A Fantasia in the Icelandic Manner on Irish Themes
The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its name. Next stop the Faroe Islands (800 kilometres to the north) then Iceland (1,100 kilometres northwest). The only access to its golden strand is down a rocky precipice before crossing a rivulet. The tide dramatically swoops in by dozens of metres every few seconds. Horses majestically gallop through the low waves with a backdrop of the shadowy Wardtown Castle. Raven haired surfers adventurously ride the crashing white waves. High above the beach, fairy bridges and a wishing chair are more than the stuff of legend. The outline of buildings follows the silhouetted mountainous scenery. Everything and everyone are all about wild abandon.
Pastiche is a criticism often levelled at neoclassical architects but rarely at Modernist practitioners. Sammy Leslie, châtelaine of Castle Leslie, gives a sharp riposte to any suggestions of pastiche aimed at the traditionally designed houses by Dawson Stelfox of Consarc Design Group in the walled estate of her County Monaghan castle. “They’re original designs, not copies. For example, although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age. There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.” And as Ecclesiastes 1:9 notes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Professor Watkin certainly believed in the aging Cabernet Sauvignon argument, and, evidently, the Oxford Comma. “Quinlan Terry notes that the Psalms are a patchwork of Moses and the Prophets; that in the New Testament the apostles constantly quote the Old Testament; and that Shakespeare can only be understood properly when one realises that he is frequently quoting earlier writers. Aristotle claimed in the Poetics that imitation, mimesis, is the common principle of all the poetic arts. He believed that the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood and distinguishes us from the animals. For him, poetry is the imitation of life through rhythm, language, and harmony. The inventive response to precedent as well as the role of imitation are demonstrated by the fact that three major works of Quinlan and Francis, Hanover Lodge, Kilboy, and Ferne Park, have all involved their making sympathetic yet imaginative and large scale responses to earlier buildings, which, in the case of Ferne, they had designed themselves.” Jeremy Musson admired Kilboy in Country Life (2016) “Kilboy is a masterpiece, a highly crafted interpretation of the Palladian tradition that cannot fail to impress.”
Critic Jonathan Meades as ever gets it right. He writes about the “worldwide scream of accusatory architects: ‘Pastiche!’” in his essay France in Pedro and Ricky Come Again (2021). “The architectural doxa decrees that pastiche is a Very Bad Thing Indeed. The collective convention forgets the history of architecture is the history of pastiche and theft: von Klenze’s Walhalla above the Danube is based on the Parthenon; G G Scott’s St Pancras borrows from Flemish cloth halls; Arras’s great squares are imitations of themselves.” And in his essay Obituaries in the same collection: “Architecture like poetry is founded in copyism and plagiarism – both vertical, looting the past; and horizontal, stealing from the present. The obscure past, of course, and the geographically distant present.”
Quinlan Terry has designed several infill buildings in the sedate setting of Downing College, Cambridge. David Watkin writes, “The Fellows of Downing College voted for the appraisal of Quinlan Terry’s Howard Building (1986 to 1989) in 1983, not so much because he promised classical forms, but because they were persuaded that any building by him would be solidly constructed and would have a long life. Cambridge was by now acutely aware of the structural and environmental faults of the structural and environmental failures that afflict High Tech modernist glass buildings – James Stirling’s famous History Faculty Building (1964 to 1967), for example, was visibly decaying and surrounded by a wire fence labelled ‘Dangerous Structure. Keep Out.’ Members of the History Faculty came within one vote of demolishing it and replacing it with something more sensible.”
But demolition of the prominent neoclassicist’s buildings has indeed occurred. Professor Watkin again, “Terry also provided Downing College with a modest, one storied, freestanding Junior Combination Room that resembles a garden pavilion, as well as Richmond House, a range of shops and offices that fits effortlessly into Regent Street, next to the college.” The three storey plus attics Richmond House on Regent Street backing onto the grounds of Downing College is safe for now. But the single storey Butterfield House as the Common Room became known as is for the chop. Inefficiency of volume is the justification. Kathryn Ferry notes in Bungalows (2014), “The first book specifically dedicated to bungalow design was published in 1891 by the architect Robert Alexander Briggs.” Architects of the moment Caruso St John have secured planning permission to replace the 1987 building with a larger three storey block. Caruso St John’s design is still inspired by William Wilkins’ college buildings but is a much more streamlined toned down lower key less prescriptive interpretation compared to its predecessor on this site. Unusually, the replacement stone faced building will incorporate a hardwood panelled pediment over the second floor.
Two presumably more permanent 20th century additions to Downing College are Howard Court and Maitland Robinson Library. Again, the Professor Emeritus is full of praise: “Terry’s Howard Court at Downing College, a three storied range of chambers 11 bays long, continues the Doric colonnade of the Howard Building at right angles to it but as an open internal passageway. Casement windows on the top storey echo those in the nearby buildings from 1930 to 1932 and 1950 to 1953 by Sir Herbert Baker and A T Scott. A generous building of Ketton stone with widely spaced windows below broadly projecting Tuscan eaves – a development of Terry’s houses in Frog Meadow in Dedham – Howard Court is popular with the undergraduates who live in it.”
“Terry built the square planned Maitland Robinson Library (1990 to 1992) at Downing College of loadbearing Ketton stone,” explains David Watkin. “Its many Grecian references remind one of Wilkins’s scholarly knowledge of Athenian architecture, and include a powerful Greek Doric portico inspired by the gateway into the Roman Agora (10 BC) in Athens, and Wilkins’s own unexecuted Greek Doric porter’s lodge for Downing College, inspired by the Propylaca in Athens (439 to 432 BC). Additionally, the portico of Terry’s library, especially in its relation to the rest of building, echoes Wilkins’s now demolished portico of about 1805 at Osberton Park in Nottinghamshire. The metopes in the Doric frieze of the library are filled with large scale carved symbols representing the subjects taught and studied in the college. The doorcase in the portico combines Greek work, including canted architraves, with references to Michelangelo’s elegant doorcase in his Medici Chapel in Florence (begun 1520). The capriccio of Athenian references includes the octagonal tower surmounting the library, inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens (1st century BC), and the eastern portico, which is indebted to the now destroyed Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus (319 BC) on the Acropolis. The top lit octagonal staircase hall contains panels of stucco decoration designed by Francis Terry and inspired by those of the Ata Pacia in Rome.” Andreas Papadakis writes in Classical Modern Architecture, 1997, “The entrance door is a combination of Greek key pattern with splayed architraves.”
He jumps to Quinlan Terry’s defence once more: “Criticism of the Howard Building came from the distinguished critic Gavin Stamp in the Architects’ Journal in March 1988, even though he had previously written in praise of Terry’s work in Architectural Digest. His condemnation of the handling of the classical language in the Howard Building and of its ‘sham’ features were refuted, respectively, in two accompanying essays by the distinguished historian Sir John Summerson, and by the architect Léon Krier. Summerson explained, ‘I had an opposite opinion to Stamp where the exterior is concerned. My own first view of the building gave me a rare shock of pleasure. Here was a façade with something to say in a language that I happen to understand and love. The general proportions and the distribution of openings seemed absolutely right: the Corinthian order took my fancy – it has been carefully studied.’ Krier claimed that ‘if applied universally, Stamp’s criticisms would indeed have to condemn the majority of classical buildings in Cambridge and the world. It is that kind of moralistic radicalism that established and maintains Modernism’s intolerant reign.’ Stamp’s article, and the essays by Summerson and Krier, were reprinted for an American audience in the journal Progressive Architecture, in July 1988.”
Opposite Richmond House and overlooking Parker’s Piece is the University Arms, one of few hotels in Cambridge. Neoclassical architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki, the latter best known for fitting out The Ivy restaurants, revamped an existing Victorian and Edwardian building that had 1960s extensions. John Simpson really came to the public’s attention, or at least the coffee table magazine reading public’s attention, in 1991 with the house he designed for his parents. Ashfold House near Cuckfield, West Sussex, popped up absolutely everywhere from House + Garden to the Daily Mail Book of Home Plans. Clive Aslet lavished praise on the villa; his opening line in Country Life was, “Ashfold House is everyone’s dream. Later in the decade, Andreas Papadakis describes the building as, “A small country house, compact and practical for everyday use, but with the grace and proportions of an 18th century residence.” It is something of a reduced cross between Pell Wall Hall and Pitzhanger Manor given a cloak of Palladianism. University Arms, with its bulky new porte cochère bulging onto Regent Street, is definitely more on the Quinlan Terry end of the stylistic spectrum than the Caruso St John end.
On the eve of the 17th Sunday after Trinity, or as one entrant in the Visitors’ Book of the Pallant House Art Gallery put it, “37 days till Halloween”, we spend the day in Chichester. Pronounced “Chai-chester” if you are from Belfast (Chichester Street is one of the city’s main thoroughfares). Londoners put the hitch into “Chitch-ester”. The city is logically and legibly laid out: North, South, East and West Streets crisscross at Chichester Cross.
The laneways snaking round the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity are pure Miss Marple territory. The red brick Deanery with its façade spanning pediment gable is one of many historic residences under the shadow of the spire. The cathedral itself is an absolute medley of periods and styles with a very deliberate Romanesque vault system and simply divine medieval tracery. Recent additions include a portly stone head of The Queen, part cherub part gargoyle, looking down on commoners traipsing through the main entrance.
There are wide townhouses of Henrietta Street Dublin proportions with double pile roofs and deep returns. There are white brick terraces with paired entrance doors. It rains, it shines, we come close to missing our train (The Foundry pub is temptingly close yet mercifully next to the railway station) all full of the joys of a day well spent. And everywhere in this most civilised of cities are enough signs of the historic times to compete with a Harry Styles song.
The plinth of the statue of St Richard Bishop of Chichester,1245 to 1253, near the entrance to the cathedral: “Thanks be to Thee my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which Thou has given me, for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me. O Most Merciful Redeemer, friend and brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly and follow Thee more nearly.”
The painting Noli me Tangere by Graham Sutherland, 1960, inside the cathedral: “This painting depicts the moment when Mary Magdalene finds the tomb of Christ empty, but encounters the resurrected Christ and mistakes Him for a gardener. Sutherland presented Dean Hussey with two paintings; Hussey selected the one he felt most appropriate for the cathedral setting, which features Christ in a gardener’s straw hat. The second painting remained in Hussey’s private collection, now at the Pallant House Gallery.”
The Chagall Window in the cathedral: “This window designed by Marc Chagall and made by Charles Marq was unveiled by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent and dedicated to the Bishop of Chichester at 12 noon on Friday, 6 October, 1978. It was commissioned by Dr Walter Hussey shortly before he retired as Dean. The theme of the window is Psalm 150: ‘O praise God in His holiness – Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.’ The triumphal quality of this chant is expressed by the dominance in the composition of the colour red (red on white, on green, on yellow) broken up by a certain number of green, blue and yellow blobs. This is the first time that Marc Chagall has conceived a subject composed entirely of small figures: it is the people in festive mood glorifying the Lord, exalting His greatness and His creation. The musicians are playing the instruments referred to in the Psalm: horn, drum, flutes, strings and cymbals. A man juxtaposed with an animal at the right hand edge of the composition holds open a little book, indicating that the word too participates in this hymn of praise. In the centre two figures hold up the seven branched candlestick, while David, author of the Psalm, crowns the whole composition playing upon his harp.”
Another 20th century insertion into the cathedral: “The High Altar and Piper Tapestry 1966. Considered the spiritual heart of a church, the High Altar represents the ‘holy table’, a sacred place for gifts and prayers to be offered to God. The tapestry, set behind the High Altar, was commissioned by Dean Hussey from the British artist John Piper and was installed in 1966. It consists of seven panels, each one metre wide and five metres high. Using bold colours and striking imagery the central subject is the Holy Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated.”
The most famous memorial in the cathedral: “The Arundel Tomb circa 1375. This tomb monument is widely identified as being that of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel (died 1376) and his second wife Eleanor of Lancaster (circa 1372). It was first erected at Lewes Priory and was moved to Chichester following the priory’s dissolution in 1537. The hand joining pose of the figures is rare and was restored in 1843 after much research. The tomb is best known today through Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (1955).
One of our best architectural finds in Chichester: “Welcome to St John’s Chapel. This Grade I Listed Building is no longer used for regular worship but is one of over 330 churches in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. Despite its nonconformist appearance St John’s Chapel is in fact Anglican. It was opened in 1813 to overcome the shortage of accommodation provided by the city’s seven tiny parish churches. It was not a parish church but a proprietary chapel which, although firmly part of the Church of England, was built and run as a commercial venture. Its Trustees, in addition to paying the Minister’s and organist’s salaries and keeping the building in repair, had to pay dividends to the shareholders and keeping the ‘business’ afloat was a constant struggle.”
“With no income from a parish or financial support from the Diocese the Trustees’ income had to come from sale and rent of pews and the generosity of the congregation. Worshipping at a proprietary chapel was an expensive alternative to a parish church! St John’s was designed by the London architect James Elmes (1782 to 1862) who carried out a body of work in and around Chichester between 1811 and 1814 when he was also surveyor to Chichester Cathedral. The wealthy bought or rented spacious box pews situated in and beneath the gallery. These pews were only accessible from the side porches. However the 1812 Act of Parliament authorising the chapel required at least 250 free seats to be provided for the use of the poor. These were open backed benches in the centre of the chapel and as they could only be reached from the front door the classes were kept strictly separated.”
“A three decker pulpit was a most essential attribute of a Georgian church or chapel and was used for the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. The lower desk was occupied by the Parish Clerk who had the job of leading the congregation in the responses and Psalms. The Minister would occupy the middle desk from which he would read the service but after the third collection and the prayers he would ascend the stairs to the pulpit to preach his sermon. From this vantage point he would have a good view of those in the gallery as well as those sitting below and could also watch the clock set in the west end gallery in order to time his sermon. The pulpit of St John’s is made of American black birch and was originally laid out on the more usual east west axis. At some time it was realigned north south and examination of the lower desk reveals the fact that there was originally a door on the north side.”
A jolly plaque over the front door of the Council House and Assembly Room, “Licensed in pursuance of Act of Parliament for music and dancing.” This building is one of the most architecturally important in Chichester: “The Council House was erected in 1731 by public subscription at a cost of £1,189. It was designed by Roger Morris (1695 to 1749), the architectural associate of the Earl of Pembroke, who, with the 3rd Earl of Burlington, was the leader of the Palladian movement which set the standards for nearly all English architecture in the second half of the 18th century. The Assembly Room was added to the east of the Council House from the designs of James Wyatt (1746 to 1813). It is approached from the landing of the Council House, through an anteroom, formerly a civic apartment. It is a spacious room of three bays lit by three windows. There are niches over the original fireplace.” And finally, a race down the ages of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity.
2025: To mark the 950th anniversary of the cathedral’s move from Selsey to its forever home, there will be a festival of music and art.
After Ladytown and Gingertown and before Demesne and Borris in Ossory. Past the ‘Squirrels Crossing’ sign next to Deadman’s Inn. Guided by 1,000 flickering lights, all the stars and planets aligning, we finally arrive at Ballyfin. Dawn is gone and noon is soon. Slowly, majestically, breathtakingly, theatrically, on adverb overload those black and golden gates glide back to reveal another world. To quote Elizabeth Bowen in her 1955 novel A World of Love: “a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.” A world of everything. She called these estates “house islands” in her 1942 autobiography Bowen’s Court and Seven Winters. Ballyfin’s walled demesne is more like a “house principality” with hundreds of newly planted trees, dozens of revived vistas and tens of augmented avenues. Two butlers and a manageress stand to welcoming attention on the wide steps of the house. Symmetrically. Later she will whisper “it’s because you love heritage” which is possibly the best excuse ever for a quadruple room upgrade. We’ve luxed out! Our car, keys, suitcases, worries disappear. All we are left with is our anticipatory sense of awe and a louche lust for life. And complimentary glasses of Champers.
There are no equals. Parallels don’t exist. Period. It’s Poles apart. Ballyfin loads the super into superlative. It sticks the hyper up hyperbole. Puts the eggs in ecstasy. And then there are those golf buggies lined up above the haha. Aha, pure unadulterated genius! Pray tell, channelling our outer Tamara in a Green Bugatti, how else are we to explore the 250 hectare estate? Zestfully zipping round from tower folly (lake to left) to picnic chalet (lake to right) to stable yard (lake above) to walled garden (lake below) to boathouse (oops lake straight ahead, all 11 hectares of it), Ballyfin is a deliriously glorious and indulgent playground for rich and cultured adults. This world is our oyster and nobody else’s. We’ve checked in; we’ve checked out. Naturally, on cue ducks waddle ‘cross the lawn to the fountain. A duck is the hotel motif. Ballyfin really is a haven for wild animals and Wild Geese and wild guests. On that (latter, louder) note, why does nowhere ever advertise for “noisy rooms”?
Esteemed architect John O’Connell advised on heritage and conservation matters relating to the restoration and rejuvenation of Ballyfin. He relates, “Vitruvius was incredibly inspired by everything he saw, although he was frail – he had weak lungs and died aged 44. Ballyfin vies with Baronscourt in County Tyrone but outstrips it. The Cootes saw Emo Court, the neighbouring estate to theirs, and wanted that. They allowed the Morrisons free rein. Ballyfin is the equivalent of the Czar’s Palace with knobs on, the Villa d’Este of Ireland!” Henry James calls the Villa d’Este one of the “operatic palaces” in The Wings of the Dove, 1902. John notes, “As does happen, the Cootes fell on hard times.” The next owners, the quadruple barrelled Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley family, sold Ballyfin to the Patrician Brothers and after a few decades as a college, a shining Knight and a Madam (to borrow the title of an Irish Knight’s spouse) came to the rescue of the fading pile: Chicago businessman Fred Krehbiel and his Irish born wife Kay. Sadly, Mr Krehbiel passed away in June 2021. They were accompanied by a crack team of specialists, all top of their game, to achieve the greatest ever revival of an Irish country house. The nine year rebuilding took several years longer than the original construction period. “Fred and Kay travelled all the time,” remembers John, “and brought to Ballyfin all of their experiences. They bought really good paintings and furniture for the house. There’s a pair of mirrors by Robert Adam in the Saloon. For them, this larger investment was about the apotheosis of the big 19th century house.”
Of course, John led the brilliant restoration of Fota in County Cork, another Morrison house. Ballyfin is hewn from local Clonaslee sandstone. We recall Oscar Wilde in his 1882 essay The House Beautiful: “The use of the natural hues of stone is one of the real signs of proper architecture.” The reconfigured 20th century wing, part hidden from the avenue by an enormous holm oak tree, is of reconstituted stone. The entrance front of the main block is dominated by a three bay giant Ionic order portico; the rear, by a four bay pedimented breakfront. No boring white window frames here: dark stained timber window frames offer a monochromatic sharpness to the exterior as precise as an architectural print. It was Dorinda, Lady Dunleath, who first alerted us to the aesthetic superiority of dark window frames, referencing the National Trust village of Kearney a few kilometres south of Ballywalter Park on the Ards Peninsula, County Down. Five blind windows perfect the symmetry of Ballyfin’s façade.
The vastness of the estate swallows everyone up. Deep in the Irish midlands, we’re lost below the shadowy climbs of Slieve Bloom. John observes, “Jim Reynolds designed an incredibly well prepared landscape in the context of John Sutherland’s 19th century parkland.” This includes the extraordinary cascade flowing down the hill from John’s Claudian temple to the terrace in front of the garden elevation of the main block. “Claude Lorrain was a great 17th century French painter who created huge enigmatic landscapes embracing the whole of the Greek and Roman worlds,” John reckons. “The Claudian landscape became the ideal 18th century English landscape – spare, Protestant-like.” Only at pre dinner drinks will we meet the Irish, American and French occupants of the other 19 guest rooms. Thankfully everyone has rigidly stuck to Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “People should not mar beautiful surroundings by gloomy dress…”
The hotel years. What gives? Nothing. Not us. We’re staying put. Or rather going Coote Suite tout suite. Holed up in the Sir Charles Coote State Room thank you very much, which we’re reliably informed is the only ground floor suite in the main house (the Viceroy Room is 20th century). And boy, do we only do main house. It’s taken us quite a few generations to escape the servants’ wing and we’re certainly not voluntarily returning there anytime soon. Ballyfin mostly doesn’t do modern, phew. An ancient stone sphinx guards our bedroom window (not that we’re completely averse to night time visitors). We’re in the noisy room (us, not the environs). How many doors does a suite need? There’s the jib door below the flying staircase landing pushing through the wall thickness to the main bedroom door; curved doors to the cloakroom and bathroom lobby; then a cast iron door creaking into the bathroom. “This bedroom was Sir Charles’ office and the bathroom was his gun room,” explains John. “The arrangement was very strategically planned so that he could watch over the avenue and the yard.” The ceiling is a riot of much arching, apsing, cornicing, coffering, coving, dentilling, detailing, resetting and vaulting. A handwritten card from General Manager Peter White is propped on top of the Fornasetti set of drawers. The fourposter is a plotted knotted tented oriented plateau of impossible indelicacies! Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love is relevant, “The fourposter, of a frame immense, was overdraped with more of the damask stuff…” A huge marble bath with bronze lion head taps (Drummonds naturally, a reminder of home) overlooks the lower ground floor courtyard with its ever flowing fountain. Draped over the bath are the heaviest white towels and bathrobes imaginable.