With Buildings as with Faces There are Moments when the Forceful Mystery of the Inner Being Appears
It’s one of the majestic sights of Derbyshire. The unmissable Bolsover Castle is perched on a ridge high above the Vale of Scarsdale commanding attention for kilometres. Built on the site of a medieval fortress, the castle is a rare example of a 17th century aristocratic residence that was never Georgianised or Victorianised. Its centrepiece, The Little Castle, rising sheer from the cliff and overlooking the lawn in the bawn from dusk to dawn, was designed to resemble a Norman keep and does a pretty good job of that, certainly from a distance. The Cavendish family added parapets and installed rich panelling and colourful wall paintings in the main rooms. Historian Anne Daye calls their work “bijou fortification”.
The reason for it surviving unmodernised is not uncommon – neglect. In 1984 English Heritage took over the castle and began restoring it. Some of the lower building ranges are windowless and roofless but are otherwise intact ruins. The Little Castle has been so restored it’s as if the Cavendishes have just popped out in their sedan chairs. Respectfully set back from the stone walled compound, a contemporary café in a slick single storey pavilion mightn’t cook banquets but does serve up rather good sandwiches and cake.
Julie Shelswell-White lives at Bantry House and a couple of years ago along with her brother Sam took over its running. She suggests, “Take a guided tour or wander about at your own leisure to learn about the history of this family home. Relax with a light lunch or tea and cake in our tearoom overlooking the sunken garden. For a special treat enjoy an afternoon tea in the Library. Our bed and breakfast in the East Wing of the house has six rooms all en suite, with beautiful views of the formal garden. Guests are welcome to enjoy a drink from the honesty bar by the open fire in the Library or take a fellow guest on, in the Billiards Room. The estate is the perfect setting for weddings and celebrations. From a simple ceremony or intimate dinner to full estate rental, the house and garden offer many options.”
Old photographs show how little the house has changed in the last 100 years or so. One part that has disappeared with a trace or two is the huge conservatory that once arched and vaulted and summer salted its way across the six central bays of the garden front. The red brick pilasters topped with Corinthian Coade stone capitals between these six bays were chopped off in line with the top of the piano nobile windows at the time of the conservatory’s construction. This has left these pilasters ‘floating’ in perpetuity, a charming idiosyncrasy. The now white window frames of the house were once painted seaweed green. There’s a sublime Mediterranean feel to the whole estate from its loggia verandah to the balustraded prospect over Bantry Bay.
But there’s an inherent fragility despite the air of apparent permanence. Raghnall Ó Floinn, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, explains, “Bantry House is a major tourist asset in the southwest of Ireland but action by the State to secure its future and that of its contents should be undertaken for the public good. Such an action by the State to protect our much diminished cultural heritage contributes to the national sense of health and wellbeing; it is the right thing to do… In the overwhelming majority of cases the contents of these great Irish houses have been broken up and sold, ending up scattered throughout the world in museums, galleries and private hands. Once sold, such collections can never be replaced. Successive owners of the house have been forced to sell parts of the contents of the house piecemeal.”
The Bantry House Report of 2015 by the Director of Crawford Art Gallery in Cork City, Peter Murray, investigated a plan for the gallery and the family to work together to ensure the survival of the important historic house and its collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries and decorative arts. “While the Guardi paintings have gone, sold in the 1950s, and while some of the tapestries and paintings have also been sold, Bantry House is remarkable in that much of the wonderful collection amassed in Europe in the 1820s by the White family, still remains in situ two centuries later. However, the financial viability of Bantry House remains a personal challenge, and in October 2014, the Shelswell-White family announced, with great regret, that the remainder of the collection would have to be sold, to meet bank debts. In the event, the sale did not take place, but the future of the collection remains very much in jeopardy.”
“The proposed solution for Bantry House is for its collection to be acquired by a donor, an individual or a company, and then donated to the Crawford Art Gallery. The donor can then avail of tax relief under Section 1003 of the Finance Act. The Crawford Art Gallery would then lend the collection back to Bantry House on a long term agreement, subject to the house remaining open to the public. The outcome would be very similar to that of the Wedgwood Collection in Britain. This would ensure the collection remains in Ireland as an important cultural tourism attraction.” Solutions continue to be sought, but for now, the house, its contents and estate are together.
The first time we visited Mourne Park House, November 1992, the recently widowed Julie Ann Anley whisked us off on a whistlestop tour. “It’s great!” she laughed. “No one ever bothers us here because the house isn’t architecturally important.” This was no tourist attraction. The country house as time capsule may have emerged as a phenonomen in the Eighties when Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly was applicable to an extreme at MPH in the wilds of County Down. While the Treasury saved Calke, sadly no knight in shining armour would come to MPH’s rescue.
The last time we visited the house, April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public rummaging over the soon to be dispersed contents. Everything was beginning to unravel. Beige auction labels dangled like insipid baubles from Christmas past, hanging on everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard while the building itself was crumbling at the edges. The auction was the outcome of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Needham Fergus Philip Gore Anley in 1992, dragging through the courts until the opening days of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or inter sibling love, it was finally settled.
But by the end of the decade, the close of last century, this harmony of outlook had floundered following much brouhaha over how the estate should be run. Events reached a dramatic climax when Marion removed what she considered to be her fair share of the contents from the house in a midnight flit. Her refusal to reveal the whereabouts of these “chattels” as the courts would archaically call them resulted in Marion spending a week at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only concluded when it was finally agreed that she could keep her share and her brother and sister would auction off their two thirds of the contents.
Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it doesn’t boast the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or share the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House, to take two other South Down seats. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Georgian and Victorian are the norm. MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn of local granite and its lavish use of green paint (Farrow + Ball’s Folly Green?) on bargeboards and garden furniture, window frames and porches, and the endless array of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century lending the house a magical nostalgic air. And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house and stables are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130 metres above oak and beech woodlands. A Victorian visitor, William Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park. “The scene… from the front entrance is indeed very fine. Before you, in the precincts of the mansion, is a lake. Beyond this lake, the demesne stretches away with a gently rising slope, which hides the intervening land, till one can fancy that the sea waves lap the lawns of the park.”
The genesis of the current building dates back to at least 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey employed Thaddeus Gallier of County Louth to build the central block. It replaced an earlier house on the site. An architect or ‘journeyman builder’, he had already completed Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned that five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the des res of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, the middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. A glazed porch under the semicircular fanlight partially obscures the double entrance doors in the middle of the three bay breakfront. Otherwise, Thaddeus Gallagher’s façade remains untouched. Relieving arches over upstairs windows introduce a motif he was to later employ at MPH. At Anaverna he proved himself to be a designer of considerable sophistication. His was no vainglorious provincial hand. Thaddeus Gallagher’s son James, who recorded in his autobiography that his father worked at MPH for nine months in 1818, emigrated to New Orleans where he carried on the dynastic tradition of designing fine architecture. His grandson, James Gallier Junior, was a third generation architect and his 1857 New Orleans townhouse is now the Gallier House Museum.
The first of multiple incarnations of MPH, Thomas Gallagher’s design was a typical late Georgian two storey country house with Wyatt windows on either side of a doorway similar to Anaverna’s. Next a third storey was added and then some time after 1859 a new two storey front of the same height was plonked in front of the existing house, so that the rooms in the newer block have much higher ceilings that those behind. The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of the Wyatt arrangement are twin windows set in shallow recesses rising through both storeys with relieving arches over them. It is the combination of these paired windows and gentle arches, like brows over the eyes of the building, which lends the garden front such a memorable look. In the central breakfront the bottom of the shallow recess floats over the entrance door which is treated as another window, flanked on either side by a window of similar shape and size. A low parapet over a slender cornice partially conceals the hipped roof which wraps round the roof lantern over the staircase. Five attic bedrooms are tucked under the eaves with windows overlooking the roof lantern, unseen from the outside world.
Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl – the Kilmoreys had climbed a rung or two up the aristocratic ladder when his father the 12th Viscount was made an earl for his services to the development of Newry – commissioned a ‘famine wall’. This was a method used at the height of the Irish Famine by many Big House families to create work and keep locals from starving. The cheaply constructed three metre high granite walls also benefitted the estate. The 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gatelodges, at this time. Whitewater Gate Lodge was built in the 1830s and Ballymaglogh Gate Lodge in the 1850s.
But it was the alterations of the 3rd and 4th Earls which gave MPH its Edwardian air. “It’s not fit for a gentleman to live in!” raged the 3rd Earl upon his inheritance. His gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows to the garden front and continued up until 1904 when he built a single storey peninsular wing perpendicular to the back of the house. Long Room Passage leads to Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and onwards to the dual aspect Long Room (four pairs of French doors face four sash windows) with its hammerbeam roof, the latter finished in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings in the 1890s with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.
A century or more of each generation making their mark on MPH has produced a fascinating interior full of surprising variations in floor levels and ceiling heights and room sizes. The main block is arranged like three parallel slices of a square cake, each different in essence. The oldest three storey slice at the back of the house has low ceilings and small windows, some retaining their Georgian glazing bars. A row of rooms overlooking the stables is accessed off the Long Corridor on the ground floor, the Rosie Passage on the first floor, and the Servants’ Passage on the second floor. The middle slice contains the Hall, Inner Hall, Staircase Hall and Blue Room, opening off each other like first class railway carriages. The first floor bedrooms in the front and middle slice are clustered together off two lobbies except for the Best Bedroom which appropriately takes pride of place in the middle of the garden front and is the only one to be accessed directly off the landing of the Staircase Hall. The ground floor of the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Dining Room (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?), the Ante Room and the Drawing Room where Sir Malcolm Sargent had once played the piano. A low two storey kitchen and nursery wing parallel to the Long Room wing links with the stables to create a courtyard to the rear of the house. Room naming at MPH clearly follows the Ronseal approach (“It does what it says on the tin”).
All the ground and first floor rooms were open during the auction preview weekend. We began the tour that we’d gone on a decade earlier, only with a printed rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats that had followed us around the first time round. “Come on, get out now!” Julie Ann had bellowed as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two! It’s not as if the cats even catch mice; they just watch them race by.” Now people were talking in mellow hushed murmurs as if at a wake, respectfully leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office, thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.
The Hall, dressed like a long gallery with paintings hung on pale painted (Farrow + Ball’s Wimborne White?) panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, MPH’s most exciting interior moment. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight accessed through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and apertures afford tantalising glimpses of corridors filled with shadowy ghosts. MPH, a Mary Celeste in granite.
Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study has an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room tucked away in the far corner of the house. A seven metre long oak bookcase, used as a temporary display cabinet for the preview (sold for £3,000), and a chesterfield sofa (sold for £800) completed the butch mood of the good Lord’s space. On the other hand, the feminity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was enhanced by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoiserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. Outside, a life size marble garden statue of Ulysses and His Dog by Lawrence MacDonald sold for £110,000. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor. The house no longer felt private.
The main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. Shabby chic, to use another Eighties cliché, sprung to mind. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Ascendancy and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days. In the Billiard Room (or Morning Room), a corner timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declared this room to have been decorated in the early 20th century. Paint (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?) was peeling, curtains were crumbling. An air of faded grandeur pervaded the Long Room. Triumphal flags now in tatters and coloured wall lamps dulled by the passage of time poignantly hinted at past glories and forgotten parties. A suite of oak bookcases had been supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of window openings. One pair sold for £3,000. The kitchen had lost the lived in look that we remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. The rows of ceiling hooks for hanging game had gone. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.
“People say it’s as if time stood still in the house,” Philip Anley told us on the opening day of the auction. “That’s a tribute to mum,” he added, acknowledging Julie Ann’s efforts to maintain MPH while working full time as a teacher. Sales had taken place at Mourne Park before. Shortly before his death, Nicholas had sold more than half the original 800 hectare estate to Mourne Park Golf Club (since renamed Kilkeel Golf Club), allowing it to extend from a nine hole to an 18 hole course. A decade before he had bought out the interest of his aunt, Lady Hyacinth, which allowed her family to remove various heirlooms in lieu of any stake in the house itself. The inheritance of the title and estate had already split in 1960. However this sale was different. It was “the end of an era” according to Philip.
In the words of Herbert Jackson Stops’ introduction to the 1920s sales catalogue of Stowe: “It is with a feeling of profound regret that the auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sales catalogue which may destroy for ever the glories of the house, and disperse to the four winds of heaven its wonderful collections, leaving only memories of the spacious past.” A rare level of disarming honesty compared to recent excuses for flogging the family silver. Try, “We are delighted that others will have the chance to enjoy objects which it has given him so much pleasure to discover…” Or, “In this sale which has been carefully selected so as not to damage the overall integrity of the collection…” Alternatively, “In order to allow for reinvestment which will underpin the long term future of the estate, the trustees have carefully selected a number of pieces to be sold at Christie’s this summer…”
The raven haired Sara Kenny from HOK Fine Art (she would later set up on her own launching Sara Kenny Fine Art in 2005) conducted the auction raising a total of £1.3 million. Prices were high with dealers bidding against collectors against locals. “My dad worked on the estate so we want some sort of keepsake,” we overheard. It seemed everyone wanted their piece of MPH. Auction excitement reached fever pitch on the last day when lot 1391 came up. It was the ‘Red Book of Shavington, in the County of Salop, a seat of The Right Honble [sic] Lord Viscount Kilmorey’. For those who don’t know, Red Books were the invention of Humphry Repton, a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. He created or transformed over 200 English estates. His mantra was natural beauty enhanced by art. His practice was to complete a Red Book for each client.
The Shavington Red Book was a slim volume encased in red leather containing his proposals for “Improvements” outlined in neat copperplate handwriting and illustrated with maps, plans, drawings and watercolours. Several bidders appreciated its exquisite beauty and historical importance. In the end it went under the hammer for £41,000. The 3rd Earl of Kilmorey had sold Shavington, the family seat in Shropshire, in 1881 to pay for debts his father had accrued. He crammed much of the furniture into MPH. Shavington items auctioned included two early 19th century pieces by Gillows of Lancaster which each sold for £11,000: the Corner Bedroom wardrobe and the architect’s desk from the Library.
Mourne Park estate may not have benefitted from the romantic touch of Humphry Repton but its rugged character, derived from the granite face of Knockcree, remains mostly unchanged from sepia tinted 19th century landscape photographs. The same can’t be said for the interior of the granite faced house. “I’ll always remember the day you visited Mourne Park,” Julie Ann had said, strolling up the old drive, “as the day the boathouse collapsed.” And sure enough, the gable ended half timbered boathouse, which had stood there for centuries, not so much collapsed as gently slipped into the lake like a maiden aunt taking a dip in the water. After a few ripples, it disappeared. Forever.
And so 11 years later, masterpieces and miscellany, a record of Edwardian living in its original setting, is gone, just like the boathouse. It was a sad ending for the collection that formed the soul of one of Ulster’s Big Houses. Sad for the family and for the people of Newry and Mourne whose toil allowed the family to amass a fortune in very fine things. In the middle of the (now) 57 hectare estate still stands the house itself, stripped of its contents, naked as the classical statues that once graced the lawns around the lake, awaiting its fate.
Much Ballyhoo! That was then and this is now. Following the auction, Marion placed MPH on the market. “Life is taking us in a different direction,” she said wistfully. “We’re spending more and more time abroad. So it’s made a bit of a nonsense us being here. Em, so a very difficult decision. But we’ve decided to put the estate on the market. I’m sure the moment that I leave is going to be difficult. But having made the decision, you just have to go with it, really.” Its £10 million boom time price guide soon slumped to £6.5 million then £3.5 million but there were still no takers. Marion clung on, admirably restoring the house and beginning to add suitable furniture. Impressively she uncovered and restored an extensive lost Edwardian rock garden. “It was so exciting,” she enthused, “A bit like an archaeological dig. Every day a bit more would emerge.” A happy ending of sorts, but this is MPH, forever permeated by Ibsenesque melancholy.
In June 2013, Marion and her family returned from holidays to find fire engines lining the driveway. More than 80 firefighters were tackling an inferno which had engulfed the main block. The roof, where the fire had started, had collapsed – molten history. Fire Service Area Commander John Allen said, “Our priorities were, one, to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjoining wings of the building and, two, to save as many of the artefacts in the building as we could. Not only the artefacts in terms of history and legacy, but also, this is a family home where children live. Our intent was also to save their items which were of sentimental value.”
Mourne Park House: the place with the endless postscript. The irrepressible Marion Scarlett Needham Russell has plans to transform the house into a 126 bedroom hotel and spa. Since 2000, Irish architects Mullarkey Pedersen have been working up a vision to convert and extend the house and its outbuildings. The châtelaine confirms, “Since the fire, we have done everything we can to preserve the structure of the building: removing, storing and shoring up where necessary. We’re absolutely committed to seeing the restoration of Mourne Park once again and have open minds as to how this would be achieved. The rebuild is currently on hold until the right person or group comes forward to claim the opportunity.” Is a northern Castle Leslie in the making?
After organising a hugely successful and academically driven Irish Georgian Society London work-in-progress tour of Pitzhanger Manor, Sir John Soane’s country home (due to reopen to the public next year), an invitation to breakfast at his townhouse museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields proves providentially irresistible. Morning sunlight pierces the shadowy interiors, soaking the sarcophagi, the inimitable collection lit by shafts of coloured light through stained glass cupolas and lanterns and domes. Nowhere in the capital is there such a multilayering of art and ideas. As Bryan Ferry used to sing, “All styles served here…”
We’ve heard of the Soane style being heralded as the forerunner of modernism – think of his streamlined later work – but today’s proclamation is about his postmodernism aesthetic. Applying such plaudits, bestowing such honorifics to the ultimate disruptor, is but a fitting tribute. Dr Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John’s Soane Museum, says, “In many ways Soane was postmodern. He’d no fear of adapting different styles. Even the double coding of this building as a house-museum and workplace is postmodern.” A diorama of China Wharf by the cleverest postmodernists, CZWG, takes pride of place in the first floor gallery space. The custard yellow egg in the custard yellow drawing room looks strangely familiar. Turns out it’s from Terry Farrell’s TV AM building.
There’s also an exhibition on the ground floor of what Bruce calls “remarkable digital collages”. It comprises three works by the artist Emily Allchurch. She trained as a sculptor and has an MA from the Royal College of Art. Emily was inspired by significant works by the artist Giovanni Piranesi and the architectural illustrator Joseph Gandy in the Museum’s collections. “The light boxes are windows into another world,” she explains. “My practice creates a dialogue between historic artworks and the present day, using hundreds of photographs and a seamless digital collage technique to recreate the original image in a contemporary idiom. I always take my own photographs. Visiting the buildings is part of the journey.”
On a recent visit to Polesden Lacey in Surrey the lawns resembled a scene from a Baz Luhrmann movie. In the sweltering heat, a jazz band serenaded hordes of picnickers, sightseers and sunbathers on the lawn. All that was missing was Gatsby romancing Daisy in the loggia. Another recent trip was to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, once England’s least known country house. On a misty day, not only was the car park full but the fields had been turned into an overflow. Tours of the house were timed to avoid overcrowding.
A visit to Lissan House in Tyrone earlier this summer couldn’t have been more different. On a bright Saturday afternoon, the place was as deserted as when the last owner Hazel Dolling née Staples lived there alone. Wuthering Heights with neither Heathcliff nor Cathy at home. Is it a general Irish malaise about the gentry while across the water, brown sign hunters in their Hunters queue to see how the other 0.1% lived? Admittedly both National Trust houses mentioned are close to conurbations while Lissan House is miles from anywhere. The nearest town is Cookstown which reputedly has the widest street in Ireland. Population circa 11,000.
“I hope you felt privileged to have it all to yourselves,” begins Nicholas Groves-Raines. His architectural practice was responsible for the recent restoration of the house. “Lissan is a hidden, secret place and that is part of its great charm. It is well off the main tourist routes, the M1 and M2, and away from the tourist centres such as the north coast and Belfast, making it harder to entice visitors. However it is used by the local community and on a number of occasions they have even had to employ overspill parking for events.”
He explains, “The works recently completed at Lissan are only a first phase of a larger scheme to redevelop the demesne and bring all of the derelict buildings back into use as funds allow. In the next few years, it is hoped that Lissan will become a much more lively place whilst retaining its unique character. It would be good to firmly place Lissan House on the tourist map of Northern Ireland.” Lissan had its 15 inches of fame back in 2007 when Mrs Dolling fronted the campaign to win funding on the TV programme Restoration. In the end it lost out to Manchester’s Victoria Baths. Again a case of population density influencing situations.
Witnessing early on in his career the needless destruction of historic town centres and buildings in the name of progress persuaded Nicholas to specialise in conservation. “I am now an accredited conservation architect but work on a variety of projects including new builds,” he says. Nicholas puts his money where his mouth is: Lamb’s House to be precise. That is his Grade A listed office, an early 17th century Scottish baronial pile in Edinburgh.
“Newhailes, just outside Edinburgh, is like Lissan,” Nicholas continues. “Now run by the National Trust for Scotland as a visitor attraction, it too was used as a family house until recently. Newhailes is a time capsule from the 18th century, having changed little from that period. Like much of Lissan, it remains pretty much as it was when the Trust acquired it. The house hasn’t been ‘restored’ as such, having only had essential repairs carried out to preserve it for the future.”
The exterior of Lissan House has changed, though. Out, mostly, went the casement windows. Gone is the one shade of grey of the walls. Nicholas relates, “Early photographs show the house had sash and case windows until the late 19th century. A few sashes had been reused in the buildings, so we did have good examples of the original detailing to work from. The modern casements were constructed from inferior quality timber and were not weatherproof due to poor workmanship and rot. They were crudely fitted into the former sash boxes that were still built into the walls. The majority were beyond repair and so a decision had to be made about what form the new windows should take. Sashes were installed to match the originals. The few windows that are not now sashes were part of a late 19th century extension.”
The cement based render also dated from the late 19th century. “It was in poor condition and holding dampness in the walls,” he says. “There was ample evidence of the original lime render and off-white limewash remaining in sheltered areas, backed up by early photographs that confirmed the house had previously been lighter in colour. The new lime render and limewash allow the walls to breathe and should protect the house for many years to come. Limewash helps to prolong the life of lime render.”
Despite its size, the 28 bedroom Lissan House is somewhat vernacular rather than grand in nature. Davis Ducart may have been responsible for the ornamental bridge but not the house. “The Staples family were originally industrialists rather than landed gentry,” says Nicholas. “Early visitors to the house mention a noisy forge nearby where locally mined iron was worked. Lissan started out as a much smaller house that was extended again and again over the centuries as money and tastes dictated. Unlike many mansions it was not built in a single phase to the designs of a professional architect or master builder. It is an accumulation of its varied history.” Lissan House Trustees now look after the house and estate.
Nicholas ends, “Lissan is unique and contains relics and remnants from all of its past, some of which are probably still hidden.” Visible charming quirks and quirky charms include the suspended glazed corridor to the rear resembling a train carriage mid air. The standalone bow fronted coachman’s room linked only to the front of the house by the arched canopy of the porte-cochère. The amber paned double glazed bay window bulging out of the side elevation. Best of all is the staircase which consumes all three-and-a-half storeys of the cavernous main hall with more dog legs than Crufts.
Leaf through the editorial pages of Country Life circa 1970 and the text to image ratio is roughly 80:20. Pick up a recent copy of the magazine and it’s more like 20:80. Philosopher of Medicine and BBC New Generation Thinker Dr Charlotte Blease muses, “We are bombarded by media now. There are a million other distractions besides sitting reading a magazine article. And we’ve become used to a smorgasbord of appetisers served up to us that satisfies our attention and kills the appetite for something larger and meatier. Consequently there’s a competitiveness in grabbing our attention immediately before someone or something else does that.”
Dr Blease argues, “Tweets are the ultimate informational candy. Tweets as sweets? Cognitively they’re like a carb overload. They rot the brain. They’re informational infantilism. McMedia.” On that note, for the attention span challenged, welcome to the first McReview by Lavender’s Blue. It features Callow Hall in Derbyshire. A relaxing hotel, handy for visiting country houses such as Calke Abbey and Alton Towers. There. Dunnit. Lived up to our reputation as self styled Snappy Wordsmiths. Even managed a callow pun in that 15 word review.
Of course if it wasn’t a McReview, we would talk about Callow Hall’s quirks such as how the bedrooms are named after previous owners, like Dorothy and David. Castle Leslie is another example of this trend. A different country house trend and not any less eccentrically egocentric is to name bedrooms after places visited by the owning family. Two Northern Irish houses come up trumps. Mount Stewart and Clandeboye. Who wouldn’t want to sleep in Amsterdam, Hague, Rome or Paris at Mount Stewart? And the bedroom corridors of Clandeboye read like BA departure lounges: Burma, Canada, France, Italy, Killyleagh, Muttra, Ottawa, Paris, Rome, Russia, Shimla, St Petersburg and Walmer. Ok, maybe not Killyleagh.