A Treatise on Georgian Architecture
In Five Paragraphs
“Riddled!” shrieked the 5th Countess of Clanwilliam, after years were already gone since irony, when faced with the prospect of sharing her matrimonial home Gill Hall with more ghouls than an episode of Rent-a-Ghost. “Simply one damned ghost after another!” A card game later, or so the rural myth portends, the lucky Earl won neighbouring Montalto House from a gentleman surnamed Ker. “Phew!” she exclaimed, sinking into a sofa in the first floor Lady’s Sitting Room with its Robert West stuccowork of scallop shells and a brush and comb and a cockerel and fox. The only spirits ever at Montalto are the Jameson bottles rattling on drinks trolleys. Over a wee dram, it’s worth catching sight of the resident albino hare in the 10 hectare gardens on the 160 hectare estate. His son the 6th Earl, in between sewing tapestries, demolished the ballroom and a chunk of the servants’ quarters, shrinking the size of the house by a half. Under the ownership of JP Corry, a famed timber merchant, the east wing and rear apartments also had to be chopped following a calamitous fire in 1985.
Country houses form distinctive works of architecture, with appropriately furnished interiors, and considered as part of a demesne, conceived in all its complexity as a picturesque ensemble of gardens, woods and buildings, they represent what is justly described by John Harris in The Destruction of the Country House as ‘the supreme example of a collective work of art’. But whatever else a country house may symbolically constitute, it was always conceived to be decorated and furnished quite simply as a habitation, and it is that incomparable sense of home that the restitution, restoration and refurnishing of Montalto has sought to preserve for today and tomorrow. The Earl of Moira commenced construction in 1752 by which time a prosperous Irishman could have confidence that his home would remain his castle without having to look like one.
Ballyfin is the Montalto of the South, beloved by the Kanye–Kardashian kouple and all known cosmopolitan denizens. It is no coincidence both houses have benefitted from the hand of heritage architect John O’Connell, plucked from a slim pantheon of heroes. Nor does he spin. Ballyfin is the Morrisons’ masterpiece. John also led the restoration of Fota, another Morrison great. Both Fota and Montalto have Doric porches. He designed a Doric temple for Ballyfin. Order, order! First there were the three orders of Vitruvius’ treatises: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Architect George Saumarez Smith, himself author of a treatise, calls Doric “solid and muscular; Ionic “graceful and light”; Corinthian “grand”. Then Renaissance men Alberti, Filarete, Palladio, Serlio and Vignola added Tuscan (a plainer Doric) and Composite (a hybrid Ionic and Corinthian). The five orders became the established canon, a sacred alphabet related to the laws of nature. Now that’s a tall order. Return to Montalto. Tall round headed windows and niches cavalierly skim the carriageway like crinoline skirts. The central shallow porch is set in a canted bay. In 1837 unlucky owner David Ker excavated the rock under the house promoting the basement to ground floor. Not without precedent, Hilton Park and Tullylagan Manor are other examples of the elevation of an elevation. Tripartite windows and more canted bays on the sides of the house overlook nature tamed as topiary taking the form of spherical shrubs and conical box hedges. The rear elevation with its generous wall to window ratio is a 20th century repair following fire and demolition. Its sparseness, bearing the greyness and eternity of a cliff, recalls Clough Williams-Ellis at Nantclwyd Hall.
A sense of order framing majestic comfort prevails indoors with eight pairs of Doric columns guarding the entrance hall, sentinels in stone. It’s flanked by the dining room and library. Straight ahead the staircase leads to the long gallery, of more than average beauty, an axis in ormolu, a spine of gilt. Trompe l’oeil and oeil de boeuf and toile de jouy abound. The interior, like beauty, is born anew every hundred years. Montalto is a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it – then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, cherishing all beauty and all illusion.