At the Irish Georgian Society London: we do like our very private houses: the longer the laneway the better. Sprivers House in the Weald of Kent ticked both boxes and then some. We were the second visitors ever as guests of the owners who run a wedding business from the house. First box well ticked then. Ancient trees reach over the laneway so lavishly that our coach couldn’t fit down the drive. The Society discovered on foot how long the laneway is: very. Second box very well ticked then.
Local historian Andrew Wells has studied Sprivers House and its past owners: “Alexander Courthope encased the two storey hall house in pink Flemish bonded brick, adding hung tiles to the first floor of the gabled west front. He built the new east extension as the principle five bay elevation, one bay deep, with a pedimented doorcase with Doric pilasters, the three central bays more closely spaced with pedimented dormers in the hipped roof above, the middle one segmental.” This work is recorded by “AC 1756” on the keystone and imposts of the round headed stair window to the north. “AC 1746” on bricks above the stable house door prove it to be a decade earlier.
Andrew is on a roll: “Internally the impact of the outer hall is the heraldry of the Courthope and related families contained in excellent rococo plaster cartouches, beneath an enriched modillion cornice continued throughout the Georgian house. The panelled inner hall contains a restored Chinese Chippendale staircase with a ramped handrail, beneath a gadrooned cornice and deeply coved guilloche bordered ceiling. The panelled drawing room and dining room have wooden chimneypieces with scrolled friezes.”
Robert Courthope flogged the house at Christies in 1946. It is now owned by the National Trust who rent it to the current occupiers. Sprivers House has barely changed in a couple of hundred years, passing unscathed through Victorian times. A 15th century moat reveals it to be a truly historic site. The 21st century luxury of our coach: after a very long walk down the laneway: transported us back to London and back to life.
First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.It took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.
Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”
Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.