Dinner in The Garrick Beneath the Watchful Eyes of Mrs Bracegirdle
The Cloud Capped Towers Shakespeare in Soane’s Architectural Imagination
Hot on the unclad heels of Sarah Lucas’s show at Sir John Soane’s Museum comes an exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. London is awash with Shakespeare festivities from Somerset House to Dr Johnson’s House. The Soanian exhibition is the best, the most intriguing, and is set in a superior interior. The playwright’s connection to the architect is far from tenuous. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Soane comes halfway between Shakespeare’s time and ours,” muses Dr Frances Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books at the museum. Last spotted leading a tour of 20 St James’s Square, Fran is one of a trio of erudite academics on duty. “The bard’s reputation was really only fully established in the 18th century Georgian period. He wasn’t a national hero before then. It kicked off, in part, with the actor David Garrick. And the Shakespeare Ladies Society! Soane, as an educated gentleman, was a collector of Shakespeariana.”
Professor Alison Shell of University College London, Guest Curator of the exhibition, adds, “Bibliophilia gathered pace as the 19th century progressed. Bibliomania! The madness of books! Soane acquired all four Shakespeare folios, a feat a private collector could never match now. One of the folios belonged to James Boswell. Shakespeare was something of a religion to Soane who venerated great men. Soane was a Romantic with a capital R!”
The exhibition space occupies two first floor galleries in the house to the left of the museum’s famous façade. “It was too tempting not to get out all four folios to make the point! Lovely!” smiles Alison. “It’s a celebration of the imaginations of Soane and Shakespeare.” The patronage of Dr Johnson’s friend Garrick is on display through actors’ portraits and theatre designs. Garrick commissioned both Soane and Robert Adam so another celebrated architect is represented. Indeed, Soane astutely purchased the full set of Adam’s office drawings.
Tying various artistic strands together is Soane’s drawing of George Dance’s front elevation of the Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall. Short lived and commercially disastrous, the design of the Shakespeare Gallery nonetheless was inspirational to Soane. Its flying saucer domes would later reappear at the Dulwich Gallery.
Museum Archivist Sue Palmer points to a diary, “Rather charmingly, when Eliza and he went to visit their son studying architecture in Liverpool, Soane noted their visit to plays in Stratford-upon-Avon. So that’s rather fun!” All three academics concur that Soane was the most literary architect Britain has ever had. In 10 out of his 12 Royal Academy lectures he quoted Shakespeare. His interest in theatre, a medium obsessed with illusion, befits the great conjurer of space. Soane promoted Shakespeare as the supreme embodiment of English literature. The architect never knowingly undersold his talent. No doubt Soane was heavily hinting that he was the supreme embodiment of English architecture.
Shillelaghs and Shenanigans
It’s time to knot the William Evans of St James’s shamrock ties. From St Patrick’s Eve to St Patricks’ Evening, west Britain comes to the West End. Ukuleles tuned, Lavender’s Blue enjoy high church and high jinx. St Patrick’s Church is gleaming, no, really gleaming, seriously gleaming, super gleaming, following a recent restoration. Marble practically flows down the steps onto Soho Square. It’s more Italianate than the Vatican City; more Romanesque than the Sacred City. St Patrick’s was the first church in England dedicated to the Patron Saint of Ireland. Shamrocks are blessed and given out after Mass for the Solemnity of St Patrick. This is the last church in London to carry out the tradition. The principal celebrant is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, former head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Next stop, dining at the O+C Club to end St Patrick’s Eve. Pumpkin gnocchi with herb cream sauce and parmesan is followed by seared scallops with crab and ginger. And of course the club specials – Saint-Véran 2012 and the pudding trolley. His Eminence is off to The Garrick.
Heal’s lives up to its rep on St Patrick’s Evening as the shop that likes to party, throwing an Irish hooley up there with Finnegans Wake. We’re on it like a car bonnet. Sadly teetering on the edge of living memory, Tottenham Court Road was once lined with smart furniture shops. Heal’s, although missing its original concave shop windows, remains standing tall and proud. It’s the launch party of Design Ireland, a showcase for Irish products. Rathbornes 1488 takes pride of place. It’s the oldest candle company in the world. For over half a millennium, Rathbornes has illuminated the homes, churches and lighthouses of Ireland. As well as Brown Thomas in Dublin, Rathbornes’ products are now stocked in Fortnum + Mason and Heal’s. The DJ ups the beat. Tonight Lavender isn’t blue; Lavender’s green.
Demands of the Temple of The Sun at Baalbec | Let the Heavens Open
It was always going to be a raucous affair: dinner with Westbourne and Lavender’s Blue intern Annabel P at Il Pirata in Shepherd Market. Boom. Torrential rain merely exhilarated bacchanalian spirits while devouring tapas alfresco. So did an octopusfest of salpicón de marisco and pulpo a la gallega. Shepherd Market is round the block from the Queen’s birthplace in Mayfair. Like Her Maj, it’s close to the madding crowd yet discretely detached. Capital royal discretion continued when the divine Princess Alexandra popped by Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt. Oh, yes. Of course it’s rude to namedrop but the Westminster Property Association lunch with Lord Adonis at the Grosvenor House Hotel was rather fun too. Next, town and country came together in the bumptious dining room of the Garrick Club, recently spruced up by Christopher Vane Percy, over supper with the great Irish philanthropists Martin and Carmel Naughton. Finally, acoustic levels are a little lower dining like lords (bands of ermine at the ready) inside Tyrella House which hugs the south coast of County Down. After the turbulent intensity of autumnal London living and Spanish travelling, a late blossoming of Ulster quietude ensues. Long table à deux please. Calling it the Sandringham of Northern Ireland may stretch the royal metaphor a trifle far. Plus it’s much prettier.
Surprisingly Tyrella House isn’t covered by Burke or Brett. Lavender’s Blue gladly fill the gap, plug the hole, step o
into the b reach. Surprising, that is, considering it’s a roomy building of historical, architectural and social significance, twice as deep as it’s wide, lumber rooms uncounted, holding court amidst low lying greenery. First glimpse (through a verdurous vista) from the sweeping driveway past the hillside sham fort (every entrance should have one) is of a squarish main block five bays side on, four bays frontal. A neoclassical beauty; architecture’s acme: Augustus’s vision and Maecenas’s taste and Dostoevsky’s nuances set in stone. The house’s character changes when viewed from the garden. The far side, which will be moonlit later, is elongated by a long lower less imposing wing. This arrangement has adapted well to Tyrella’s 21st century modus operandi. The main block is open to paying guests under the gilded parasol of The Hidden Ireland while the owner, David Corbett, lives to the rear. Another of the group’s seaside properties, almost dipping its toes in the water of Woodstown Bay, is the supremely suave Gaultier Lodge, where the owners live most of the year below the guest rooms in a lower ground floor. “Houses in The Hidden Ireland,” explains David, “must be owner occupied.”
Princess Diana famously quipped “three’s a crowd” but clearly squires of 18th century Ulster disagreed. Tripartite windows were all the rage. Their legacy is a series of glazed triptychs framing views of the countryside. And draughts – ménage à froid. The entrance front of Tyrella has pearly twin sets. Fellow Mournes mansion Ballywillwill House likewise has four. Clady House Dunadry has five; Glenganagh House Ballyholme, six; Drumnabreeze House and Grace Hall Magheralin neighbours, eight; Craigmore House Aghagallon, 10; Crevenagh House Omagh, numberless. Tyrella’s windows are even more special, stretching head to toe, and like Montalto’s, skirt the driveway. Standing in the regal dining room is like “Hardwick Hall more windows than wall”. Soon, silverware will sparkle in the candlelight. Pictures and conversations will merge. Sitting in the princely drawing room is like being immersed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of her home, “The few large living rooms at Bowen’s Court are, thus, a curious paradox – a great part of their walls being window glass, they are charged with the light, smell and colour of the prevailing weather; at the same time they are very indoors, urbane, hypnotic, not easily left.” Lying on the queen size bed as the internal pale transitory colours of the hour fade, dreams past and future are present. Outside, framed by the curved sashes of the half oriel window, across silent lawns, the tamed headland lies submerged in shadow, the ridge of the Mournes melting into silver drifts of cloud alight with gold, lilac, mauve and pink lining.
The original architect isn’t known but whoever he was, the outcome is a meeting of métier and form, augmented and mellowed through the ages. According to illustrious architect John O’Connell, “This is a very accomplished Georgian box, as they used to say.” Architectural aficionado Nick Sheaff reckons it is “an incredibly elegant country house, and in some ways it reminds me of James Gandon’s Abbeville”. Better known as Charlie Haughey’s old gaf. Charles Plante, the celebrated director of Charles Plante Fine Arts, says, “I love the front dripping with ivy and the chic Regency bow window.” Three arched openings – a window on either side of the entrance door, are framed by a slim Doric portico celebrating the triglyph’s verticality, the architrave’s horizontality and the proportional totality of the order. Not dissimilar really to the central arrangement of Clandeboye’s garden front. “It’s Tuscan Doric,” confirms Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell. “Tuscan is rural, countrified, perfectly correct for this type of house. The window proportions are dictated by the portico. That’s particularly attractive.” A stained glass window of the Craig family crest in the study is a leftover from previous owners. Notable family members included the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James “Not an Inch” Craig (1st Viscount Craigavon) and his architect and yacht designer brother Vincent who combined both his skills at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club Ballyholme. The 3rd and last Viscount, Janric Craig, born in 1944, sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. A retired accountant, he has a handy flat on Little Smith Street, Westminster.
Vincent clearly employed his skills closer to home as well. At home. Tyrella features his signature idiosyncratic fenestration. No fewer than four oeils de boeuf grace the garden front. Charles Plante reckons, “The garden front is charming. The bull’s eye window in the gable is really special.” Most extraordinary of all, amidst the blaze of Arts and Crafts stained glass, is the first floor upper casement window which projects at an acute angle to appear permanently ajar. Zany stuff. “Vincent more than likely introduced the ceiling beams and light fitting to the hall,” suggests David. “And he designed the hall fireplace. It’s very Malone Roadsy!” This airy space is painted a deep ochre which Charles Plante calls “John Fowler orange”. Upstairs Free Style panelling looks suspiciously Vincentian. A bit of Cadogan Park here, a bit of Deramore Park there. So does the recently reinstated conservatory. “The conservatory is actually almost entirely new except for the brickwork. It took three years to recreate. The pale green paint inside is the original colour.” Maybe Tyrella House isn’t quite the chunk of Georgiana it first appears to be. “The middle bit behind the new Regency addition,” he explains, “is William and Mary.” The house used to be even bigger. “My father demolished about a third of the house – the cream room, jam room, butler’s pantry, the dark kitchen and so on.”
Tyrella was the seat of Reverend George Hamilton and his wife Ann Matilda (daughter of the 5th Earl of Macclesfield) at the close of the 18th century. Rural legend has it that the Reverend used the stones from the old local church to rebuild the house in 1800. Arthur Hill Montgomery bought the estate in 1831 aged 36. Six years later, Samuel Lewis records in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, “Tyrella House, the handsome residence of A H Montgomery Esq, is beautifully situated in a richly planted demesne of 300 acres, commanding extensive views over the bay, with the noble range of the Mourne Mountains in the background, and containing within its limits the size and cemetery of the ancient parish church.” Arthur was the fourth son of Hugh Montgomery of Greyabbey House down the road. Bill Montgomery, a great-great-something-great-grandson of Hugh, still resides at Greyabbey with his wife Daphne. Their daughter is the actress Flora Montgomery who’s married to the owner of 1 Lombard Street restaurant. “I hate to disappoint you,” David says on the subject of ghosts. “All the people have sold the house and went on to do something else. Spent money on it, changed hands. I don’t miss ghosts, wouldn’t want one.”
It’s time for that dinner in the spirit free dining room. Plat du jour du nuit. Such joy. A love song to Northern Irish cuisine. Spinach and ricotta tartlet | stuffed sea bream | mascarpone, raspberry and lemon tart. Fitzrovia’s Pescatoria relocated. Best seafood since the roast fillet of curried cod with oyster mushrooms and herb butter sauce at the O+C. Or the sous vide salmon cooked by Paolo Pettenuzzo at the C P Hart party. The diver scallop crudo, cucumber, black radish, jalapeño and lime ice at the London Edition Berners Tavern springs to mind. Or even the creamed cheese and smoked salmon Westbourne breakfast with Natalie Elphicke OBE. Chatting about Conservative housing policy, Chief Exec of the Housing Finance Institute Natalie summed it up as, “Something old, something new, something borrowed – Lord Adonis, who’s turned blue.” Stop! Tangent alert! What’s the story? Oh, Renideo Pinot Grigio 2009 and St Jean Pays D’Oc 2012 over dinner at Tyrella House. The dining experience isn’t always this peaceful according to David. When Country Life visited in 1996, dinner was interrupted by ebullient bovine neighbours nosily emerging from between the rhododendrons. Country Life published “during dinner a herd escaped and raped the garden like a Mongol horde”. David smiles, “Overweight marauding rogue cattle licking the dining room windows wasn’t the look we were going for at all!” At least Country Life did also mention the flourishing polo school at Tyrella.
Descendants of the last owners, the Robert Neill and Sons Ltd dynasty, recall early 20th century life at Tyrella, in a Lavender’s Blue exclusive. Coline Grover says, “I lived in the house with my grandparents, and relatives various, from 1940 until they sold it in 1949, and moved with them to Old Forge House in Malone, south Belfast. Tyrella House was wonderful with a swing house underneath the nursery wing. It was incorporated into the property and had two marks on the ceiling where if you went high enough your feet touched the ceiling! And there was a rock garden with a two storey playhouse called Spider House.” Coline’s cousin-in-law Ian Elliott adds, “The Georgian house had a boudoir and some lovely Arts and Crafts additions – and that fabulous view to the Mournes. It was bought by the Neill family – brothers Jack, Samuel and William – as part of their businesses (coal, construction, farming etc) in the 1920s after the 1st World War. They already owned East Downshire Fuels in Dundrum as well as Neill’s Coal in Bangor, Kingsberry Coal and Bloomfield Farm (where the shopping centre is now). The family circle elected Billy Neill to live and farm there with his wife Vera. She was formerly Phelps from Kent, a direct descendant of Jane Lane who helped Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester in the 1640s. They raised their three children (including Berry) there. The Corbetts (whiskey distillers from Banbridge) have owned it since 1949.” Coline’s brother Guthrie Barrett concurs that “Billy Neill sold Tyrella in 1949”.
“I haven’t been back to Tyrella House since 1949,” says nonagenarian Beresford Neill, otherwise known as Uncle Berry. He lives in Malone now. “A most wonderful childhood. Absolutely beautiful. Tyrella was completely and utterly the back of beyond. For goodness sake, it was completely feudal. There were no neighbours. We had our own entrance into the church next door and our own pew.” Berry’s on a roll: “My father got married in February 1917. He bought the estate: 300 acres; a 3.5 acre walled garden; 48 rooms.” Althorp has 90 rooms. Although what constitutes a room is a moot point. Lumber rooms, anyone? “There was no electricity. In 1906 a gas heating machine was installed. It had huge pipes and a great big cage in the kitchen. There was no telephone until 1933. How mama coped I don’t know. We’d a cook, housemaid and three gardeners. There were three bathrooms – one for staff, two for the family. We always had dogs – mostly Labradors. There was a large wood to the side of the house and a rock garden. The rocks were transported in 1890 from Scrabo to Tullymurry by train, then by horse and cart. It was a tremendous effort!”
Berry reminisces, “In 1944 I enlisted as a private soldier in the Rifle Brigade. It’s now called the Rifles. It was a very swish regiment. After the War I got transferred to Ballykinler Camp. I spent the whole of 1946 there. I’d a marvellous time! I could walk over the fields from Tyrella to Ballykinler in 10 minutes.” Life wasn’t uneventful, even at isolated Tyrella. “We had the most enormous beech tree but a storm split it down the middle. It was sawn up by a gardener of course but a stump remained. One quiet Sunday afternoon I decided to blow up the remains of the tree. I thought I was the last word in explosives! I got seven anti-tank mines, made a fuse, and set them off. Bang! The birds stopped singing. Silence. Then… tinkle tinkle. The windows shattered. Sheer bloody stupidity! I should’ve opened the windows first!”
“We don’t usually open to paying guests in November,” signs David, due to ignorant comments about temperature levels inside the house midwinter. Some people really don’t get it, do they? First of all, welcome to Northern Ireland. The clue is in the first part of the Province’s name. Mind you, Huntington Castle in the south of Ireland suffers from the same issue. Secondly, if you want over-insulated overheated rooms check into a hotel. Don’t stay in an Irish country house. They don’t do double glazing or underfloor heating. But they do have lashings of character, history and art; uncompromised aesthetics; and endlessly entertaining hosts. What about open fires in marble surrounds? De rigeur. Like those other majestic Hidden Ireland gems, Hilton Park and Temple House, heavy curtains and concertina shutters in Tyrella’s guest bedrooms put to sleep any worries of chilly discomfort. A newly installed biomass boiler also helps. “I’ve still kept the 1906 boiler with its original instruction manual. It’s beautiful – like a beast of a furnace on the Titanic.”
And bags at dawn. Peering over the bedroom landing, the oval staircase resembles a gargantuan pencil sharpening, a bannister bordered carpeted curlicue, a variation on the Fibonacci spiral. Downstairs, breakfast is laid out country house style – buffet on the sideboard. “I do recommend Lindy Dufferin’s Greek Style Yoghurt,” says David. Distinguished historian Dr Frances Sands announced recently at 20 St James’s Square: “Breakfast was the only meal of the day you served yourself. That’s why there is side furniture in the breakfast room. If there is no separate breakfast room, really then the dining room should be referred to as the eating room. There was a huge fear of odour in Georgian times. The eating room would’ve had no curtains, carpet or silk wall hangings. Seating would’ve been leather.” The dining room or should it be eating room was once the billiard room according to the host of Tyrella House.
It is impossible to leave Tyrella without mentioning the beach. The Mountains of Mourne thrillingly tower over miles of unspoiled golden strand between Clough and Killough (interchangeable townlets after a G+T). “It is no secret that Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s greatest writers,” brags the local tourist board, “
Lavender’s Blue, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Louis MacNeice and of course, C S Lewis.” This part of County Down was C S Lewis’s childhood holiday destination and provided literary fodder for Narnia: “I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards, which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.” Coline Grover concludes, “Tyrella Beach never changes of course.”
- Credits Guthrie Barrett, David Corbett, Ian Elliott, Coline Grover, Berry Neill