Benjamin Dean Wyatt was the eldest son of the better known James Wyatt. His public venue of 1812 has been comprehensively restored and renewed by architecture firm Haworth Tompkins. A cool £60 million later, the Grade I Listed Building doubles as a theatre and upstairs restaurant serving afternoon tea. There’s another restaurant tucked away downstairs through an archway. Much has been written and rightly so on the rejuvenation of the theatre space itself: this article concentrates on the suite of reception areas fronting the building. A Pantheon inspired domed rotunda flanked by sweeping cantilevered staircases leading to the Grand Saloon and adjoining Ante Room overlooking the portico has all the presence of a grand country house. Combine a stair with the rotunda and you’ll come close to the showpiece of Townley Hall in County Louth.
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber says, “I believe the Lane is now one of London’s most warm and beautiful auditoriums. It’s the most versatile historic theatrical space anywhere in the world.” His lordship has added prominent modern artworks to the period collection including a pair of Shakespearean paintings in one of the staircase halls by American artist Maria Kreyn: Lady M and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Upstairs in the Grand Saloon, afternoon tea with cakes by baker Lily Vanilli is being served.
In the property industry, for every floor you go up, a premium is added. Room with a view with a price tag. Presumably there’s a surcharge in the hospitality industry for a table with a view. The Hilton on Park Lane isn’t a universally beloved feature of London. Even the Queen has complained about its architecture (usually she leaves that to her eldest offspring). One way to guarantee the hotel doesn’t blot your horizon is to eat on the 28th floor. There you can see just about every other landmark from Battersea Power Station to Buckingham Palace (at Her Majesty’s displeasure). We’re looking down on The Lanesborough. We’re looking for Isabel. A frenetic excursion in Gurskyism.
The interior of Galvin at Windows by designer Keith Hobbs (who did up Nobu and Shoreditch House) is unfussy retro luxury: all husky creams and musky greens and dusky greys. A galvianised bronze ceiling sculpture unfurling like a giant Christmas cracker across the ceiling towards the view is the only bow to bling. That, and the chunky golden sculpture in the adjacent bar. More of that shortly. In this most English of settings, Chef Patron Chris Galvin has created seasonally inspired menus focused on modern French haute (no pun) cuisine. Head Chef Joo Won caters for an international audience. All Michelin starred of course(s). We opt for the menu du jour. Chris was, as you may know, the opening head chef of The Wolseley five or six years ago.
With a sense of abandon, we can but only reach for rococo hyperbole, revel in baroque pleasure and roll in art nouvelle cuisine. A radical polychromatic dream of texture and flavour. And that’s just the operatic note striking the end of the afternoon: passion fruit and dark chocolate truffle petit fours. Lady Londond’ry would approve. Mourne Mountains of diced and sliced and spliced squid, celery and seaweed come hither, as crisp as a County Down spring day. More than the title deriving mere pie, a main of vegetable tarte fine, cauliflower purée, roasted mushroom and onion juice is a distinctive essay in deconstructivism. That sculptural disruptor in the bar next door – all circles in metallic squares – transcends spheres as pink (think Diana in Savannah) praline mousse, chocolate ganache and (oh, our favourite!) marzipan ice cream. Sometimes, there’s art in simply eating.
Ok, so we’ve nabbed the best table in Galvin at Windows. Good. What’s the opposite of social Siberia? A bay window practically levitating over Hyde Park. Well, it feels like California till the auto blinds descend and the air con turns up a notch or 12. Actually the three pronged propeller shape of the Hilton, gloriously inefficient to build, does generally afford delicious views (who said the hotel’s architecture was crap?). The Thames is invisible, hidden in a sea of greyness and greenery, a chaotic urban mosaic. Wait a minute! What’s that shimmering reflection? We glimpse a pale sapphire pool cradled between the catslide roof of Montevetro and the witch’s hat roof of Chelsea Harbour Tower. There you go, the Thames reduced to a jewel. And, as it turns out, all for no extra than the table stuck next to the kitchen. It’s Good Friday. The Bishop of Stepney, who promotes the reenchantment of society, says, “Live well | Live life to the full | This life is not the end.”
“The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly; and ordered their estate…” penned Mrs Alexander wistfully gazing beyond the river running by, through the tall trees in the green wood to the purple headed Benbulben, Europe’s only table top mountain. Little did the Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh’s wife know her hymn, first published in 1848 to raise dosh for deaf mutes (stolen children), would be an early victim of political correctness. Her Anglo Irish outlook on social immobility grated with later sensibilities so the third verse about a destined housing hierarchy disappeared. Being about Markree Castle the poor man really didn’t have too bad a time at the Francis Goodwin designed Gothic gatelodge, a piece of castle itself. Fortunately Once in Royal David’s City remains intact. The name of the castle has evolved over the last five centuries from Mercury, Marcia, Markea, Markrea and finally to Markree.
Cecil Frances Alexander wasn’t the only guest to wax lyrical. William Butler Yeats recalled, “We have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.” He wrote in Running to Paradise, “Poor men have grown to be rich men; and rich men grown to be poor again.” Nowt so queer as fate. Once owned by the McDonagh clan, in 1666 the land was presented to Edward Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier from Norfolk, as a reward for his role in the Siege of Limerick. Defeated Irish chieftain Conor O’Brien’s widow Red Mary married Coronet Cooper and her two sons took the surname of their stepfather. Later, the Coopers opposed the Act of Union so no dukedom, earldom or even baronetcy was bestowed upon them. A fiefdom of 36,000 acres, generating an annual income of £10,000 by 1758, must have acted as some comfort. Any doubts of lineage and loyalty are dispelled by the stained glass window of the staircase hall. Twenty generations of Coopers are iconised between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The enlargement and embellishment of the house finally ended five years shy of the 20th century, commemorated in the date stone over the dining room French doors. In 1902 Bryan Cooper sold 30,000 acres under the Land Acts, at the same closing the basement. A seven year Indian summer was over. Benign decline in line with the times had begun.
“Markree was occupied by the Free State troops during the Civil War causing damage,” Charles reveals. “Bryan Cooper’s eldest son Francis retired in 1930 and by 1950 the family had retreated to the east wing leaving the rest of the castle empty. The majority of the remaining contents were sold off. In 1988 my older brother put Markree on the market. I’ve worked in the hotel industry at home and abroad since I was 16. My wife Mary and I decided to buy Markree with the help of large bank loans and investments from family and friends. We converted it into a country house hotel. Most of the interior needed to be restored. The roof was completely refurbished due to extensive dry rot. My daughter Patricia now manages the hotel.” The top lit billiard room suspended over the porte cochère where nothing stirs remains untouched, resembling Féau & Cie’s Parisian workshop on Rue Poncelet, fit for St Simeon Stylites (“I want to be alone.”) The family live in converted and extended castellated estate buildings. Somewhere between the castle and the gate.
Phew. Still no modern wing repro’d up to the nines. Markree remains 100 percent castle. For Pringle clad budding Rory McIlroys there are six golf courses in driving range, so to speak, for afternoon tee. Thankfully, the castle has stuck to what it does best, afternoon tea. Sleek and new golf courses: once the delight of the Irish economy; now the bane of the Irish demesne. The early 17th century siege wall of a fortress built by the McDonaghs was uncovered in the basement during restoration work. But the sash windows of the basement hold more of a clue to the current building’s true origins. Hard as it is to believe, Markree is or rather was a five bay 18th century house with a three bay breakfront façade and one bay on either side of a garden front bow. So far, so Georgian. That’s till Francis Johnston came on the scene. Joshua Cooper commissioned the architect of Charleville Forest and Killeen Castle to engulf and transform the house into a castle of the early medieval revival symmetrical kind. Not content, in 1866 his son Edward Cooper employed the Edinburgh architect James Maitland Wardrop to continue the transformation, dropping a consonant from gothick to gothic in the process. Wardrop’s output includes the Jacobaronial Kinnordy Castle and Lochinch Castle, part Balmoral part Glamis (drop the second vowel to pronounce correctly).
The result? An encyclopaedic use of castellation, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Archivolts; bartizans; batement windows (no that’s not a typo); batters; colonettes; conical roofs; crenellations; flying buttresses and octahedral roofs (witch’s hat type, keep up); foiled quarters; battlemented servants’ quarters; machiolation; parapets; skew tables (no not sure either); six minarets crowning the billiard room, demarking a mecca of pleasure; strapwork; tracery; transoms and mullions; vaults and voussoirs. An encyclopaedic mind is required to imbue these words with meaning. Back to the late and last Knight of Glin who, ever wearing his erudition lightly, inn quotable resonant lucidity observed in his latter years, “Markree Castle, an 18th century house transformed into a castle, leaves in no doubt the competence, richness and variety of Irish country house architecture as a whole.”
It may have taken a medley of architects, but oh boy, is the approach to the inner sanctums of the castle processional. Little wonder W B Yeats considered Markree regal. A sumptuous sequence of artistic compositions begins with the grand sweep of the staircase, tipping the ground at basement level before rising in steep ascent to the piano nobile. The double height staircase hall leads to a small hallway on one level. To one side, a cast iron radiator has been recast as a sarcophagus. This accordion-like alternating suppression and expansion of space heightens (yes pun) the sense of ancestral occasion, frozen music, a monument of its own magnificence. Tahdah! Into the double height staircase hall. Things simply can’t get any more exciting, can they? Oh yes – the triple height galleried hall. Francis Johnston at his hammerbeam roofed best. Each generation made their mark on Markree and, unabashed by eclecticism, untroubled by budget, unhindered by neighbours, unperturbed by vacillation, the twinned fruity Corinthian columns and compartmentalised ceiling of the adjoining cushioned sitting room render it neoclassical. Great rooms, beautiful lofty things, where travelled men, women and little childer find content or joy in excited reverie.
The dining room is a suite of three spaces good enough for Grace of Monaco to wander through. Calm hues of hammered gold, fleshy pink, off white and pale duck egg blue do little to dampen the Continental exuberance of the gold enamelled and mirrored interior installed by Edward Cooper in the 1830s. The result? An encyclopaedic use of applied decoration, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Acanthus leaves; beading; borders; bows; cornicing; coronets; crowns; egg and dart; festoons; flowers; friezes; fruit; heraldry; masks; mouldings; panels; pilasters; plaques; well fed putti – angels in the architecture; ribbons; rosettes; scrolls; shields; swags; tails; wreaths and reeds. Time for dinner amidst the surrounds of this visual feast. Courgette, mushroom and garlic amuse bouche. Whiskey bread. Ardsalagh goats’ cheese mousse with beetroot textures and lemon basil pesto. Buttermilk onion rings, always onion rings. Cockles from the sands of Lissadell, buttered samphire, cauliflower purée and sauce vierge. Pistachio (flavour of the moment) and olive oil cake, roasted strawberries and rhubarb sorbet. It’s a riot of colour and taste, Jackson Pollock in an Irish country garden.
Double doors sliding into the thickness of the dividing walls in the dining room are panelled like geometric jigsaws. Circles and squares, quadrant pieces and segmental cutouts. Jib doors allow the dado rail to continue uninterrupted. The French doors open onto an external staircase leading down to two acres of formal gardens rich in memory glorified, silent in the breathless starlit air. The staircase was the last addition to Markree and it sure did go out with a bang. It firmly belongs to the Belfast Castle outdoor staircase school of “more is more”. A piece of architecture itself, a central bay containing an unglazed Tudorbethan window is looped in the loops as they turn and turn in wildering whirls. Dartboard windows flank each side of the staircase at basement level.
In Ephemera W B Yeats ponders, “‘Ah do not mourn,’ he said; ‘That we are tired, for other loves await us; hate on and love through unrepining hours. Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’” Markree, now old and grey, exudes an air of permanence in an ephemeral age. Centuries of building, from castle to house to castle to hotel, have merged into authenticity, melded by the patina of age: one form hewn from rock, one colour, one character, one craft, oneness. (1) The staircase hall remains just that. (2) Sinéad O’Connor (Sinéad O’Connor is the new Sinéad O’Connor) can still be taken to church in the traditional sanctity of the velvet curtained chapel. (3) The kitchen has been promoted to adjoin the new dining room. (4) The dining room rebranded the Knockmuldowney Restaurant was the drawing room. (5) The library stocks fewer books as the sitting room. (6) The same ghosts peer over the galleried hall to the family portraits below. (7) Drinks continue to be served in the sitting room now it’s a bar. And don’t forget the porte cochère, still there, it’s found a humbler use as a smoking room. These days it’s more upper case Regal. At the extremity of the garden front, just before the lowest wing tapers into the garden wall, a gothic arched outbuilding is now the stately home of two cats.
All 32 bedrooms are decorated in vibrant shades and furnished with dark Victorian pieces – such antique joy. The six largest are individually named. On the second floor, The Mrs Alexander Room is 370 square feet, the size of a one bedroom flat in London. It would give Temple House’s Half Acre Bedroom a run for its money. Also on the second floor, The Charles Kingsley Room has two great windows open to the south. The second floor W B Yeats Room is a hexagonal shape, pushing into the garden front bow window. Further along the garden front second floor corridor is The Bryan Cooper Room. On the first floor, The Coronet Cooper Room over the bar has a rectangular bay window and is accessed via its own serpentine stairs sliced through the thickness of the internal wall. The Johnny Cash Room (the singer stayed here in the 1990s) over the dining room is semicircular shaped. It too has its own stairs sliced through the wall.
An illuminated address presented by the tenants of Markree to Charles Cooper’s great uncle when he attained his majority hangs in the bar. It harks back to a more hat tugging, reverential era, reflecting a social order recognisable to Mrs Alexander: “Address and presentation to Edward Francis P Cooper Esq, Markree Castle, 1933. We the undersigned employees on your estate beg your acceptance of our best congratulations on the attainment of your majority and we wish you long and happy enjoyment of the position you now occupy as owner of the Markree property. We are all aware of the interest you take in Markree, and as most of us experienced very great kindness at the hand of your late father Major B R Cooper, than whom no better employer could be. We have every confidence in thinking that you will be equally good and feel that it will be a similar pleasure to serve you. We take this opportunity of expressing our deep appreciation of the many acts of kindness that we have already received from yourself and every member of your family. In commemoration of this occasion and a slight token of our feelings, we trust you will accept this small gift that we now offer with our best wishes for your welfare in the future, at the same time hoping you will be long spared to spend many happy days at Markree.” In September 2014, Markree Castle was advertised for sale in Country Life for sale for €3,125,000.
Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” It’s pure indulgence by its very nature. Afternoon tea is a superfluous meal to be enjoyed while lesser mortals, nine-to-fivers, toil. Let the rich eat cake. Add a crystal palace, edible compositions by the UK’s leading pâtissière for over a decade (The Caterer’s words and just about everyone else’s), a flute of Ruinart and musical accompaniment by a classical pianist selected by The Royal Ballet and the ceremonial gastronomic extravagance is raised an octave or two. Music to our ears, so to sing.
The tea. Tea for two by Soho based specialists My Cup of Tea. White Jasmine has a light delicate flavour, the flowers layered between whole green tea leaves. Opera Afternoon harmonises black teas from China and Sri Lanka with the rounded sweetness of Bourbon vanilla. The savouries. Like movements in a symphony, variations in lightness and colour at once distinguish each one and complement each other. Severn & Wye smoked salmon blini; carrot and coriander humus on pear and walnut rye bread; cucumber and cream cheese on sourdough bread. The sweet savouries. Scones are accompanied by Dorset clotted cream and homemade seasonal strawberry jam. Lady Grantham would approve. The sweets. Exquisitely presented nostalgia is key to Claire’s creativity. Perennial favourite banoffee takes the form of a macaroon. A pistachio éclair with praline grains is a dolce diminuendo in subtle green. Glittering gold leaf performs a grace note atop a mandarin and kumquat amandine. A floating bar of music is the icing on the cake on Opéra Gâteau – a crescendo in chocolate.
Claire, still in chef whites, joins us for a chat. “I wanted my afternoon tea at the Royal Opera House to be traditional. This isn’t the place for modern interpretations. I’ve stuck to classical roots. My catering company is more about content – substance over style. All the ingredients are British. And there’s nowhere more British than the Royal Opera House. I’ve previously worked a lot in the West End.”
She also spent five years as head pastry chef for Thomas Keller at Napa Valley’s triple Michelin starred French Laundry, reputedly America’s top restaurant. “I’m just back from celebrating my somethingth birthday there!” Claire confides. “I was in the garden of the French Laundry last week. Working at the French Laundry is like army boot camp – but in a good way. One where everyone wants to be fit. The staff are in the best five percent in the world. Everyone’s so passionate about giving the customer a special experience they’re prepared to go to extremes. Even the gravel outside has to be raked a certain way.” This perfectionist streak is clearly shared by Claire in her passion for pastry.
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!
“One day, Charlotte was leading a suffragettes march down O’Connell Street in Dublin,” relates Lucy, “when she met a brigade led by her brother.” Awkward. “Neither of them was quite sure what to do. By rights the Lord Lieutenant should have arrested the protestors!” Instead, they each moved to the side and continued marching in opposite directions.” Literally and metaphorically.
French Park in Roscommon was the Italian inspired French family’s Irish seat designed by the German born architect Richard Castle. Like Russborough, French Park was Castle’s 18th century take on Palladio with curvy colonnades attaching wings to a colossal main house. Drama set in stone. It was the seat of the Barons de Freyne before it was demolished in the 20th century. Charlotte Despard spent a lot of time at French Park where she was born. The current Lord de Freyne, Lucy’s cousin Charles, lives in Putney. “Hampstead and St John’s Wood are my neck of the woods. A few years back I visited Roscommon,” recalls Lucy, “but couldn’t find the house. Some of the locals pointed it out. It’s a pile of rubble now.”
Back to St James Theatre. “I got involved over 18 months ago when it was just a building site,” she explains. The location is an enclave of to-die-for Georgian houses opposite Buckingham Palace. “After the previous theatre burnt down, Westminster Council had a clear vision for the site. The Council granted permission for 35 flats but insisted on a replacement theatre as well. It’s been an exciting journey for the team.” Lucy works alongside creative director Robert Mackintosh, executive artistic director David Gilmore, executive theatre director Guy Kitchenn and James Albrecht, studio director.
“It doesn’t look like a stereotypical theatre, does it?” muses Lucy, gazing towards the contemporary open plan ground floor reception and sweep of marble staircase. “St James is multifunctional. You can come here for coffee downstairs and fine dining upstairs. There are some great Italian signature dishes and a varied series of seasonal menus. Oh and never mind The Goring, we do afternoon tea here too! You can come see a show or play in the main house. And there’s comedy and cabaret in the studio.”
“St James Theatre is privately funded which gives us tremendous freedom,” Lucy confirms, “We’re self funding. With all the arts cuts and changes to arts funding, art and business are increasingly intertwined. I believe we’re at the forefront of this approach. We’ve secured a five year deal with Create Victoria which is fronted by Land Securities. We’ve got a lot of local support as well.”
The joy of building anew means there isn’t a bad seat in the house. No awkward pillars – actually make that no pillars at all – in this theatre thanks. Just a shallow curve of seats descending to the stage below in ever decreasing arcs. Comfort is key in the quietly decorated interior. Drama is saved for the stage. “It’s a highly successful theatre for actors and the audience alike,” Lucy observes. “It’s got terrific acoustics – pitch perfect for classical concerts!”
“So far we’ve hosted five plays, all wonderfully different, from Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy to Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs. In our first six months we even received an Olivier nomination.” A huge show is planned for next year. Lucy reveals a series of spoilers will be released in the run up to a September announcement. Next year’s a big year for her family history too. She’s planning a large scale event in honour of her great grandfather to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the 1st World War. Australia House on the Strand is the venue. Sir John French attended its opening in 1918.
Lucy herself cuts quite a dash, complementing her innate prettiness with millinery zeal. Her theatrical headpieces have become something of a fixture at premieres. When the theatre’s staircase, designed by Mark Humphrey, was unveiled, she wore – what else? – a maquette of the staircase. To scale, of course. “I used to make a lot of my hats,” she says. “Recently I’ve been trying something a bit different – a collaboration with a local florist. Orchids are great – they last all evening without drooping.” Her most extraordinary hat to date was a three foot sofa atop an extravagance of ostrich feathers. She wore it to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. “It was properly upholstered by a Liverpudlian furniture maker.” Was it not a little heavy? “Darling, by mid afternoon I’d got used to it.” And with that, Lady Lucy French leaves the building.