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Architecture Country Houses

Lavender’s Blue + Castle ffrench Galway

Fortissimo

Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?

Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole, Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.

Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.

The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?

Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.

Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.

Categories
Architects Architecture Art Country Houses Design People

Lavender’s Blue + Russborough Blessington Wicklow

Architecture in Harmony

1 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A rondo is a piece of music in which the main theme keeps recurring between different episodes. Antonio Diabelli’s Rondino was written for the piano in the 18th century. essentially a ternary or three element form, two repeats elongate this rondo into a five part composition. It opens in mezzo piano, rising through a crescendo then a forte section, before softening through a diminuendo back to mezzo piano.

2 Russborough Houssse Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Rondino is typical of the classical era of the arts. It is symmetrical with a regular rhythm set in harmonised yet contrasting elements strung out and repeated. Articulated notions of Beauty, the Sublime and the Picturesque underscore the symbolic sensibilities of the piece. This is a work from a maestro at the height of his creative gamesmanship.

3 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The same could be said of Russborough, an Irish neoclassical house designed by the virtuoso architect Richard Castle. The Palladian ideal of dressing up a farm axially to incorporate the house and ancillary buildings into one architectural composition flourished in 18th century Ireland, especially under German born Castle.

4 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The central block of Russborough is seven bays wide by two storeys tall over basement. Bent arcades link two identical lower seven bay two storey wings. This five part superfaçade is constructed of silvery grey granite. Straight retaining walls extend from the wings to terminate in gateways at either extremity, like encores. Little wonder Johann von Goethe called architecture “frozen music”.

5 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Awesome, yes. But it combined form with function from an 18th century perspective. One wing contained the servants’ quarters and kitchen; the other, the stables. The two gateways led to the separate stable yard farmyard. In the central block, the high ceilinged piano nobile was used for public entertaining. The low ceilinged first floor was for private family use. The basement housed vaulted wine cellars and yet more servants’ accommodation.

6 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Such is the genius of the place, and its architect, that this arrangement has adapted well in subsequent centuries. When Sir Alfred and Lady Beit flung open their doors to the great unwashed in 1978, a neo Georgian single storey visitors’ centre was neatly inserted behind the eastern colonnade. The west wing was restored in 2012 and discreetly converted into a Landmark Trust holiday let.

7 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Beit Foundation has ensured the survival of Russborough despite no less than four art robberies from an ungrateful element of the recipient nation. This is no picnic in a foreign land. A tour guide as graceful as Audrey Hepburn glides through the echoing halls and velvety staterooms; the latter, counterpoints in texture to the stony exterior. Not so, other Irish country houses. Carton, Dunboyne Castle and Farnham were all converted into boom time hotels with varying degrees of success. Uncertainty lies over the fate of Glin Castle, Mountainstown House and Milltown House, all for sale in an unstable market. Worst of all, Ballymacool, Castle Dillon and Mount Panther lie in ruins, home to wandering sheep and ghosts.

8 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Contemporary composer Karl Jenkins has brought Palladio back to the forefront of orchestral music. Laterally Literally. Inspired by the 16th century Italian architect, Palladio is a three movement piece for strings. Completed in 1996, Karl was influenced by Palladian mathematical proportionality in his quest for musical perfection.

9 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Palladio’s pursuit of perfect proportions can be traced back to the Vitruvian model of ‘man as a measure for all things’. He reinterpreted the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, for a new audience. Vitruvius believed symmetry and proportion created a harmonic relationship with individual components and their whole, either in music or architecture. He developed ratios based on the human body which were later used by 18th century composers. Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man illustrates the concept.

10 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Like other Roman architects, Vitruvius revered the work of Ancient Greek scholars. Their macro theses argued that the entire cosmos vibrates to the same harmonies audible in music. Pythagorean formulae quantified the relationship of architecture, music and the human form. Even the cyclical nature of the resurgence of classicism, skipping generations like beats, only to be revived in repetition and reinterpretation, has balance and form.

11 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Categories
People Town Houses

Ely House Dublin + The Order of the Knights of St Columbanus

Bram’s Lullaby

1 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Lavender’s Blue visit one of Dublin’s grandest and most historic houses. Following a herculean £5 million restoration, Ely House has never looked better, adapted and ready for its fourth century of continuous use. Now that’s what we call sustainable development. Back in 1771 when the house was built, Dublin’s population had quadrupled in a matter of decades making it the seventh largest city in Europe. Still smaller than the modern day London Borough of Wandsworth. The Wide Streets Commission of 1757 paved the road (no pun) for the development of streets and squares. Now that’s what we call town planning. Building leases on plots dictated height, mostly four storeys over basement, and often even each storey height. A pleasing uniformity was the outcome.

2 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Exteriors are typically devoid of ornament, relying on quality of brick and pleasing proportion of wall-to-window ratios for their beauty. Except of course for what have become known as the famous Dublin doors. Extraordinary zest was invested into creating eye catching arrangements of heavily panelled doors, lead paned sidelights and semicircular fanlights. Wrought iron railings and balconies are the only other relieving features. This architectural restraint makes the explosion of exuberant interior plasterwork all the more stimulating. And if you think the recent boom was party time, it doesn’t hold a (Georgian) candle to the shenanigans our bewigged predecessors got up to in these ornate settings.

3 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Chronicler Mrs Delaney, the Lavender’s Blue of her day, recorded one of her meals, “First Course: soup, rabbits and onions, veal, turkey pout, salmon grilde [sic]. Second Course: pickled salmon, quails, little terrene peas, cream, mushrooms, apple pye [sic], crab, leveret, cheese cake. Dessert: blancmange, cherries, Dutch cheese, raspberries and creams, sweetmeats and jelly, strawberries and cream, almond cream, currants, gooseberries and orange butter,” [sick]. Potatoes are not mentioned because they were not considered part of a set ‘dish’; they were handed round. Vast quantities of wine, chiefly claret but also port, accompanied the food. In The Four Georges, Thackeray writes, “Singing after dinner and supper was the universal fashion of the day. You may fancy all the dining rooms sounding with choruses, some ribald, some harmless, but all occasioning the consumption of a prodigious deal of fermented liquor.”

4 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Built by Henry Loftus, Earl of Ely, Ely House on Ely Place opposite Ely Wine Bar faces down Hume Street towards St Stephen’s Green. It spans the full width of Hume Street and true to form is four storeys over basement with particularly elegant wrought iron railings, balconies and even lamp standards. A parapet partly conceals the roof. But where most Georgian Dublin houses are three bay, Ely House is a full gloriously greedy seven. Red brick from Bridgewater, Somerset, was an inspired choice of material. The Loftus family seat was Rathfarnham Castle, south of Dublin city centre. Their townhouse, or rather town-mansion, was a fulcrum of 18th century social life. Michael Stapleton, the fashionable stuccadore, was commissioned to undertake the interior plasterwork.

5 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

6 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Stucco acanthus fronds, acorns, arrows, bay leaves, bows, brackets, cherubs, consoles, corbels, cornices, festoons, friezes, helmets, medallions, panels, plaques, putti, quadrants, quatrefoils, ribbons, roses, rosettes, scrolls, shells, swags and two turtle doves await us. There are more fireplaces than the Lassco Summer Sale. Cararra marble, Sienna marble, oak, take your pick. In fact somebody nearly did. Just before we arrived a wannabe thief tried to make off with one. Both outside and in, Ely House is a template of grand Georgian design and layout. Beyond the Doric Palladian doorcase is a squarish outer hall. Sedan chairs would once have been parked on the stone flagged floor. A dentilled cornice is a subtle hint of the plasterwork to come. On one side of the outer hall, the morning room, now an oratory, is equally serene with windows overlooking Ely Place. But on the other side, the dining room shows Stapleton in full flow. As the panelled window shutters are pulled back, the soft Irish light casts shadows across the moulded walls and ceilings in all their glory. The dining room is painted Mount Panther blue, highlighting Stapleton’s three dimensional wonders.

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Straight ahead of the entrance door, the outer hall leads into the inner hall; what a spectacle! Behold Dublin’s finest staircase, raising the functional to the fantastical. Here is the first clue, all six feet of it, that Stapleton or possibly Loftus was a fan of ancient classical mythology. A statue of Hercules, carved out of the same Portland stone as the three flights of stairs, acts as a human sized newel post. Under a mahogany handrail and below small lead medallions and squiggles, groupings of plant-like wrought iron balusters alternate with giltwood figures representing the Labours of Hercules. In ascending order are the Erymanthian boar; the Stymphalian bird; the Nemean lion; another Stymphalian bird; the Cretan bull; the Arcadian stag; and the three headed dog Cerberus. The staircase basks in natural light from a Palladian window framed by Corinthian pilasters. An obligatory secondary staircase, connecting the basement to the top floor and all levels between, is a marvellous counterfoil to the main staircase. It’s an essay in refined understatement with plain timber balusters.

8 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

The first floor is laid out with typical 18th century taste. An enfilade along the front of the house is formed by a reception room on either side of an anteroom. In this instance the anteroom is a single bay music room. One of the decorative plasterwork roundels on the wall is hollow to improve acoustics. The Pillar Room was once known as the Attic Theatre. This space was created by the Earl’s widow. When Henry Loftus died in 1783 his young widow, the girl about town Dowager Countess, threw together two rooms to make a theatre. Ionic columns and pilasters support the ceiling of the enlarged space. The muted colours of the drawing room allow the plasterwork to do the talking. Romulus and Remus appear with the wolf in the central marble relief of the mantelpiece.

9 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com

Ely House was the home of Sir William Thornley Stoker from 1890 to 1911. His brother Abraham (Bram) Stoker was author of Dracula. Since the 1920s the house has been the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus. This Order was founded in Belfast by James K O’Neill to promote Catholic faith and education. His experience as the priest of an inner city parish led him to believe that intelligently applied Catholic principles would remedy social ills and permeate society with the charity of Christ. This was the basis of the programme of study which continues to underpin the Knights’ endeavours. Canon O’Neill died in 1922. Mid 20th century offices built in the rear garden provide a source of income for the Order. It’s not many buildings that over the course of their history have housed a raucous aristocrat, religious order, a Thai restaurant (the previous use of the Knights’ members’ room in the basement) and hosted a gothic horror writer. Now that’s what we call provenance.

10 Ely House Dublin © lvbmag.com