fizz from one of the UK’s most impressive estates,” reassures the wine list. Hampshire’s finest fizz followed by Hampshire’s finest fish. Arriba! L’Abrunet 2015 (£27.00), “Made from organic white Grenache grapes grown in Catalonia,” adds to the bibulous nature of this indulgent Saturday afternoon. In honour of the founder of the gallery (Henry Tate was a sugar merchant) it would be rude not to have pudding. And it does result in a three course deal (£35.95). “Moderation is overrated,” agree the couple at the next table. The food’s wonderful – aptly British with a nod to the Continent. No buyers’ remorse.
- British Asparagus: green asparagus spears, crisp polenta, duck egg, herb sauce, charred onion
- Chalk Stream Trout: roast Hampshire trout fillet, Jersey Royals, white onion, cress lemon butter
- Epicurania: Tate chocolate, Tate coffee tiramisù, chocolate ice cream
The jazz ensemble strikes up. Maybe Tate Britain isn’t so quiet, after all.
Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?
Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole, Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.
Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.
The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?
Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.
Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.
Everyone is here, every age is represented, from now to antiquity. The Oxford Dictionary needs to update its current definition of masterpiece: “a work of outstanding artistry, skill or workmanship”. Add an upper case M and it becomes, “150 galleries exhibiting works of outstanding artistry, skill and workmanship”. Or more succinctly, “a microcosm of London, New York and Maastricht society”. Tonight the red carpet’s rolled out for an augmented vernissage.
While now it’s all about Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque, there’ll be a familiar conundrum in the forthcoming days. The Ivy Chelsea Brasserie, Le Caprice, The Mount Street Deli or Scott’s Seafood and Champagne Bar? Potted brown shrimps on crispy slivers of toast at Scott’s will inevitably win most days. Feet dangling from stools below the neverending silver bar, there is nowhere better to satisfy a craving for crustacea. What about The Ivy’s HLT (halloumi, lettuce and tomato)? It’s a wrap.
Burberry is this year’s official preview partner with an exhibition The Cape Reimagined. Collector’s pieces on show are inspired by the work of Henry Moore. It’s a wrap. Cross category | low delineation | wearable sculptures | augmented visibility. Expect to see a feathery flurry of Chelsea ladies donning couture capes this autumn.
Masterpiece Presents sadly isn’t the goody bag but excitingly is an annual entrance installation project. The inaugural immersive by top Chilean artist Iván Navarro was commissioned by newcomer Paul Kasmin Gallery. Fluorescence. Incandescence. Quintessence. Definitive newness. An instantly recognisable piece from the past is displayed at Agnews of St James’s Place: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s haunting image of Proserpina, the Roman goddess, enjoying a pomegranate. Proserpina’s luscious auburn hair contrasts with the flawless pale skin of her augmented visage. A definite icon. Year on year hitting the zeitgeist while celebrating the past, Masterpiece 2017 could be defined as an “augmented vision”. It’s a wrap.
The Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman and Artists as Young Men
Dia dhaoibh ar maidin. There really aren’t many left. A study of the 39 (what an odd number, why not 40?) country houses featured in the book Irish Houses and Castles with its strangely coloured plates, published in 1974, reveals just 13 remain in the hands of the same families. So which ones have been so lucky? Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath | Bantry House, County Cork | Beaulieu, County Louth | Birr Castle, County Offaly | Dunsany Castle, County Meath | Glin Castle, County Limerick | Kilshannig, County Cork | Lismore Castle, County Waterford | Lough Cutra Castle, County Galway | Mount Ievers, County Cork | Leixlip Castle, County Dublin | Slane Castle, County Meath | Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath. Like Hen’s teeth.
Not so much “Where are they now?” as “What are they now?” They’re not all sob stories. Some have never looked better. Sir David Davies has brought a new lease of life to Abbey Leix. Crazy but true. The London launch of a book by William Laffan celebrating the estate’s rebirth was held with great pomp and happenstance at Lindy Guinness’s Holland Park villa mansion. Nancy Mitford’s cousin Clementine Beit’s old house Russborough looks in pretty good nick, even if restoration comes at the price of paintings disappearing. And nobody’s blaming terrorists this time… John O’Connell has worked his magic at Fota Island, the first residential restoration of the Irish Heritage Trust. And there are high hopes that the Hughes brothers, the new owners of Westport House, despite contending, conflicting lights, will preserve one of the last Richard Castle designed houses for the nation. It’s hard to keep up with Bellamont Forest: it’s seriously serially for sale. Luttrellstown Castle might be corporately owned but Eileen Plunket’s ballroom would still give Nancy Lancaster’s Yella Room a run for its money. Christie’s recently told us Stackallen, which appears in later versions of the book, has been “enriched” since it was bought by the billionaire Naughtons in 1993.
Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.
Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!
His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.
Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of The Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.
Donough Cahill, Executive Director of the Irish Georgian Society, reminded the London Chapter of the recent fire at the 18th century villa Vernon Mount in Cork City. “’A study in curves’ is how the Knight of Glin described this classic gem,” lamented Donough. “A great loss. The community are heartbroken and we too are heartbroken.” It’s a reflection on the rarity and fragility of Irish country houses and makes the flourishing survival of Clonalis all the more remarkable. A former billiard room is now a museum of letters and papers from family archives, one of the best collections in private ownership in Ireland. Correspondence from the likes of William Gladstone, Samuel Johnson and Anthony Trollope is displayed in mahogany bookcases next to the harp of Turlough Carolan, a renowned 17th century blind musician. Oh, and a pedigree of 25 generations of The House of O’Conor Don hangs on the wall, starting with Turlough Mor O’Conor, High King of Ireland, who died in 1150. One ancestor brought a certain captive named Patrick to Ireland. And the rest, as they say, is history. Our patron saint. A Catholic chapel is discreetly located to the rear of the house. “There are only three such private chapels in Ireland,” remarks Marguerite. “The other two are at the Carrolls’ house in Dundalk and Derrynane, Daniel O’Connell’s house . Tread carefully. Thin places. “There is really too much to say.” Henry James again. Tráthnóna maith daoibh.
Offaly Grand | King’s County
It’s funny how many Irish terraced houses are painted jolly colours (their quoins often highlighted in even brighter hues) while country houses are usually grey. Even though Birr Castle is cheek by jowl with William Street, it’s no exception, being faced in ashlar. The building appears hewn out of an escarpment like architectural topography. Perhaps that’s what happens when built form has weathered 350 years. There is more stone on display in Birr than most Irish towns, particularly on the houses lining Oxmantown Mall.
It’s a Georgian garrison town,” suggests Marguerite O’Conor Nash, châtelaine of Clonalis in County Roscommon. “Birr is really a planned town, a bit like Castlepollard in County Westmeath or Westport in County Mayo.” The Hillsborough of the south. “Birr is a very good town indeed,” offers conservation architect John O’Connell. Why is it not better known? Where are the coachloads of architectural aficionados? The answer lies in a comment uttered by the late Ivy Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duchess of Portland. She complained on a visit to Birr, “It’s not on the direct line to any other place!”
Lost in the heart of Ireland, Birr nonetheless has royal connections. Anne Parsons, 6th Countess of Rosse and mother of the current Earl was also the mother of the royal photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones (half brothers) and consequently mother-in-law of Princess Margaret. Her London home in Holland Park is now the Linley Sambourne Museum. A coffee table book about set designer Oliver Messel is in the library of Birr Castle. On the coffee table. He too was a relative – Anne’s brother.
There was decorating drama when Princess Margaret and the newly titled Lord Snowdon honeymooned in the castle. The 6th Countess enthusiastically wallpapered a bedroom for their arrival. Unfortunately she chose a room above the boiler. Imagine HRH’s surprise to be woken in the dead of night by sheets of wallpaper sliding down the walls before collapsing over the four poster. “Tony…!”
Lord Rosse, the 7th Earl, may have turned 80 last year but his standards, unlike the wallpaper, haven’t slipped. Dining at Birr Castle is still a formal affair. Lord R sits at the bay window end of the long table opposite Lady R. Female VIPs sit either side of the Earl; male VIPs, either side of the Countess. Overseen by Damian the Butler, Lady Rosse is served first, then female VIPs, then male VIPs, then whoever’s stuck in the middle and finally, a hungry Lord Rosse. Presumably guests brush up on Debrett’s.
The dark room of the pioneering photographer Mary Rosse, 3rd Countess, was only discovered in the castle in 1983. Hidden in a maze of corridors and tunnels with three metre thick walls in places, it’s not that surprising the world’s oldest dark room in existence lay untouched for 100 years. Across the parkland, beyond the star shaped moat cum haha, stands the world’s largest telescope (or at least it was for a century) built by her astrologer husband. Birr Castle is full of record breakers (Ireland’s oldest cookbook; Ireland’s tallest treehouse; the British Isles’ tallest tree before it came a cropper) and it’s not even Guinness owned!
Lavender’s Blue in Conversation with Ireland’s Leading Architect + Garden Designer
“I’ve been at Bellefield House 12 years now. Everything was derelict except the house. When I arrived, you could only get 10 feet through the walled garden. Only the dog could go further! It’s a simple two storey house with no basement. You can’t live on three floors – that’s impossible!
It appears as a tiny house in the middle of a 1790s map. Bellefield House was the hunting lodge of the infamous Duke of Rochester. He’d have only used it occasionally – for hunting, shooting and fishing. The estate was 1,000 acres apparently. The house was later enlarged and became a stud farm. Two Grand National winners were bred here in the 1980s.
My dad died when I was seven but he would’ve made a great gardener. My aunt was good at gardening. My mother believed plants should either be edible or picked for vases! For a lifetime, I’ve been interested in the way things grow. I don’t want everything to be pristine. I’m not interested in serious formality.
I like relaxed gardens. You never know what you can find. Two Bee Orchids recently appeared on my lawn! They’re very variable. Some years they grow: other times they won’t come back for six years. I don’t know why. I planted dark to pale blue irises along the water feature and pink have popped up in the middle of them!
This is my second garden. My first garden was Fancroft Mill nearby. About 20 years ago I designed the formal gardens at Birr Castle. There are just under two acres of garden at Bellefield. The estate is 28 acres. The tallest trees are ash and I’ve also willow trees. To the side of the house is an area I keep wild this time of year.
There are dahlias from Mexico and I’ve a lot of the wild species of rosewater. They were used for dessert in medieval times. In spring there are thousands of snowdrops. They’re the first flower of the year. February is such a miserable month – maybe that’s why I like them. Something to do with that. Winter is over and life begins again.
When you walk into the walled garden you catch glimpses of the folly between the apple trees. You don’t see the folly fully till you’re up on it. What happened was I found the roof in a salvage yard in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire. They weren’t sure where it came from. Is it the vent off a building? Or with its ornate woodwork, is it Indian?
The roof sat on a pallet for 18 months. Then when I was recovering from an operation in hospital I said to the doctor, “Get me a pencil and paper!” That’s how it was designed. I found the doors and windows in a local auction. They were fire damaged. They came from a convent.
You’re best watering plants in the evening to allow them to soak overnight. If you water the foliage during the day, it might burn. Buy a tin of yacht varnish and paint the inside of your terracotta pots. It stops evaporation when you water them. Mix chicken manure pellets in a plastic bucket and fill with water and leave for a day or two. It stinks like hell! But it’s the best fertiliser of the whole lot. You could get a few jobs here if you’re not careful, now.”
King Cong | More Mayo Please | Glory Days
Aunt Margaret’s maxim was, “Never stay anywhere not as grand as your own home.” And she’d an Asprey account and Trüggelmann dressing room. Lavender’s Blue’s take is, “Life’s too short to go four star.” The last time we did lunch at Ashford Castle was a third of a century – a generation – ago. With Aunt Margaret (she approved). Six hour round trip back then (walk in the park compared to her regular 12 hour return journey for breakfast at Sheen Falls). Seafood and lobster chowder starter. Other courses forgotten in the mists of time. Return visit slightly overdue.
Thankfully a leisurely two hour return trip this time. We’re staying nearby (in a country house). Deep breath. Will it live up to our wildest expectations? Repetitiousness joyousness of well spent youth to come? Terrific news! Ashford Castle has just been revamped with huge chutzpah. An all-guns-blazing-shoot-the-prisoners-full-turbo-heel-to-the-steel £40 million revamp at that. The Irishman’s home really is his tartaned up castle. As long as he earns a king’s ransom or has a two comma bank balance. The bill’s arrived. Chowder €13.50 this time. Now there’s commitment to a story arc. As for Ashford Castle 33 years later? It more than meets the hopes held high borne in hazy memories. Sepia transformed into technicolour. Aunt Margaret would still approve. She never did do faded grandeur.