“Architectural fashion is often a reaction to what went immediately before. There’s even a perceptible difference between Pugin the father and Pugin the son’s work. The second generation architect’s designs are more rationalised,” observes artist and architectural publisher Anne Davey Orr. “The use of concrete in the 20th century would issue in a much more open expression of materials and structure.” In between trying not to butcher quotations (it was a late night chat) it’s worth noting the penultimate decades of the last two centuries both stuck to something of a “more is more mantra”, a sort of turn of the century syndrome. Eclecticism gone wild. Competent chaos. Not without honour and slightly mad. Pont Street for the 1880s and 90s; postmodernism for the 1980s and 90s. Out went conformity and goodbye to context; in came variety and hello to contrast. Many a dazed and disorientated architectural historian has spent sleepless nights defining and redefining the late 19th century style or rather style hybrid. North German Revival? Queen Anne? Flemish Renaissance? Hans Town? Or simply Cadogan? Osbert Lancaster, never short of a catchy phrase, opted for Pont Street Dutch. John Betjeman shortened it to Pont Street which if nothing else is certainly geographically specific. He calls it the “new built red as hard as the morning gaslight” in his poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel. These days the arresting SW postcodes are as golden as they’re terracotta.
Equally contentious is who invented it? John James Stevenson claimed “Queen Anne” as his baby; the 21st century artists sounding George and Peto produced some of the most overblown examples in Harrington Gardens SW7 but the style was to become synonymous with the domineering work of Norman Shaw. Whoever dreamt up Pont Street, and in reality it was the usual hotchpotch of talent and self publicity, the style spelt the death knell, the writing on the rendered wall, of regular terraces, issuing in an asymmetric age of individualism. “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” screams each and every house as the roofline tipsily whooshes and swooshes along more Dutch gables than Keizersgracht. Against the navy blue canvas of a sun drenched winter’s morning, the red brick and terracotta dressed with whitish stone renders Pont Street a patriotic tricolour. If walls could speak: “We may look Dutch or German or kinda Belgian (although certainly not anaemic Italian) but We Are Proud To Be British!” Its strength of character allows 20th century blips such as the picture window spanning the penthouse of 41 Lennox Gardens to be immersed into the wider picture of Pont Street. The houses (age unconsciously) celebrate their birthdays. “1884” shouts 25 Lennox Gardens in two foot tall letters from its third floor. A few doors up 43 Lennox Gardens tells the world it’s a year younger.
While unsettling for minimalists or purists, a wander in wonder along the wonderful streets of SW1 and SW3, the blessed boulevards of the hallowed Cadogan Estate, throws up a maximalist and impure visual feast, an aesthetic eyeful, for the devil and angels are in the detail. At a glance, here are just some of the hyperactive highlights. Keyhole silhouette broken pediment copper dormers in Sloane Gardens. Double decker dormers in Culford Gardens. Witch’s hat copper turrets where Draycott Place meets Blacklands Terrace. Quoined porthole windows peering out of 54 to 58 Draycott Place. A neo Elizabethan fretwork loggia hugging 3 Cadogan Gardens. Pierless Brighton balconies clinging on to 85 to 87 Cadogan Gardens. A French château mansard atop 89 Cadogan Gardens. Twin Queen Anne fanlights surmounting the doorcase of 105 Cadogan Gardens. Stumpy Ionic pilasters with egg and dart capitals framing the porch of 60 Cadogan Square. A pair of ballsy busty bulbous oriel windows bursting out from 84 Cadogan Square. A crowd of Georgian, gothic, plate glass, lead paned, stained glass, dormer and gabled windows on the side elevation of 63 Cadogan Square. Oh, and a lonely half oriel window for good measure. Pont Street itself bisects Cadogan Place Gardens under the watchful eyes of Jumeirah Carlton Tower. But the great swathe of red is mostly found between Sloane Street and Lennox Gardens. The extremities of Pont Street dive back into stuccoland.
A morning of architectural investigation deserves an afternoon of pure indulgence. Historically, afternoon tea was the outcome of dinner hour slipping to after 7pm in the early 19th century. Hiccupping ladies at first surreptitiously downed tea and gobbled cakes in their boudoirs after midday. Certainly, trailblazing trendsetting taboo busting zeitgeisty gal-about-castle Duchess of Rutland was bolshily dispensing tea in her boudoir by 1842. By Pont Street times, both sexes were merrily letting rip into scones and clotted cream in the drawing room or on the lawn. Where better then to indulge than No.11 Cadogan Gardens, the hotel bought by the synonymous Estate in 2012? It’s a thoroughly sophisticated member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
A maze of lacquered cloistered sequestered panelled hallways and passageways leads into the consciously picturesque opalescent drawing room. Linen at the ready, afternoon tea awaits, designed to instil a divine inertia into the remainder of a blurred and stimulating day. Decked and bedecked, trellised and jardinièred, the terrace is tucked between the townhouses and the mews to the rear. A flashback in paradise, evanescent and alive with remote anticipation, it’s a place to dwell on the meaningfulness of life. Another surprising space, full of heavenly glamour, is the Versailles inspired mirrored hall. Oil paintings of aristos line the ascending staircase to the 54 bedrooms. Monochromatic photos of models Christie, Linda and Kate line the descending staircase to the basement. Souls of different ages, the universe in process of consummation. No.11 has a distinct and dynamic personality, warm and sensuous, functioning outward from within.
Over to the father of town planning Manning Robertson for some contrariness: “Definitions of architecture are as unsatisfactory as any other expositions of the aim and meaning of the arts; but if architecture is to be alive at all it must clearly involve the erection of buildings to suit the demands of the period, and the embellishment of those buildings according to the dictates of the materials in use, the treatment being a direct reflection of the outlook of the epoch, based of course upon past work, insofar as it is applicable. We cannot say that the 19th century, which produced principally a dead copying of the past, did not reflect itself truly; it was, on the contrary, amazingly accurate in illustrating that the worship of material prosperity is not consistent with a high level of art. Public attention was absorbed elsewhere; architecture had to look after itself; what more natural than that men living in such a period should turn round and, as a sop to the aesthetic, attempt to reconstruct periods long since dead? The Victorian era was an age of immense scientific achievements, but it was also unique as an age that produced no living and typical architecture, unless one calls an indiscriminate repetition of past styles ‘typical’.”
Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.
The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”
Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.
Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert, Edmonde and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.
Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.
Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.
The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?
Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.
It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”
Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:
Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.
And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Ned Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?
It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.