Another year, another masterpiece. Another year, another Masterpiece. Only in its seventh year, whatever did we do before this gaping lacuna in the social calendar was filled? Mind you, the Victorians managed just one Great Exhibition. It’s time to mingle with the well addressed sort of people who live in a house with no number (we’ll allow Number One London or at a push One Kensington Gardens as exceptions). Hey big spenders: there are no pockets in shrouds. Superprimers at play. From the Occident to the Orient, Venice to Little Venice, Dalston Cumbria to Dalston Dalston, the Gael to the Pale, Sally Gap to Sally Park or Sallynoggin, Masterpiece is like living between inverted commas. Among this year’s prestigious sponsors are Sir John Soane’s Museum and The Wallace Collection. That familiar conundrum: Scott’s or Le Caprice? Best doing both. Home of tofu foam Sinabro would approve. It’s not like we’ve hit the skids ourselves, as they say. The choice of champagne is even less of a dilemma: it’s Claridge’s favourite Perrier-Jouët on (gold) tap.
Symmetry and the art of the perpendicular abound in the Masterpiece salons (displays being much too modest a term). Lady Rosemary “I hate furniture on the slant” Spencer-Churchill would approve. Tinged with temporality, touched by ephemerality, the rooms are nonetheless paragons of authenticity. Exhibitors’ choice of wall covering is all defining. At Wallace Chan, velvety black is not so much a negation as a celebration of the totality of all colours. The kaleidoscopic crystallinity of a heist’s worth of gems is a welcome foil to the solidity of the backdrop. Jewellery designer and artist Wallace tells us, “I am always very curious. I like to study the sky and the earth. I seek to capture the emotions of the universe in my works.” Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows by Henry Holiday cast an atmospheric rainbow over Sinai and Sons. Such a whirl of interiors – Min Hogg would approve. Purveyors of Exquisite Mind Bombs, Quiet Storm, add to the glamour. An exchange of fabulosity with Linda Oliver occurs. Moving on…
The late great Zaha Hadid, a regular visitor up to last year at Masterpiece, is now the subject of a commemorative salon. Interior designer Francis Sultana has curated an exhibition revealing Zaha wasn’t just the world’s greatest female architect – she was a dab hand at painting, jewellery and crockery design. Undisputed queen of Suprematism, curvature is her signature whatever the scale. Francis remarks, “Zaha never really believed in straight lines as such.” Across the boulevard, a moving arrangement by the Factum Foundation centred round a life-size crucifix is a reminder amidst this earthly wealth and glamour of the importance of faith and preservation. “Art is intention, not materials,” believes Adam Lowe of the Factum Foundation.
Writer Gervase Jackson-Stops observed in 1979, “A narrow by-road climbs up out of the broad vale of Omagh with its maze of small green fields and hedges to reveal a wholly different scene spread out on the other side of the ridge: a narrower valley entirely clothed in woods, with belts of grazing in between, sunlight reflected on a lake far below, perhaps a glimpse of curling smoke, a pediment and chimneys among the trees near the shore. Parkland is too tame an English word; here if ever, the Irish ‘demesne comes into its own.”
Little has changed at Baronscourt in the intervening decades. Time stands still on the County Tyrone estate, or, at least, moves, very, very, slowly. The main avenue gently meanders down through the valley before coming to a temporary halt outside the Agent’s House. This single storey Palladian villa erected in the 1740s by build-architect James Martin – outer Omagh’s grandest bungalow? – isn’t all it seems. Records suggest it once had an upper floor which was ignominiously lopped off when the current big house was built. The apparent piece of contemporary art on the lawn in front of the Agent’s House isn’t all it seems either. It’s actually the anchor of the ship the 4th Earl of Abercorn, ancestor of the owner of Baronscourt, fled on to France with James II after the Battle of the Boyne.
County Tyrone sure isn’t the most obvious location to come across an overblown Tudorbethan mansion. This half timbered affair would look more at home in the Surrey Hills. Southeast England, not northwest Ulster. A Cyclopean scaled forerunner to Stockbroker’s Tudor semi d’s. The landscaped gardens are an attempt to tame the wildness of this rainswept region. It’s not surprising, then, to learn the architect of Sion House was an Englishman.
The original early 19th century house, which would later be engulfed through rebuilding, was a much more typical country house of this region. It was a mildly Italianate three bay wide by three bay deep stone faced two storey house built in 1846 to the design of the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon, a starchitect of his day. A 19th century John O’Connell. Less than four decades later, William Unsworth designed a replacement house. With gusto.
William Unsworth is famed for designing the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps that’s where he developed his penchant for all things half timbered. He was mates with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned also knew his jettied projections from his mullioned multi diamond paned canted bay windows. William just happened to be the son-in-law of his client James Herdman. He was also brother-in-law of the celebrated Missionary of Morocco, Emma Herdman.
The Herdmans arrived in Ireland from Ayrshire in 1699. This Plantation family swiftly established itself as big time farmers. At the time of the first potato famine of 1835, the Herdman brothers James, John and George upped sticks to the sticks, moving from Belfast to the district of Seein in County Tyrone. Adopt a broad Ulster country accent and saying it aloud you can hear how Seein evolved into Sion. Those were the days when spelling – for those who could actually write – was idiosyncratic at best.
John Herdman had gone into partnership in 1833 with Thomas, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland who owned York Street Linen Mill in Belfast. The Herdman brothers brought this expertise to the development of a new spinning mill at Sion. Not content with just building a country house and mill, the Herdmans philanthropically added a model village, Ulster’s answer to New Lanark. Soon there was a shop, cricket club, fishing club and cottages fitted out with – ta dah! – newfangled gas as soon as it became available. William Unsworth also designed a gatehouse to frame the main entrance. Again, he discontinued the tradition of single storey demure vaguely neoclassical gatelodges. Instead a Hansel and Gretel version of the black and white three storey gatehouse of Stokesay Castle appeared.
“Sion House was my grandfather’s home. I lived there after the Second World War. It was such a busy house! As well as my relatives and Welsh nanny, there was a cook and four or five parlour maids. A dairy maid, washer maid and four under gardeners came during the day. The head gardener lived in the gatelodge. It was very self sufficient. In fact the whole of Sion Mills was like that. When we needed a plumber, he came from the mill.
The Italianate gardens were designed in 1909 by Inigo Triggs of Hampshire. Inigo was in partnership with William Unsworth and a friend of Gertrude Jekyll. I was recently asked to go along to Glenmakieran in Cultra which I’m quite sure is another Unsworth house. In 1955 a fire threatened to destroy Sion House. Such a huge house. Nevertheless my grandfather rebuilt all 50 rooms exactly as they were before. I remember the oak panelling in the dining room and linen wall covering in the drawing room.
In 1967 it took just one day for Ross’s to auction the house and its contents, even the books. The house went for only £5,000 and the contents £3,000. Fortunately Sion House is well documented. My grandfather wrote daily letters from 1934 to 1964 chronicling life in the house. At the moment I’m writing a book about my mother Maud Harriet Herdman MBE JP, a fascinating person.”
After much ado involving a collapsing clock tower and the first Compulsory Purchase Order of a Building at Risk in Northern Ireland, Hearth Preservation Trust restored the roadside stables block. It’s now a tearoom and education centre. But something is awry at Sion House. The gatehouse is boarded up; the river overgrown; the façade butchered; the lean-to fallen over. It’s as if the struggle to combat the barrenness of its far flung location has proved too much. The tall neo Elizabethan chimneystacks have been lopped off; the veranda has vanished like the lost ‘h’ from verandah. Worst of all, the back of the house looks like it’s been struck by a meteorite. There’s a gaping hole in the centre in its centre. A spiffingly watchable tragedy. Another Irish country house bites the dust. And then there were none. Less of a whodunit and more of a whodidn’tdoit. Ulster says so.
The Irish Builder flatteringly recorded the rebuilt Sion House in its December 1884 publication. Even then, the country house halcyon days had less than half a century to go. Sion House, besides being almost unique in style, was one of the last country houses to be built between the Gael and the Pale.
“Sion House, the residence of E T Herdman Esq, JP, which, for some time past, has been undergoing extensive alterations, is now completed, and as the building and grounds are singularly picturesque and pleasing, a short description of what is unquestionably one of the most unique and remarkable examples of domestic architecture in the North of Ireland, will be read with interest. The approach to the grounds is on the main road from Strabane to Baronscourt, about three miles from the latter place, and is entered through a delightfully quaint Old English gatehouse of striking originality, containing a porter’s residence and covered porch carried over the roadway.
Winding down the graceful sweep of the avenue, through the wooded grounds which appear to have been laid out with considerable judgment many years ago, we catch a glimpse of the house, reflected in the artificial ponds formed in the ravine that is crossed by a two arch stone bridge of quite medieval character.
As we approach the house, the general grouping of the house is most pleasing, and the full effects of the rich colouring of the red tiled roof is now apparent, diversified with quick pitched gables, quaint dormers, the beautifully moulded red brick chimneys, the skyline being covered by the Tyrone mountains and the village church in the distance. The style of the building is late Tudor of the half timber character, which, though it has been described as showing a singular and absurd heterogeneousness in detail, yet gives wonderful picturesqueness in general effect. The principle entrance is on the north side, through a verandah, supported on open carved brackets, in which is placed an old oak settle, elaborately carved and interlaced with natural foliage in bas-relief. On entering through an enclosed porch we are ushered into a spacious panelled hall, with its quaint old fashioned staircase, open fireplace, and wood chimneypiece, with overmantel extending to the height of the panelling.
The screens enclosing the entrance porch, as also that from the garden entrance to the southeast side, are filled in with lead lights, glazed with painted glass, and emblazoned with national and industrial emblems, monograms and coats of arms. The billiard room, which is in a semi-detached position, and entered from the east side of the hall, is very characteristic of the style of the building, having the principal roof timbers exposed, and forming the pitched ceiling into richly moulded panels. The walls are wainscoted to a height of five feet in richly moulded and panelled work. The fireplace is open, and lined with artistic glazed earthenware tiles of a deep green colour and waved surface, giving a pleasing variety of shadow, and is deeply recessed under a quaint panelled many centred architectural, freely treated, forming a most cosy chimney corner with luxurious settles on each side. On a raised hearth, laid with terra-metallic tiles in a most intricate pattern, are some of the finest examples of wrought iron dogs we have ever seen. There is also in this chimney nook a charming little window, placed so as to afford a view of the pleasure grounds. The reception rooms are on the south side. On entering the spacious drawing room we notice particularly the panelled arch across the further end, which forms a frame to the beautiful mullioned bay window, enriched with patterned lead glazing.
From the recess of the bay a side doorway leads to a slightly elevated verandah, enclosed with balustrade, extending the full length of the south façade, and leading to the beautiful conservatory on the south side, with a short flight of steps giving access to the tennis lawns. The dining room is enclosed off this verandah by a handsome mullioned screen, having folding doors and patterned lead glazing similar to the drawing room bay. The walls of this room are panelled and moulded in English figured oak, enriched with carvings, the arrangement of the buffet being an especial feature, as it forms part of the room in a coved recess and designed with the panelling. The fireplace is open and lined with tiles, in two colours, of the same description as the billiard room, with chimneypiece and overmantel of carved oak, having bevelled mirrors, and arms carved in the most artistic manner in the centre panel. The mullioned screen masked by a gracefully carved arch, made in oak, and capped (as is also the panelling over the buffet and mantel) with a moulded cornice, supported with artistically carved brackets and richly dentilled bed mouldings. Here and in the drawing room the ceilings are of elaborate workmanship, enriched in fibrous plaster, with moulded ribs in strong relief, and massive cornices, with chastely enriched members. The floor, like those of the principal rooms and halls, is laid in solid oak parquetry.
The library and morning room are situated on the north side. These rooms are complete in arrangement for comfort, most of the required furniture and fittings being constructed with the building and in perfect character. The culinary departments are situated on the west side, on the same level with the principal rooms. They are of the most perfect and convenient description, containing every modern appliance for suitable working.
Here also the evidence of artistic design is to be observed, more especially on a wrought iron hood, constructed over the range for the purpose of carrying off the odour from the cooking, to flues provided for that purpose. The hood is a very intricate piece of wrought iron work, which, we learn, was manufactured at the engineering works of the Messrs Herdman and Co. The upper floors contain 16 spacious bedrooms and dressing rooms. Several of the bedrooms are obtained by the judicious pitching up the main roof, and obtaining light through the quaintly shaped dormers, which form so marked a feature on the roofline. There is a spacious basement extending under the entire area of the building, which contains the usual offices, and in which are placed two of Pitt’s patented apparatus, now so favourable known for warming and ventilating, by which warmed fresh air is conveyed to the various apartments and corridors.
One of the great features of the exterior elevations is the balconies, of which there are several, whence views of the varied scenery and charming surroundings can be obtained. There is also easy access to the leads of the roof, from which more extended views of the beautiful and romantic valleys of the Foyle and Mourne, together with the picturesquely grouped plantations of the Baronscourt demesne, and the far-famed mountains of Barnesmore, Betsy Bell, and Mary Gray, can be seen in the distance. From this point a magnificent bird’s eye view can be obtained of the village of Sion and of the palatial buildings which form the flax spinning mills and offices of the Messrs Herdman and Co, which we are pleased to observe are so rapidly extending their lines and improving under the enlightened policy of the spirited owners.
The gardens and grounds are laid out in terraces, with low red brick walls, in character with the house, which give great effect when viewed from the several levels. It is noticeable throughout the perfectness and richness of all the detail, which has been carried out with great care, from special designs. The architect has succeeded in giving an individuality and picturesqueness of outline, due proportion of its parts and beauty of the whole, to the buildings and grounds, which have not been heretofore obtained in this part of the country.
The execution of the work throughout was entrusted (without competition) to Mr J Ballantine, builder, of this city, who has carried it out in a style of workmanship maintaining his high reputation as a builder, and reflecting credit on the skilled tradesmen associated with him in the work. The entire building, gate entrance, bridge, grounds, fittings, and principal furniture have been carried out according to the designs, and under the superintendence of Mr W F Unsworth, FRIBA.”
Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”
“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”
“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.
Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.
The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.
Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.
And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”
It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.
John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’