The iconic garden front graces the dust jacket front cover of Frank Keohane’s 2020 publication, the latest in the Pevsner series, Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County. His description opens with some understatement, “The house is extensive.” The Chartered Building Surveyor and architectural historian continues, “At its core is a three storey, five bay block, known originally as Blackrock, built by Samuel Hutchinson circa 1730. The Whites acquired it in the 1730s but did not take possession until the 1760s. They renamed the house Seafield, and undertook improvements following the marriage of Simon White to the heiress Frances Jane Hedges Eyre in 1766. In 1790 the heroic Richard White made an advantageous marriage to Margaret Anne Hare, who possessed a dowry of £30,000. Soon afterwards, he added bow ended two storey wings, the same height as the three storey centre. The 2nd Earl of Bantry, Viscount Berehaven, was responsible for the house’s great mid 19th century transmogrification.”
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.
Ireland just doesn’t have a country house visiting tradition. It’s a very British thing. Calke Abbey, a National Trust property in rural Derbyshire, is so popular that it has timed entry tickets and queues wrap round the house at weekends. Chatsworth House, also in Derbyshire, the main home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (their holiday home is Lismore Castle in County Waterford), opened to the public in 1946 around the same time as Bantry House did the same thing. And numbers over the threshold of Chatsworth? Around two million visitors a year. And Bantry House? Circa 25,000. Admittedly Calke Abbey and Chatsworth are close to conurbations but still.