Who better to share tips about photographs than Peter Fetterman of his eponymous gallery in Santa Monica? Prising ourselves away from Scott’s obligatory potted shrimps on Melba toast, we find Peter singing abridged Frank Sinatra into his mic, “And now… the time is come…” It’s the Saturday after the Private View and a sweltering 33 degrees in Chelsea. Speaking this time, revealing his English accent: “It’s a hot ticket! Thanks for braving the heat. This is my third year at Masterpiece. I come from a very humble background. I feel like the child who flew to the moon being at this very posh fair!”
He explains, “I was a filmmaker and moved by accident to California. I planned to stay there two weeks. I went along to a dinner party and the host was selling photographs – I was obsessed with them. I’d literally $2,000 to my name. I bought the lot for $400. I became a collector. You can reinvent yourself easier in America than Europe. I just love photographs! I started trading out of a rent control apartment. I bought more photographs and travelled round in a Honda selling them. Business escalated until now here I am!”
So what’s his take on collecting? “There are hundreds of years of painting. Photography is relatively new, only dating from 1839. I’ve seen its appreciation start from zero in the middle of the 1970s until now.” He points from the floor to the ceiling. “Collecting is all autobiographical. I grew up in an ugly gritty environment. But I knew there was another world, a beautiful one. Photographer and publisher Alfred Stieglitz was one of the first to promote photography as fine art. But it’s also a democratic medium, accessible to all. That’s what I love! There’s no one quite like Ansel Adams. His photography is in the Getty Museum but you can get a print for $1,200. Next door in Masterpiece you can only buy a Modigliani for £14 million.”
Peter notes great photographs are in demand so prices keep rising. Of course, there’s a price differential between a signed and an estate print. “There are two rules to collecting,” he argues. “Only buy what you love and from whom you trust. If you love it buy it.” Any regrets? “The only mistakes I’ve made is when I didn’t buy!”
“I love seeing other people’s houses,” she confided. On a visit to a particularly perfect country house in Sussex she chided “it desperately needs a faded throw over the back of a sofa”. She was impressed by The House of Lavender’s Blue. “It’s very World of Interiors. I love the T + G panelling in the bathroom!” Her own flat on the nursery floor of a Georgian townhouse was effortlessly stylish in a completely non designed way. She did, after all, coin the phrase “shabby chic”. When we interviewed Min about her wallpaper range she ordered, “Please don’t ask me what is my favourite house. That’s such a lame question!” We didn’t. Thankfully Min enjoyed the end result, the published feature: “I’m as happy as a clam!”
Deane Swift generously described Francis (they were friends) as “the greatest painter and architect of his time in these Kingdoms”. His designs tend to group the windows together towards the centre of the façade, leaving a mass of masonry on the corners. This occurs on the façade of Coopershill and at the country house he designed in County Kilkenny, Woodstock. It lends a certain monumentality to the architecture. Coopershill is designed to be seen from all angles: it’s a standalone cubic block devoid of wings, every elevation symmetrical, the house with no back.
There are another two blind windows on the narrower west, or side, elevation. Unlike the entrance, or north, front, they don’t have wooden frames and glazing so are less convincing. “We repainted them to retain the symmetry of the architecture,” he records. But it is the similarity between the two principal elevations, the north (entrance) and south (river facing) which is most striking. They’re virtually identical. It’s a game of spot the difference: the end bays of the south elevation are closer to the corners giving more regular spacing to the window sequence. This even distribution lendsit a more conventional Palladian appearance; the grouping of bays on the north front make it look a little idiosyncratic, somehow more Irish.
The doorcase of the north elevation is replicated on the south except for glazing replacing the door itself. Under this central window, the wall looks unfinished. Could steps have once been there? Or was this elevation originally intended to be the entrance front? “The house took so long to complete,” Simon reckons, “that changes were made during the course of construction. It’s strange how the landing cuts across the Venetian window on the south front. A flying staircase would solve that design flaw!” Indeed a flying staircase like that at Woodbrook, County Wexford, wouldn’t interrupt the landing window. It’s a quirk and a charming one at that. The slope of the land from north to south would reveal the full extent of the basement save for the rubble wall. Below the wall is a kitchen garden which is put to good use for the Monsieur Michelin worthy top notch top nosh dinner:
Candlelit dinner is served in the dining room which looks out towards Kesh Mountain. Owner and Chef Christina O’Hara reminds us that “all the vegetables are from the kitchen garden” and “everything is cooked on the Aga”. At some stage an Irish rhubarb appears with a hint of curry. Nasturtiums add a dash of colour to the pale monkfish. Silverware, glassware, Wedgwood and Mrs Delaney coasters and placemats perfect the table arrangement.
Before dinner, Simon leads a tour of the top and bottom floors. “We’re slowly recolonising the whole house.” His parents spent £100,000 replacing the roof which is cleverly designed to capture rainwater between the two valleys and funnel it down to ground level. The second floor contains family as well as guest accommodation. The first floor – the Venetian Room, the Pink Room, the Blue Room and so on – is all given over to guest accommodation. Simon knows his stuff: he’s President of Ireland’s Blue Book which promotes the country’s finest historic hotels, manor houses and restaurants. Vintage travel luggage labelled “ABC” is piled high in a hallway. “Arthur Brooke Cooper”.
“Look at the architectural detail,” he observes, pointing to the swirl marking the juncture of the doorcases and skirting boards in the staircase hall. A pair of niches (a Francis Bindon motif) add more finesse. The basement is more or less still used for its original purpose. Although perhaps the servants wouldn’t have had a billiard room… A state of the art washing machine stands next to its cast iron Victorian forerunner. The wine cellar has historic earthenware pots from Hargadon Bros on O’Connell Street, Sligo. That pub is still going strong.
“Perhaps Bindon’s very last mansion is Coopershill, County Sligo, although like most of these houses, no documentary evidence exists for it. Tower-like and stark, of similar proportions to Raford, it is made up of two equivalent fronts composed with a central rusticated Venetian window and door, and a third floor three-light window. The fenestration is reminiscent of Castle’s demolished Smyth mansion in Kildare Place, Dublin. Coopershill is sited particularly well and stands high above a river reminding one of the feudal strength of the 17th century towerhouse. As at Raford, the roof is overlapping and 19th century.
The history of the building of Coopershill is an interesting and typically Irish phenomenon for the house was finished in 1774 though started in about 1755 for Arthur Brooke Cooper ‘before engaging in the undertaking, had provided for the cost a tub of gold guineas, but the last guinea was paid away before the building showed above the surface of the ground’. Cooper had to sell property, and it took eight years to quarry the stone. This 20 years of planning and building explains the extraordinary retardé quality of the house considering its recorded date.”
The Knight isn’t gushing in his summation of Francis’ architectural talent: “With the major exceptions of the Curraghmore court and Castle Morres, the Bessborough quadrants and Newhall, his ventures into the architectural field are not particularly distinguished. As he was a gentleman amateur, moving in the best circles in Dublin, he obtained commissions from his friends and relations. He made the most of his connection with the professional Richard Castle and was quite happy to borrow many ideas from him. His houses are mostly in the south and west of Ireland, an area in which Castle had no connections, so theirs was probably a dovetailed and friendly relationship.”
His critical tone continues, “On looking at the photographs of his buildings… one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naïve and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.” He considers there’s one exception: “If it is his, the forecourt at Curraghmore is certainly his masterpiece.”
Coopershill survives amazingly intact. “It was a secondary house for most of the 19th century,” explains Simon. “Annaghmore was the principal O’Hara seat.” So while Annaghmore was much altered, Coopershill remained untouched by Victorian aesthetic enthusiasm. To cut and paste William Butler Yeats’ poetry: Coopershill is an ancestral house surrounded by planted hills and flowering lawns, levelled lawns and gravelled ways; escutcheoned doors opening into great chambers and long galleries. Perfection.
“Kings, princes, and the wisest men of all ages, have some or other of them, taken singular delight in this exercise of planting, setting, sowing, and what else that is requisite in the well ordering of orchards and gardens, and rejoiced to see the fruits of their labours.” Leonard Meager, 1697.
Green genes run in the family. She calls her grandmothers “plantaholics”. Years ago, her mother Madam FitzGerald germanely wrote about the family home, “The garden of Glin Castle in County Limerick is extraordinarily beautiful and yet I feel it is not a fine garden. It seems to me to be more of a field cut neatly and circumspectly into a lawn or two, with a little hill that is covered in daffodils in the spring, and some primeval oaks that drench you with their leafy arms as you pass. It is a garden that acknowledges its castle first and foremost, while this battlemented toy fort, preoccupied with its own importance, accepts the homage too carelessly to repay the compliment.”
Olda FitzGerald posits, “Many of its windows treacherously look out over the Shannon estuary or else yearningly, like the rest of us, away down the avenue towards the chimneys and steeple of the village, with an occasional haughty glance down at the croquet lawn and crab apple trees below. The crab apples were planted 40 years ago, and for most of the year give the impression of being thickly covered in grey feathery fungus, until they burst into the most unseemly fertility every summer.”
Randal inherited Glenarm Castle back in 1992 when he was 25. ”By the time I took on the Walled Garden, it was completely derelict bar the yew circle, the beech circle and a few shrubs,” he recalls, “but I didn’t hesitate. I had always loved this place. It had sagged rather, but it was very exciting to be able to stop it sag for a bit.” In place of dereliction, and any sagging for that matter, is Catherine’s design for six ornamental gardens in separate “rooms”. Five pay homage to the traditional productive functions of walled gardens: the Apple Orchard; the Cherry Garden; the Herb Garden; the Pear Garden; and the Medlar Garden. A viewing point of these five rooms is cleverly provided by the Mount which occupies the sixth space. More anon.
There were pleached trees and borders already at the bottom of the garden by the time Catherine got involved so she was asked to make sense of the top half. Her design replaced a blank space dotted with a few languishing trees and shrubs marooned among stretches of grass. “My instinct,” records Catherine, “was to divide it up into different rooms and walks which visitors could wander through and wonder where they were going next rather than taking it all in at once.” The Walled Garden is entered through the simple green coloured Bell Gate, framed by a cloak of clematis draped over the high stone walls.
Naturally, Glin Castle was an influence on Catherine’s design: “The kitchen garden at Glin which was restored by my mother in the 1970s is always in the back of my mind when planning walled gardens. She used yew topiary shapes, Irish yew and espaliered apple and pear divisions to provide a strong structure and design as a background to the fruit vegetables and annuals she planted. At Glenarm, elements of this are there with the espaliered pears and strong structure provided by the hedges.”
“I wanted to relate the theme to walled gardens,” she adds, “so used a lot of fruit trees but in an ornamental way: the espaliered pear tree circle… the formal rows of medlars… the apple tree orchard… the crab trees and so on.” The brief was to keep it relatively simple and low maintenance. As a result, it’s very structural with no fussiness. More from Catherine: “It was all done on a modest budget. Randal had a great team who implemented it.” One of the biggest structural tasks was restoring the 100 metre long glasshouse with its myriad rhomboid panes.
She believes, “Gardens are about evoking sensations and emotion. I try to imbue my gardens with a sense of romance.” There’s all that plus a sense of drama. Expect to see explosive reds, yellows and blues in the aptly named Hot Border. Crimson dahlias are a favourite of the Viscountess. Drama needs contrast. Turn the corner at the end of the Hot Border to be greeted by the pale foxgloves of the Double Borders. “It did take a long time to get going,” she admits, “the beech hedges and yew buttresses along the walls seemed to take forever to establish. But now they have got going it really feels like it is becoming mature. It’s how I imagined it would be which is fantastic!”
Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”
“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”
“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.
Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.
The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.
Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.
And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”
It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.
John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’