Strawberry Hill House London + Horace Walpole

The Royal and Imperial Academy’s Study Leave Part I | Crittal Factor | Found Treasures

Before the quips of Oscar Wilde there were the quotes of Horace Walpole. Take, “The world is a tragedy to those who feel but a comedy to those who think.” Or, “The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.” His description of Twickenham, “Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around,” might have come straight from the script of An Ideal Husband. But Horace came a century earlier, destined to be forever ahead of his time.

The man who added a consonant to a style. The man whose house became an architectural genre. The man who loved cats. Horace Walpole was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister. He stretched the term ‘polymath’ to its very limit. Strawberry Hill Gothick was his contribution to the lexicon of architecture. Its origin was his summer villa Strawberry Hill which was both a private retreat and a house for show. A maison de plaisance.

Strawberry Hill, created over the latter half of the 18th century, was “The castle of my ancestors”. Or at least the ancestors of his imagination. Aware of his status as landed gentry rather than aristocracy, Horace boldly set out about designing a house with the help of friends such as Robert Adam to elevate his social standing. Medieval revival meets idiosyncratic charm. Carcassonne comes to TW1. Phallic finials, pepperpotted polygonal perpendicular verve, cusped lights, quatrefoils and crenellations, it’s a sugary confection, a castle dipped in wedding cake icing.

Horace desired theatrical effect, nostalgic ambience and what he called “gloomth”, not historical accuracy. He dream that, “Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one.” To this end, after spending half a century filling Strawberry Hill to the rafters or at least rib vaults, no stranger to self publicity, he published a catalogue A Description of Strawberry Hill. Half a century later, the collection was posthumously dispersed in a 24 day sale. Lost Treasures is an exhibition of some of his collection returned on loan to its original setting. For the first time this century, it is possible to enjoy the vision of the man who put the gee into ogee.

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Mary Martin London + Cecil the Lion Dress + Ireland

Worn with Pride

MML Cecil the Lion Dress at Lissan House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.” Seamus Heaney

When it first appeared on the international runways, the now legendary dress created a media frenzy. The Huff Post and BBC World Service led the reporting. Now a local media storm has been whipped up thanks to the arrival of the Cecil the Lion Dress in Ireland. Fashion sensation Mary Martin London created something so special out of something tragic. “I was so shocked by the story,” recalls Mary, “I went straight to my studio and because he was dead I thought I’d make this black dress.” Layers of tulle around the neck and shoulders represent Cecil’s mane. “The back of the dress has got the silkiness and fineness of the lion’s body.” The dress was exclusively modelled by an animal rights campaigner and Chair of a Northern Irish animal charity at Lissan House near Cookstown.

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Lissan House Cookstown + Autumn

A Tense Presence

The last of the lineage, the late Hazel Dolling née Staples of Lissan House recorded at the beginning of the 21st century, “It is very quiet in the house at night but I know all the creaks. Visiting grandchildren scare themselves with ghost stories. None of them like to sleep in the Heffalump’s old room. My mother said she once had a visitor in the night, an old lady whom she saw clearly. She held a candle in her hand and she was peering at her face as she woke up. Visitors talk of people walking around in the night when no one is astir. I have a friend who has seen Lady Kitty here, Sir Thomas’s widow, who made off with all the Lissan Plates. She said she was wearing a beautiful pink silk dress.”

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Dunbrody House Hotel Wexford + Lord Newborough

Searching for a Title

Dunbrody Park Hotel New Ross Wexford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

By hook or by crook we will dine at Dunbrody House. Oliver Cromwell, ever the joker in the pack, reputedly quipped he would take Ireland “by Hook or by Crook”. That is, start a-raping and a-pillaging in one of the two villages facing each other across the Waterford Channel. Our mission is more refined – in search of the perfect fish ‘n’ chips. Make that beer battered fish and chips with a scoop of tartar sauce and a shot of green pea in a neoclassical reception room overlooking a sun soaked terrace leading onto landscaped gardens in a country estate.

Dunbrody Park Hotel Garden New Ross Wexford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dunbrody House was the gaff of an Anglo Irish family right up to 1996. Let us tell you about the very aristocratic. They are different. They have titles. C’m’ere t’us. The last owner was His Grace the 7th Marquess and Earl of Donegall, Earl of Belfast, Viscount Chichester of Ireland, Baron Fisherwick of Fisherwick and Hereditary Lord High Admiral of Lough Neagh. Known to his friends as “Don”. He was once engaged to Sheilah Graham, then a household name, now a footnote in history. Her story was the ultimate top-of-the-bus on the hard shoulder to back-of-the-limo in the fast lane dream come true. From pleb to sleb.

After a lowly start in London’s East End, she became a West End show girl, then a Hollywood celebrity gossip columnist. Before long Sheilah was skating, skiing and skijoring with the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker (of “don’t put all your eggs in one bastard” notoriety), Jean Harlow and the Mitford brother. At the party to celebrate her engagement to Don, she met Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Sheilah became the writer’s partner for the last four years of his life as recorded in her 1958 autobiography Beloved Infidel. Wha’s the story? They were the toast of Hollywood, before getting burnt. Don went on to marry Lady Josceline Legge, daughter of the 7th Earl of Dartmouth.

Ireland’s most distinguished auctioneer, Fonsie Mealy, with half a century of experience behind him, recalls the late Lord and Lady Donegall complaining about “forever trying to make ends meet”. Fonsie launched a sale of Dunbrody’s contents in May 1985. “It was such a social occasion. The sides of the large marquee were down as the weather was magnificent. The prices were magnificent too! Stair Galleries of New York spent £240,000 on a suite of bookcases.”

Now a hotel run by superchef Kevin Dundon and his wife Catherine, the architecture of this long low lying house hasn’t changed much since it was built 180 years ago. The central tower of the garden front has been removed and dormers added. Otherwise, the Edwardian country house party atmosphere continues betwixt its well preserved walls. Craic’s almighty. “You must drive round to see Hook Head,” exclaims the maître d’hôtel. “Visiting this peninsula without seeing the lighthouse is like going to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower, so it is!” With less than Cromwellian perseverance, we decline and sail off on the ferry into the sunset.

Back in London, we catch up with another aristocrat – tenuous link, yes – Lord Newborough, for a topping time at Magazine, the restaurant with a gallery attached (The Serpentine) while enjoying the world’s smallest onion rings. Robert is owner of Rhug Estate (pronounced “Reeg”), one of the largest organic farms and certainly the most ethical in the UK, d’y’ know’d we mean?

Rhug is our brand,” explains Robert Newborough. “All we are really are farmers from North Wales. My family can be traced back to the 9th century – not me personally. We were good at pilfering, stealing farmland. Slate fortunes fell into the estates followed by mismanagement, divorce, inheritance tax. Our estates rapidly diminished. Then my family acquired Rhug by marriage. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good dowry! Across three estates, we farm 7,000 acres organically and pride ourselves on animal welfare. Rhug Estate supplies to over 20 Michelin star restaurants here and abroad, and over 20 five star hotels.”

Lord Newborough of Rhug Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Inch Island + Inch Pier + Inch Strand + Inch House Inishowen Donegal

Take a Mile

… or several. Driving over the causeway which links Inch Island to the mainland, the mainland being an aqueous bulge of land itself (Inishowen Peninsula), we are faced with one of life’s merrier dilemmas. “Strand 2 kilometres” to the left and “Pier 4 kilometres” to the right. We do both: the full breadth of the afternoon lies before us. The journey to Inch Pier is infinitely longer than suggested by the signpost (Irish miles?) even if it does end rather abruptly. Clinging to the hill, the road ascends and narrows to one car width. Then almost drops off a precipice. The last leg of the journey is a slippery slope slithering straight into the mini harbour. Best travelled by foot. Gingerly. The things we do for a few decent snaps.

A distractingly beautiful house stands close to the road somewhere between the causeway and the pier. Inch House is surprisingly low profile. It gets a passing mention here and there in literature about Buncrana Castle. The houses, or at least their final versions, are of a similar age and ilk: early 18th century austere neoclassicism. Inch House is seven bays wide, the central three bays set in the slimmest of breakfronts. A “missing” window either side of the pedimented doorcase adds to its spare charm.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “The Isle of Inch lies directly north of the Isle of Burt and the north of Inch lies beyond Fahan Channel nearly west of Fahan Churchtown. It is about eight and a half miles in circumference. About two and a half from the southeast extreme of Carrickanee, north westward to the point of Binnault or Bheinaalt at the Hawk’s Nest; and but little more than two miles from the ruins of Inch Castle at south to Carrignahaa Point in middle Grange at north.”

The Memoirs list the townlands of the island: “In Grange, which norths the island, are comprised the townlands of Greddy, Grange, Strachack and Fergans. Moress has no subdemoninations, lies northeast. Carrickanee comprises near or north Carrickanee and far or south Carrickanee at east. Byletts has no sub denominations, at south east. Ballymakernaghan, Upper and Lower, in the interior of the island. Castle Quarter, no sub denominations, lies at south. Bohullian comprises Bohillian, Glaak and the Milltown of Inch. Ballynakillue is the westmost quarterland and comprises Bhinaalt, Drum, Mullnadee, Cloghglass and Boarran.”

Inch Island is drenched in history. English ships sailed to Lough Swilly and landed on the island during the Siege of Derry. The event wasn’t just part of Irish history. This small city and its environs on the edge of Europe was for 105 days (straddling 1688 to 1689) the hinge on which the history of the continent swung. It had ramifications not only for the Second British Civil War but also the broader struggle for the domination of Europe. The defeat of the Jacobite forces helped shape the continent for centuries to follow. And Inch played its part. Not that you’d ever guess today. The freshening lace of lapping water is the only sound of the sound. And then there is the sunlight, as efficacious as a prayer.

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Villa Bleuler + Zürich Lake

Castle Copeland

On warm autumnal days, when nature is turning from green to lemon and amber and scarlet, wandering through the leaf strewn gardens on the east and west banks of Zürich Lake is one of life’s finer pleasures. Open the gates and beyond one is guaranteed a villa to behold, or in the case of Museum Rietberg, three villas. On the opposite side of the lake from Museum Rietberg, high up on the east bank, is Villa Bleuler.

Grand American and Swiss houses tend to be called after their grand owners. Villa Bleuler is no exception, borrowing a barrel from the surname of its original client. Colonel Hermann Bleuler-Huber commissioned the local architect Alfred Bluntschli to design his house in the 1880s. A neo Renaissance palazzo was the result. It’s one of the loveliest of the city’s many villas. The brick changes from pale pink in the sunshine to orangey terracotta in the rain.

The building is beautifully complemented by gardens also designed by the architect and executed by Otto Froebel and Evariste Mertens. The interiors of dark marmalade look out across manicured lawns towards tree framed views of Zürich Lake. Like many of these houses, Zürich Council now owns Villa Bleuler and it is occupied by the Swiss Institute for Art Research. An oval glass lantern set into the front lawn is the only visibility of a contemporary architectural intervention underground.

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Zürich + The Doors

Alpine Wood

Zürich, where wealth is worn unabashed.

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Zürich + Swiss Cottage

Say Cheese

Swiss Mountain.

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Villa Escher + Belvoir Park Zürich

Swiss Heir

“You must have good taste!” exclaimed Lucy Worsley over lunch at the Marriott Grosvenor Square London last week. The Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces was looking resplendent in a red velvet dress. She was returning the compliment to our compliment about her entertainingly educational educationally entertaining history programmes. It was The Sunday Times British Homes Awards:

Lunch at the Marriott Grosvenor Square is always fun, whatever the occasion, but how much more fun would lunch be at the Marriott Zürich? There’s only one way to find out. And so, here we are, pleased as punch plonked on plumped up cushions. Actually we’re a few miles downstream from the Marriott in the Odeon Restaurant but you get the drift. Sometime later, we will admire the assured elegance of Villa Escher and its apron of greenery known as Belvoir Park but for now there’s truffle omelette to be devoured.

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Mary Martin London Fashion + Lissan House

The Most Beautiful Dress

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