The Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman and Artists as Young Men
Dia dhaoibh ar maidin. There really aren’t many left. A study of the 39 (what an odd number, why not 40?) country houses featured in the book Irish Houses and Castles with its strangely coloured plates, published in 1974, reveals just 13 remain in the hands of the same families. So which ones have been so lucky? Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath | Bantry House, County Cork | Beaulieu, County Louth | Birr Castle, County Offaly | Dunsany Castle, County Meath | Glin Castle, County Limerick | Kilshannig, County Cork | Lismore Castle, County Waterford | Lough Cutra Castle, County Galway | Mount Ievers, County Cork | Leixlip Castle, County Dublin | Slane Castle, County Meath | Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath. Like Hen’s teeth.
Not so much “Where are they now?” as “What are they now?” They’re not all sob stories. Some have never looked better. Sir David Davies has brought a new lease of life to Abbey Leix. Crazy but true. The London launch of a book by William Laffan celebrating the estate’s rebirth was held with great pomp and happenstance at Lindy Guinness’s Holland Park villa mansion. Nancy Mitford’s cousin Clementine Beit’s old house Russborough looks in pretty good nick, even if restoration comes at the price of paintings disappearing. And nobody’s blaming terrorists this time… John O’Connell has worked his magic at Fota Island, the first residential restoration of the Irish Heritage Trust. And there are high hopes that the Hughes brothers, the new owners of Westport House, despite contending, conflicting lights, will preserve one of the last Richard Castle designed houses for the nation. It’s hard to keep up with Bellamont Forest: it’s seriously serially for sale. Luttrellstown Castle might be corporately owned but Eileen Plunket’s ballroom would still give Nancy Lancaster’s Yella Room a run for its money. Christie’s recently told us Stackallen, which appears in later versions of the book, has been “enriched” since it was bought by the billionaire Naughtons in 1993.
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.
Donough Cahill, Executive Director of the Irish Georgian Society, reminded the London Chapter of the recent fire at the 18th century villa Vernon Mount in Cork City. “’A study in curves’ is how the Knight of Glin described this classic gem,” lamented Donough. “A great loss. The community are heartbroken and we too are heartbroken.” It’s a reflection on the rarity and fragility of Irish country houses and makes the flourishing survival of Clonalis all the more remarkable. A former billiard room is now a museum of letters and papers from family archives, one of the best collections in private ownership in Ireland. Correspondence from the likes of William Gladstone, Samuel Johnson and Anthony Trollope is displayed in mahogany bookcases next to the harp of Turlough Carolan, a renowned 17th century blind musician. Oh, and a pedigree of 25 generations of The House of O’Conor Don hangs on the wall, starting with Turlough Mor O’Conor, High King of Ireland, who died in 1150. One ancestor brought a certain captive named Patrick to Ireland. And the rest, as they say, is history. Our patron saint. A Catholic chapel is discreetly located to the rear of the house. “There are only three such private chapels in Ireland,” remarks Marguerite. “The other two are at the Carrolls’ house in Dundalk and Derrynane, Daniel O’Connell’s house . Tread carefully. Thin places. “There is really too much to say.” Henry James again. Tráthnóna maith daoibh.