Russborough, Blessington (the Alfred Beit Foundation)
Francis Watson, ‘The Collections of Air Alfred Beit’, Connoisseur, May and June 1960; John Cornforth, ‘Russborough, Co. Wicklow 1, II, III’, Country Life 5, 12, 19 Dec 1963; Sean O’ Reilly, Irish Houses and Gardens (1998);Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, An Insular Rococo (1999), pp. 235-239; John Goodall, ‘Palladian Grandeur in an Irish Setting’, Country Life, 10 June 2009; Knight of Glin and James Peill, Irish Furniture (2007), pp 79-83; William Laffan and Kevin V. Mulligan, Russborough: a Great Irish House, its Families and Collections (2014),; Patricia McCarthy, Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland (2016), passim
Probably the most beautiful and satisfying of the great Irish Palladian houses, built by Richard Castle (Cassels) for Joseph Leeson, a fabulously rich brewer, begun in 1741 and finished probably in the mid 1750s by Francis Bindon. Leeson later entered parliament, went on two significant Grand Tours taking his tutor the architect and archaeologist Robert Wood (Ruins of Palmyra etc), and later became Earl of Milltown. The family remained until 1931, and in 1952 it was bought by Sir Alfred Beit, South African randlord (de Beers, Wernhers etc) who installed his art collection, inherited from his father and uncle. Much of the Milltown picture and sculpture collection was given to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1902; 17 of the finest pictures from the Beit Collection were given in 1987 (after repeated burglaries).
The interiors show at least two phases of fine plasterwork decoration. The Saloon, Hall, Library, Tapestry Room, and Library are attributed to the Francini brothers (cf Carton and Castletown) of the mid to late 1740s and show a fine delicacy and a rich variety of high rococo Continental ornament (some figurative); while the Staircase, Dining Room and Drawing Room (notably the frames for the Vernet paintings) have an extraordinary unrestrained even coarse bravura, ‘the work of one [unknown] rather roguish individual’. This style is reflected in an extraordinary series of complementary rococo mirror and picture frames, plus the frame for the large scagliola table by Belloni: this latter and the frames belonging to Rubens’ Judgement of Paris (in the Saloon) and Guercino’s Triumph of David (in the Drawing Room)have been returned to Russborough. Recent research suggests that they are possibly English, from the circle of Paul Petit, although a possible attribution to Thomas Johnson (during his sojourns in Ireland in 1746 and 1753-5 should not be entirely discounted. Other fine rococo carving is found in the architectural joinery of the hall and the stairs as well as delightful pairs of girandoles in the hall and drawing room.
The Saloon’s cut velvet hangings date from the 1870s, but copying an 18th century design (old photos show the original seat furniture – now lost – upholstered en suite). The Beit’s collection of decorative art is as astonishing as their picture collection, some of which remains in the house. English furniture includes a suite of dining chairs from St Giles House, a state bed of 1794 from Willersley Castle, Derbys, Regency lacquer cabinets from Harewood, a library writing table attributed to Vile and similar to Chippendale’s at Nostell, a marquetry commode c1780 close to a similar model at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Soho Vanderbank tapestries from Melville House, ormolu by Boulton; French furniture includes a suite by PJ Pluvinet, bronzes by Thomire. The Sevres porcelain was bought entirely by Sir Alfred and includes a dessert service made for Mde du Barry.
Killruddery, Co. Wicklow (the Earl of Meath)
Tim Longville, ‘A Meeting of Minds’, Country Life, 10 Feb 2010
This is said to be the most successful Elizabethan revival house in Ireland, begun 1820s for the 10th Earl of Meath to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison, incorporating a 17th century house with some 18th century additions. There were originally some spectacular interiors but the house was greatly reduced in the 1960s.
Our visit was considerably marred by the presence of a large film crew who were strongly in evidence in the gardens and had taken possession of the sculpture gallery cum Orangery. However we were able to enjoy the fine Chippendale revival bookcases in the Library (strongly reminiscent of the ‘birdcage’ bookcase at Nostell); and the opulent Drawing Room again with a very fine Chippendale revival overmantel mirror, and much 19th century French boulle and marquetry furniture.
The gardens are rare survivors of the late 17th century formal Franco-Italian gardens, centring on two long canals with patte d’oie alleys with hedges, ponds and fountains, and a miniature amphitheatre. These are augmented by later magnificent plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs.
Killadoon, Co.Kildare (Mr Charles and Mrs Sally Clements)
John Cornforth, ‘Killadoon, Co Kildare’ I and II, Country Life 15 and 22 Jan 2004; Knight of Glin and James Peill, Irish Furniture (2007), pp. 181-5
We were warmly greeted by Charles and Sally Clements who were our most enthusiastic guides to their remarkable home. The house was built by Robert Clements, the first Earl of Leitrim in the late 1760s, inherited by his son in 1804, redecorated in the 1820s and 30s. Very little happened between the murder of the bachelor third Earl by his tenants in 1878 and its inheritance by the present owners in 1974. Thus much remains of the various early datable furnishing campaigns including textiles, wallpapers, carpets and other fittings, making it one of the most interesting houses charting the changes in taste from late Georgian through Regency to Victorian.
Its ground floor plan consists of four fine interconnected rooms: hall, dining room, drawing room and library. The drawing room has fine pier glasses and window pelmets of the 1770s, sofas still upholstered in their original tufted green damask and protected by loose covers, and pretty oval and japanned green chairs. The 1820s wallpaper is still in place, and the 1840s Axminster carpet. The magnificent crimson morine curtains in the hall were recently rediscovered and reinstalled: over the chimney was the most magnificent of all the Irish elk antlers we encountered during our visit. The top of the Gillows-esque Dining Room sideboard had a most remarkable set of small square mahogany blocks with ‘notches’ to enable the display of silver chargers etc (or as here a group of famille rose plates). Three bedrooms contain their original beds with original hangings etc, and elsewhere fine London and Dublin Regency furniture. A Batoni portrait, a collection of bronzes and a pietra dura table testify to at least two grand tours.
We now made our way south towards Clonmel which was to be our base for the next three nights. On our way we stopped first at Abbeyleix.
Abbeyleix, Co. Leix (Sir David Davies)
John Cornforth, ‘Abbeyleix, Co. Leix’, Country Life, 26 Sept 1991; Jeremy Musson, ‘Abbeyleix, Co. Laois’, Country Life, 24 July 2003; John Martin Robinson, James Wyatt: architect to George III (2011), pp 108-9
Designed by James Wyatt 1773 for Thomas Vesey, 1st Lord Knapton created Viscount de Vesci in 1776. Wyatt designed many houses in Ireland but only visited the country once, leaving the execution of his projects to executant architects, notably Thomas Penrose. Drawings for Abbeyleix survive, showing that the original plans were greatly simplified. The interiors with fine plasterwork by Michael Stapleton and grisaille painted decoration by de Gree, were probably not finished until the 1780s. The house was refaced and embellished externally in the 1850s by T.H. Wyatt and a large library erected and formal gardens. There is a shell house in the gardens (see also Carton, Currraghmore etc). The planned village was laid out in the 18th century, and the estate was considered a model of enlightened management.
Sir David Davies bought the property from the de Vesci’s in 1995 and has restored and furnished it with a remarkable collection of Irish paintings, furniture designed by Wyatt and works of art. We were regally entertained for luncheon at two tables groaning with plate and bedecked with flowers (and seated on Wyatt designed chairs identical to the suite made for Sheffield Park, with a sideboard and pedestals also probably to a Wyatt design) after which we were given a personalised tour by our host. The hall contained a set of Wyatt hall chairs (identical to the model at Castle Coole) and a fine carved Irish sideboard table; the Music Room with its decorative grisaille panels contained a fine pair of Wyatt side tables and a group of cockpen armchairs. The Drawing Room had suffered a fire during the restoration when its late 19th century ‘Indian pattern’ William Morris wallpaper was destroyed, was thickly hung with Sir David’s paintings arranged by Alec Cobbe, in addition to a fine gilt rococo mirror attributed to Booker, two delicate mahogany tea tables, a secretaire cabinet with a Gothic lattice superstructure (very similar to one we saw at Ragley last year), and a remarkable early 18th century marquetry walnut chest of drawers by John Kirkhofer, a German cabinet maker working in Dublin.
Curraghmore, Co. Waterford (The Marquess of Waterford)
Mark Girouard, ‘Curraghmore, Co. Waterford I, II, III’, Country Life, 7, 14, 21 Feb 1963; Sean O’ Reilly, Irish Houses and Gardens (1998); John Martin Robinson, James Wyatt, architect to George III (2011), pp. 115-16
This is the ancestral seat of the Anglo-Norman family of La Poer (later Power), and later Beresfords. It has never changed hands since 1176 and only once inherited by marriage. The medieval tower is buried within the later house, built before 1650s, and rebuilt c1700 (with wall and ceilings painted by Jan van der Hagen). The house was remodelled and enlarged in the 1740s-50s for Catherine La Poer who married Sir Marcus Beresford, 1st Earl of Tyrone, when the immense forecourt was probably created, and interiors with fine plasterwork by the Francini brothers installed (cf Carton, Russborough, Castletown). She created the delightful quatrefoil planned shell house ‘in two hundred and sixty one days’, where her statue by van Nost stands in the centre. The house was extensively remodelled and redecorated by James Wyatt in the late 1770s and early 1780s, using Thomas Penrose as the executant architect.
The grand Staircase Hall is hung with family portraits also has the first of a group of Wyatt-designed sofas and chairs and the first of at least two 1820s Axminster carpets in the house. The Blue Drawing Room has a fine plasterwork ceiling with painted lunettes by Zucchi and side roundels by de Gree. A particularly elaborate carved rococo picture frame invited comparison with the group from Russborough and invited speculation as to the influence of Thomas Johnson during his stay in Ireland, while a pair of grand Regency ormolu mounted side tables reminded us of the family’s connection with Thomas Hope. A fine pair of japanned cabinets on stands retained their original crestings, but we were not invited to inspect their interiors. In the Yellow Drawing Room we were particularly struck by the pair of oval rococo mirrors with frames of oak branches and suspended from ribbon bows. They may well have been en suite with a pair of similarly carved tables, also attributed to Johnson and sold in 1971. The Dining Room is arguably the greatest neo Classical rooms in Ireland, with plasterwork ceiling and walls with paintings by Zucchi and de Gree. It appears to have lost its original furniture although a pair of superb side tables with eagle supports and lion paw feet probably belonged to the mid century dining room. We were particularly impressed with the fine Chinese and Japanese ceramics found throughout this house.
In pouring rain we arrived for an unguided tour at Kilkenny Castle, for 600 years the principal seat of the Butler family, Earls, Marquesses and Dukes of Ormond. The contents were sold in 1935 and the Castle given to the state in 1967. Its impressive furnishing history can be traced through a series of inventories and in recent years strenuous efforts have been made to recover a number of works of art and successfully to restore and redecorate some of the most significant interiors. The castle’s complex building history is hidden beneath various later campaigns notably the early Victorian Baronial revival style of William Robertson. The approach is through an impressive late 17th century triumphal arch built into the curtain wall. The interiors follow a route including a partially restored Chinese Room sporting a garden-themed wallpaper, the Tapestry Room with hangings from Rubens’s Decius Mus series and a single example of a very fine armchair c1680 upholstered in embossed gilt leather. The enfilade of Anteroom, Library and Drawing Room are furnished in an opulent early – mid Victorian style and lead on to the Gallery: an immensely long room hung with a hammerbeam roof decorated by J.H. Pollen clad almost entirely with portraits.
Dangan Cottage, Thomastown. This is the private home of Christopher Moore, our host at Castletown who provided us with tea and cake and a spirited tour of his property which he has been restoring and embellishing over a number of years. The single story house is situated on the banks of the river Nore and was built in 1790 for Mary Bushe, sister of the patriot Henry Grattan, as a Dower House / cottage orné. It is filled with fascinating objects and works of art including recycled architectural salvage, tapestries, japanned furniture, unusual portraits and prints, Irish back-painted mirrors to name but a few.
The Swiss Cottage, Cahir (OPW)
Mark Girouard, ‘The Swiss Cottage, Cahir, Co Tipperary’, Country Life, 26 October 1989
‘Probably the finest surviving cottage orné in the world’ (Mark Girouard), it was built c1810 probably by John Nash for the 12th Lord Cahir (later Earl of Glengall) who also created a new parkland adjoining the ancestral castle in the town. It was used by the family as a holiday home, for parties and for the fishing.
The cottage is the epitome of sophisticated rusticity: verandahs, thatched roof, deep eaves, rustic balconies and balustradings etc. Inside are recreations of Irish toiles de jouy hangings in the bedrooms, a panoramic French wallpaper, Rives de Bosphere, of c1816 as well as Regency ‘root’ furniture. The family built a graceless Victorian house nearby when the cottage continued to be used for parties and fishing. By the early 1980s it had become derelict but was rescued by the Portroyal Foundation of New York and restored by a team of Irish conservators.
Cahir Castle (OPW)
This was the seat of the Butlers, Earls of Glengall, and remains the largest and best preserved 15th / 16th century castle in Ireland. It stands on an island in the river Suir by the town of Cahir. Within its curtain wall are several courtyards, a massive keep and a great hall which was re-roofed in the 19th century. The family moved to a modest 18th century town house in the town so the castle never became entirely derelict. The hall housed an exhibition of the 1916 Easter Rising and also contained a number of interesting 17th century and earlier oak chests, cupboards, tables, chairs and settles.
Lismore Castle (the Duke of Devonshire)
Mark Girouard, ‘Lismore Castle, Co Waterford’, Country Life 6 and 13 August 1963; James Wickham, ‘Step Up to the Secret Garden’, Country Life 15 Jan 2004
The medieval castle of the bishops of Lismore was dramatically situated overlooking the river Blackwater and its valley. It became a property of Sir Walter Raleigh, and was bought in 1602 by the extraordinarily rich and successful Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork who created a new range of buildings around a courtyard and new gardens in the 1630s.
Lord Cork’s son was created 1st Earl of Burlington and their properties were eventually inherited by the Dukes of Devonshire. The castle was besieged in the Civil War and very little happened until the 6th Duke rediscovered it c1811 and employed William Atkinson to repair and remodel much of it in a Regency Gothic style.
Much of the present appearance of the castle dates from the early 1850s when the 6th Duke took a renewed interest and employed Paxton to remodel the castle in a massive baronial style, using Pugin, Crace, Hardmans etc for lavish new interiors.
The gardens are on two different levels, the upper garden in particular is considered the best surviving Jacobean garden in Ireland. It is possible to see the layout from the terrace at one end flanked by its twin pavilions, overlooking the ‘squares’ and parterres now re- planted as high-hedged individual ‘rooms’. Both upper and lower gardens have been greatly developed by the present Duke while Lord Hartington, and now his son, the Earl of Burlington, and incorporate a significant collection of contemporary sculpture (Antony Gormley, Eilis O’Connell etc).
Trinity College Dublin
On our return to Dublin we were given an erudite tour of the college buildings. It was established in 1592 for ‘the plantinge of learning, the increasing of civilitie and the establishing of true religion in this realme’. The early collegiate structures grouped round courtyards were gradually superseded during the 18th century with classical structures. The great library was begun in 1720, designed by Thomas Burgh, with the Long Room the grandest room in Ireland, altered and brilliantly extended in 1860, complete with very fine fittings, busts of poets by Roubilliac, Rysbrack etc. Other fine buildings were erected by Richard Castle (architect of Carton, Russborough etc) with several generations of the Darley family as executant architects and builders. The magnificent west (main) front was designed by the gentleman-architect Theodore Jacobsen in the 1750s. It faces Edward Lovett Pearce’s Parliament House on College Green, now the Bank of Ireland. We were able to admire the finely carved fittings of the Library and the Book of Kells in its separate exhibition space.
The Casino, Marino
John Cornforth, ‘The Casino at Marino I and II’, Country Life, 4 and 11 Feb 1988; Knight of Glin and James Peill, Irish Furniture (2007), pp. 159-160
One of the most exquisite neo Classical buildings in the world, and hugely influential for the development of neo Classicism in Ireland. It was built as a work of art (not a project), the brainchild of the patriot Lord Charlemont, a great connoisseur and traveller, in collaboration with Sir William Chambers, George III’s Francophile architect, overlooking Dublin Bay. It was completed by 1763 but the interior not finished until the mid 1770s. The executant architect was Simon
Vierpyl using English Portland stone, following Chambers’ and Charlemont’s sophisticated programme. The interiors have subtle shapes and decoration, and particularly fine parquetry flooring. None of the original furniture has survived which must have included fine pieces designed by Chambers (CF the Charlemont medal case, for his Dublin house, made by Sefferin Alken, now at Somerset House).
The building was scrupulously restored in the 1980s by John Redmill, and again rather controversially, in 2014 by John O’Connell.
Anthony Coleridge and Desmond Fitzgerald, ‘Eighteenth Century Irish Furniture: a provincial manifestation’, Apollo, October 1966, pp. 276 – 89; Christie’s sale catalogue 10 – 12 May 1976; Knight of Glin and James Peill, Irish Furniture (2007)
Malahide Castle was the seat of the Anglo – Norman Talbot family from 1185 until 1976. The oldest parts of the castle date from the 12th century, the only exception being the period from 1649–60, when it was granted to Miles Corbet after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. Corbet was hanged following the demise of Cromwell, and the castle was restored to the Talbots. The building was notably enlarged in the reign of Edward IV, and the towers added in 1765.
The estate survived such losses as the Battle of the Boyne, when fourteen members of the owner’s family sat down to breakfast in the Great Hall, and all were dead by evening, and the Penal Laws, even though the family remained Roman Catholic until 1774.
Although many things were dispersed at the sale following the death of the last Lord Talbot de Malahide in 1976 a number of good pieces of distinctive Irish furniture have survived in situ. We particularly admired the antiquarian panelling and cupboards in the Oak Room, the fine rococo and gothick plasterwork by Richard Williams in the two Drawing Rooms and in the circular rooms in the turrets. The Small Drawing Room had a very fine classical pedimented overmantel mirror attributed to the Booker brothers, brought here from Newtown Park House, the central tablet apparently representing Apollo in his sea chariot, taken from a design by Meissonier. The Large Drawing Room contained two very fine carved gilt side tables with lion mask aprons with garlands issuing from their mouths with most unusual lacquer tops. Here was another fine rococo (revival ?) gilt mirror and table flanked by unusual neo Classical girandoles, two different suites of seat furniture apparently indigenous to the house, one group japanned green and white with needlework upholstery, and the other group of bergeres, sofas and a confidante. We also found our first Bossi scagliola table in Ireland here. The Library had gilt leather wall hangings decorated with naturalistic flowers not unlike those at Levens Hall, Cumbria. The baronial character of the Great Hall is well preserved with the many family portraits and most of the indigenous furniture saved from the sale, although the 35ft table is from Powerscourt. There was a long set of mid 18th century dining chairs with a distinctive splat back which we had seen in a number of a different houses, clearly a favourite among Irish country house owners of the time.