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.
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.
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 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.
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!”
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 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.”
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.
This Palladian style villa may have originated as a bolthole from London but there’s nothing provincial about it. While suburbia has crept round Danson Park over the last two and a half centuries, miraculously the house, stables and park have survived virtually intact. Now owned by Bexley Council, a registry office makes for a decent unobtrusive use for the historic building. And lunch in the courtyard of Danson Stables is a winning combination of good food and architecture.
Serendipity – and a £4.5 million restoration by Historic England – has saved Danson for the next two and a half centuries. In 1995 the house was falling to pieces. Jump a decade and the Queen is cutting the ribbon. “It’s smaller than I thought,” Her Majesty observes upon her arrival. Understandable – there are optical illusions at play. Two fenestration tricks make the building appear larger than it is: (internally) not expressing the architraves and (externally) shrinking window sizes on the upper floor.
“Very Miss Jane Austen!” declares John O’Connell, climbing the serene sweep of steps to the entrance door. Unusually there are two large panes of glass in the beautifully aged mahogany door. Good for catching northern light but also an 18th century display of wealth. The walls are equally blessed by the patina of age. Portland stone given a lime wash has a mellowed texture and, set high up on a ridge, the house turns golden yellow in the sun. If you’ve got it flaunt it. And Sir John Boyd had it. Before he lost it.
The entrance hall, in Palladian terms, is really a closed loggia so relatively simple with a plain marble floor. Opulence follows. Why employ one starchitect when you can get two? Sir John Boyd got Sir William Chambers to jazz up Sir Robert Taylor’s design, adding fireplaces and doors and other decorative touches. A rare cycle of Georgian allegorical wall paintings by the French artist Charles Pavillon stimulate after dinner conversation in the dining room.
A Victorian daughter of the manor, Sarah Johnston, helpfully painted watercolours of the interiors. Historic England used her paintings as inspiration for the carpets. A painting by George Barret hanging in the Chinoserie wallpapered octagonal Ladies’ Sitting Room illustrates the house with its wings. Incidentally, an exhibition of this Irish born artist is planned for the newly reopened National Gallery of Ireland.
The plaster roundels in the Gentlemen’s Music Room cum Library were found in cupboards. Imprints on the walls for the surrounding swags allowed them to be accurately reinstalled. That ingenious layout – interlocking rectangles and polygons around a dream of an oval stairwell – adapts well. Modern services are tucked into servants’ corridors wedged between the reception room shapes. The butler’s pantry contains a lift.
Party time. Balloons fill the freestanding baths. A metallic menagerie of dolphins, herons, zebras and a gorilla fills the showers. A pair of Egyptian cats stare each other out across a marble table. Partygoers mingle between Elisabeth Frinkish statues, topping up on Château d’Aix en Provence rosé. Prawn sticks do the rounds. Masseurs add a relaxing touch. A brass band bursts in as bubbles float through the air. A bowler hatted juggler and top hatted fire eater bemuse passengers going by on the Number 11. Bathroom reputations are made in Chelsea.
Let’s do acronymic acrobatics. FG stands for François Geurds. FG stands for flavours guru. FG stands for futuristic gastronomy. FG stands for fanatiek genieten. Enough. “Would you like some champagne?” greets the maître d’. Blanc de Blancs: that’ll be a rhetorical question. François Geurds, yes, FG himself, appears to welcome us. “I recognise you from The Fat Duck! One of Heston Blumenthal’s parties?” That’ll be us. Always on an Apician mission to redress the work life imbalance.
Big Yellow Taxi is playing. The barrel vaulted restaurant, occupying two redundant railway arches, is filled with pairs of Arne Jacobsen winged chairs. Chairman’s chairs: everyone’s important here. Later in the afternoon, when the restaurant fills up, they will gently rotate as guests move, forming a slow dance, an idle counterpoint to the fast choreography of the service. There’s nothing bridge and tunnel about these arches, capsules of intimate luxury. A few arches down is Denoism, a smart atelier with a glass walled studio in the middle where you can watch your next outfit taking shape while sipping a coffee.
“Mainport’s a lovely hotel,” says François. “And this is a great area of Rotterdam. We attract guests from everywhere, France, America… Come and look at our garden!” We’re ushered through to a verdant private room. “It’s set up for a party later.” He strikes a pose. Arms folded. He puts the I into chef. “We have 56 covers including the private dining and eight people can sit at the bar watching the chefs. We’re fully booked tonight.” We opt for the locavore vegetarian tasting menu with matching wines:
“We don’t find cooking for vegetarians that different an approach,” he confirms. “We always start preparation anyway with lots of chopping of vegetables.” This is fine wining and dining so there are plenty of variations on a theme. Our wooden table is laid with two enigmatic white shapes plus a grinding bowl and petite cutlery. Remember the confusing days of yore when cutlery for every course was laid out altogether on linen tablecloths? Hot bread sits on one of the icebergs; traditional French Parmesan on the other. Interspersions of petals and greenery add colour. “The butter is from Normandy and here is Spanish olive oil,” introduces the waiter.
Another waiter arrives carrying a box of 12 peppers, white to black and every shade between. Enter some personalisation of the meal. After all, whatever Marco Pierre White thinks, everybody’s taste is different isn’t it? Under heuristic guidance we choose Congolese Likovala, Indonesian Cubèbe and Nepalese Timur peppers. A theatrical grinding performance takes place. Our table smells of 100 coffee shops. This routine – one we could get used to thank you – is repeated for salts, Pakistani Diamond and Sel Mirroir.
A sorbet cornetto wedged in a white arch reminiscent of the room shape is “dipped in three different tastes”: tomato, liquorice and piccalilli. Sweet and sour and salty, it’s becoming clear François enjoys treating his guests to taste, texture and temperature teases and temptations. “Collecting knives is a great passion of François’,” says the waiter, holding a murderous array of instruments. We select a mean looking dagger.
After an interlude of mushroom, coconut and haddock (yes they did check our pescatarian credentials) consumé, west Austrian Rabl 2012 “fresh and juicy” white wine is a perfume to the (on a knife’s edge) full bodied curried cabbage, carrot and parsnip with Slovenic cream of artichoke, served with black squid inked potatoes. Pure, unadulterated gastroporn. Is photographing food a disruption? Au contraire, it’s an aide memoire.
The textured black and gold plate displaying beetroot foam, artichoke and parsnip reminds us of a George Baselitz painting. Marrying art and gastronomy, its scent is of a country garden in bloom. The 2014 Colle Stefano white wine – “a typical grape from east Italy giving us fresh herbiness and earthy flavours” we’re told – adds to the rural mood inducing aroma.
Next, the sommelier recommends “a Washington State independent wine from the Dionysus Vineyard.” This smoky 2014 chardonnay plays the perfect companion to pumpkin cream and sweet and sour celery arranged in a crispy crenellation. We’re having far too much fun to pay a lot of attention to the staff’s eloquence and erudition.
Red instead of white wine is now served. In tandem, the arched window frames a blue sky turning grey. Pathetic fallacy or what? The Château de Grand Morgan 2014 pinot noir is “very fruity and earthy”. Our glasses are big enough to swim in, capturing the lingering essence and bouquet of the grape. It accompanies Portobello mushroom, sculpted almond chives and cherry pip sorbet. Another surprising and successful marriage.
“We don’t like the summer truffle in our kitchen!” exclaims François. Winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is far more potent than its summer counterpart (Tuber aestivum). Sure enough, winter truffle macaroni comes with lemongrass foam, lentils and parsnips surrounding an egg capped with edible gold leaf. Luyt Douro Doc Reserva Tinto 2011 proves to be yet another orthonasal olfactory hit.
Our carefully curated multisensory voyage is coming to a climax. Cascinetta Vietta Moscato d’Asti in a vintage glass (“light, sweet and just a bit sparkling!”) accentuates lychee sorbet decorated with coconut crisps on a dark chocolate base. FG does all the molecular mixology you’d expect from a modernist restaurant with a taste lab attached yet so much more.
“You have to be in your restaurant seven days a week,” believes François. “Sometimes I take a day off. Otherwise I’m here first thing. I live seven minutes away. In the morning I’m in the lab preparing all the sauces, the meals, the food. I’m always here. I open and close the door, 8.30am to 2.30am.”
The bill is presented under a shell. A sonic surprise? The sound of the sea? A tortoiseshell sculpture representing an inversion of the fossil shaped basin in the bathroom? Or just a paper weight? Four vegetarian courses €71 | five courses €91 | seven courses €111 | nine courses €131. Go the whole hog, add matching wines and Bru sparkling water and there’s not much change out of a couple of hundred euro. But what price umami?
The primacy effect (start of a meal) and regency effect (end of a meal) tend to stick in our minds. What could be more memorable than to sandwich a lunch between an amuse bouche (an unexpected gift) and a goody bag packed with more party favours than a political conference (a really unexpected gift)? Happiness extended. Oh, and the head chef cum experience engineer leaving his kitchen to bookend your visit with a personal welcome and goodbye?
Explosive, experimental and experiential, there’s only one thing missing from FG. It already has a sky high hedonic rating from us. A third Michelin star. Outside, a small red racing car will spin us through the hazy mist of sweltering heat, another rainstorm may await – who cares? – climes unknown persist and pursue us across a restless afternoon. Like a dream, a badly drawn dream. Losing focus, that’s speed and there’s a sailor in every Mainport, so we’re told.
Image | Dutch Functionalism is in one sense a continuation of the positivistic traits of 19th century thought. That is, architecture holding meaning as a reflection or symptom of a particular stage of historical development. This interpretation of history imposes meaning on architecture and does not depend on the memory of its own past. The spirit of the age demands its architecture is absolutely new.
Music | In another sense Dutch Functionalism is far removed from the rhythm of the 19th century. It is part of a wider movement linked to avant garde art as a whole, rejecting any sense of historicism. The architecture rejects the past’s tendency to consider buildings as legible texts of moral and didactic ideas, ignoring their ability to be forms of artistic portrayal.
Text | This formalist architecture does not deliver neutral structures on whose surfaces are displayed representations of ideas but is an opaque reflexive reality obeying its own internal laws. Sonneveld House is a 1930s villa in the centre of Rotterdam designed by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt. It is not a dogmatic example. Rather, this house is a personalised interpretation of Dutch Functionalism. Form follows function; and comfort; and luxury.