All that glitters is gold at Adrian Sassoon. “It’s all gold, even the lining is gold,” explains artist-goldsmith goldsmith-artist Giovanni Corvaja about his Golden Fleece. “Technology has allowed myth to become reality.” That plus 2,500 hours’ labour and oodles of talent. This hat is made from five million gold threads, each one a fifth the radius of a human hair. “The very ancient mythology of the Golden Fleece, the idea of making fabric from gold, fascinated me. It’s the stuff of kings. The gold looks like fur but touch it. It’s cold and quite heavy.” The Golden Fleece is priced £350,000. More golden ratio than gold is Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura for sale for £60,000 by Peter Harrington. As well as studies of Roman temples, it includes Palladio’s retrospective of his own designs. A one man Taschen show. “The four books date from 1570,” says Sammy Jay, “although their provenance is enigmatic. The binding is late 18th century.”
Luxed out, we leave for another year. We catch glimpses of primary colour and primal lack of colour in the verdant setting as our golf buggy (it’s the chauffeur’s day off) whizzes up the driveway. Ranelagh Gardens in the hospital grounds has been turned into a sculpture park to celebrate Philip King’s 80th. Here’s to #MPL2015.
The shadows were closing in. On a dark night in 1922, while heavy clouds curled and unfurled over the Comeragh Mountains, four IRA men crawled up the four mile driveway of Curraghmore. The fourth of four castles owned by the de la Poer family, who’d come to these islands during the French Catholic Norman Invasion, was about to become ruins. But St Hubert would save the night. As the terrorists approached, a flicker of moonlight silhouetted the crucifix surmounting a stag over the entrance tower: of St Hubert atop the balustrade. Illiterately, the terrorists assumed the family inside must still be Catholic. They fled and burned down the crucifix-free Woodstown House nearby. The de la Poer motto is Nil Nisi Cruce: “Nothing without the cross.”
We’re in the James Wyatt designed staircase hall of Curraghmore. It’s a Sunday morning and John Beresford, 8th Marquess of Waterford, has graced us with his presence. Inspecting our old postcard of Curraghmore, he remarks, “Look, the fountain in the lake is clearly visible. It was the tallest fountain in Europe before my grandfather took it down.” The estate boasts the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka spruce. At 47.5 metres tall, its full height is not immediately apparent as it grows out of a dell. The Marquess is less than impressed by wind turbines visible from the neighbouring farm which mar the otherwise Arcadian setting.
“That dashing red haired gentleman,” says the Marquess pointing to a portrait on the landing, “is Henry the 3rd Marquess. He was hot tempered and one day got into such a fierce argument with his father he charged up the staircase on his black stallion. That’s how the middle step got cracked. The portrait of his wife Louisa the 3rd Marchioness, herself an artist, is rather lovely. The 3rd Marquess was killed while fox hunting. My brother Patrick is a great soldier. He was awarded the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst.” The current Marquess was a talented polo player and is a friend of the Duke of Edinburgh. “I’m lucky to have three sons and five grandsons. Richard, my eldest grandson, is 6’8” and a professional polo player.” Sport’s in their (blue) blood. The 3rd Marquess enjoyed partying as much as sport. He was one of several wild sportsmen who sprayed the tollgate and houses of Melton Mowbray with red paint. The phrase “painting the town red” was born.
“That’s Aunt Clodagh,” the Marquess grins gesturing to another portrait. “Do you know what the Irish name Clodagh means? Muddy water. Lady Muddy Water Beresford.” Over six kilometres of the Clodagh River run through the estate. “Curraghmore has always been a working farm.” Even more than that, it was once a self contained community. In contrast to the format of wings elongating the façade, at Curraghmore the ancillary quarters stretch forward from the entrance doors to form the mother-of-all-forecourts. More Seaton Delaval than Russborough. As well as the stables for 60 horses, this parallel pair of wings at one time housed the accountant, bookkeeper, butler, doctor, estate manager, gamekeeper, headmaster and woodcutter and headmaster. An estate school lay behind the gatelodge. Basil Croeser, the retired butler, still lives in one of the Gibbsian detailed houses lining the forecourt. A new butler, aged 23, has just started. He’s yet to be fitted for his uniform. Later, he will serve the Marquess lunch, a silver tureen on a silver tray concealing produce from the estate. Game soup’s a favourite. There are 25 estate staff, including a cleaning lady for every floor. There may be four poster beds but bathrooms are on the corridor. No en suites. This is an Irish country house, not a hotel. Chamber pots at the ready.
The dining room retains its original skin tone coloured walls and the nine metre linen tablecloth dating from 1876 is still in use. Standards are high at dinner parties. The Marquess and Marchioness sit at opposite ends of the table, 17 privileged guests on either side. Men wear bow ties; ladies, long dresses and jewellery. Candles perched in three silver candelabra provide the only lighting. Dinner is served on 10 dozen floral Feuillet plates. Upstairs, far flung corners of the house are piled high with boxes of English, French and Chinese china. After dinner, at a nod from the Marquess, the ladies withdraw to another room. A larger than usual party was recently held when the Marquess celebrated his 80th birthday with 80 guests.
There’s so much else to write about Curraghmore. The stuffed lioness and her cubs lurking in a glass box. Elephant trunk and feet umbrella stands. The quatrefoil shaped shell grotto. The grass avenue which stops abruptly, unfinished since the 3rd Marquess’s untimely demise. The Curraghmore Hunt painting by William Osborne with name plates for everyone including the hounds Jason and Good Boy. Grisaille panels by Peter de Gree. Roundels by Antonio Zucchi. Francini plasterwork. Most of all, the great sense of peace that presides throughout the 1,620 hectares of Ireland’s last wilderness.
“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.
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.
Lischeto Farm also produces extra virgin extra oil. Fabrizio Filippi, President of the Consortium of Tuscan Extra Virgin Oil, explains, “Tuscany is the perfect region for producing excellent quality extra virgin oil thanks to its landscape, climatic and environmental conditions, history and culture. The olive varieties, the cultivation techniques and the harvesting of the olives at the optimum moment all contribute to creating an incomparable product with a distinguished flavour.” Paradiso!
First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.It took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.
Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”
Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.