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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.

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Architecture Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

The Hilton Park Lane London + Galvin at Windows

Pie in the Sky | The Londond’ry Arms

In the property industry, for every floor you go up, a premium is added. Room with a view with a price tag. Presumably there’s a surcharge in the hospitality industry for a table with a view. The Hilton on Park Lane isn’t a universally beloved feature of London. Even the Queen has complained about its architecture (usually she leaves that to her eldest offspring). One way to guarantee the hotel doesn’t blot your horizon is to eat on the 28th floor. There you can see just about every other landmark from Battersea Power Station to Buckingham Palace (at Her Majesty’s displeasure). We’re looking down on The Lanesborough. We’re looking for Isabel. A frenetic excursion in Gurskyism.

The interior of Galvin at Windows by designer Keith Hobbs (who did up Nobu and Shoreditch House) is unfussy retro luxury: all husky creams and musky greens and dusky greys. A galvianised bronze ceiling sculpture unfurling like a giant Christmas cracker across the ceiling towards the view is the only bow to bling. That, and the chunky golden sculpture in the adjacent bar. More of that shortly. In this most English of settings, Chef Patron Chris Galvin has created seasonally inspired menus focused on modern French haute (no pun) cuisine. Head Chef Joo Won caters for an international audience. All Michelin starred of course(s). We opt for the menu du jour. Chris was, as you may know, the opening head chef of The Wolseley five or six years ago.

With a sense of abandon, we can but only reach for rococo hyperbole, revel in baroque pleasure and roll in art nouvelle cuisine. A radical polychromatic dream of texture and flavour. And that’s just the operatic note striking the end of the afternoon: passion fruit and dark chocolate truffle petit fours. Lady Londond’ry would approve. Mourne Mountains of diced and sliced and spliced squid, celery and seaweed come hither, as crisp as a County Down spring day. More than the title deriving mere pie, a main of vegetable tarte fine, cauliflower purée, roasted mushroom and onion juice is a distinctive essay in deconstructivism. That sculptural disruptor in the bar next door – all circles in metallic squares – transcends spheres as pink (think Diana in Savannah) praline mousse, chocolate ganache and (oh, our favourite!) marzipan ice cream. Sometimes, there’s art in simply eating.

Ok, so we’ve nabbed the best table in Galvin at Windows. Good. What’s the opposite of social Siberia? A bay window practically levitating over Hyde Park. Well, it feels like California till the auto blinds descend and the air con turns up a notch or 12. Actually the three pronged propeller shape of the Hilton, gloriously inefficient to build, does generally afford delicious views (who said the hotel’s architecture was crap?). The Thames is invisible, hidden in a sea of greyness and greenery, a chaotic urban mosaic. Wait a minute! What’s that shimmering reflection? We glimpse a pale sapphire pool cradled between the catslide roof of Montevetro and the witch’s hat roof of Chelsea Harbour Tower. There you go, the Thames reduced to a jewel. And, as it turns out, all for no extra than the table stuck next to the kitchen. It’s Good Friday. The Bishop of Stepney, who promotes the reenchantment of society, says, “Live well | Live life to the full | This life is not the end.”

Categories
Architecture Country Houses

Mount Stewart Greyabbey Down + Lady Rose Lauritzen

Long Shadows Cross the Lawn

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Not many country houses are closely associated with their female lineage. Mount Stewart in Greyabbey, County Down, is an exception. The last two centuries have been dominated by the ladies of the manor. First there was the triple barrelled Lady Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart; then her high flying daughter Lady Mairi Bury; and now her glamorous granddaughter Lady Rose Lauritzen. National Trust owned for the last two generations, the house and garden have been relaunched with an all guns blazing £8.5 million restoration under the watchful eye of Lady Rose. Now spending six months a year at Mount Stewart, her ladyship reveals,

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“I came here when I was a week old ‘cause I was born in London in the middle of The Blitz and then came over with a nanny on the boat a week later ‘cause everyone was then working in London. My mother had been driving ambulances and then I came back here – this is where I lived. I went to a lovely day school in Holywood called The Warren which I absolutely loved. That was really nice and then I was sent off to boarding school which I hated every second of. I wanted to be here!”

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“My grandmother really brought us up. My mother was very young and my father was in the army so they were always travelling round and I saw an enormous amount of my grandmother who read to us, told us stories, kept us at work. I mean, one of our main jobs was watering the terrace. You know, we were tiny with heavy watering cans – such hard work! She kept everyone working in the gardens: housemaids, guests, everyone, even if they didn’t want to!”

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“It really has needed a huge restoration for 30 years. Now it’s been done we’re all delighted. It’s very exciting! It was last redecorated in the Fifties by my grandmother and then my mother used to keep up the structure of the house. She mended the roof – she mended everything because in those days we had our own carpenter, our own electrician, plumber, wrought iron man, our own blacksmith. It was totally utterly self sufficient. She kept it up till she gave the house to the National Trust in the late Seventies, whenever it was, and then obviously you don’t have a team of maintenance people and there’s no money.”

“So it really needed a huge restoration. Now it’s been done. We’re all delighted about this – very exciting. Teams of experts had been coming over and looking at the paint and looking at the fabrics and textiles and they mended and restored it. I’d redone some of my rooms, and bedroom, and I’d redone the sitting room with this lovely material Venetian silk and things like that. But they’ve restored it beautifully, and we’re all very excited about it.”

“The central hall now is exactly the way it was till I was in my twenties. I suppose it was my mother who repainted this hall the wonderful Chinese pink but this is how I remember it and it looks I think absolutely sensational. The gallery above which we always called ‘the dome’: no guest, no one ever went into the dome itself. Only the housemaids and the children used to take shortcuts through there and then peer through the balustrades to look at what was going on. And now that’s all beautifully done I think oh yes I remember all of us up there looking down and spying.”

“The drawing room is my favourite room in the house. It might be large but it’s the cosiest. You know, it’s pretty, it’s comfortable, it’s full of sunlight and in the past it used to be full of flowers and then obviously all the dogs were running round, jumping on the sofas too. So it was like the family room. It was where everyone, all the guests, everyone congregated here.”

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Tír na nÓg is the family burial ground made by my grandmother for the family and it means Land of the Ever Young and it’s got a wonderful view over the garden and she had all these statues made. It was all her sort of idea. The first to be buried here was my grandfather and then my grandmother. They have very ornate carved stones with all their favourite things on them like my grandfather, everything to do with flying, playing cards, all sorts of things, and my grandmother with her parrots and her dogs and her garden.”

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“When my grandmother died, the little cockatoo was distraught so it plucked all its feathers out so we had this oven ready bird with a crest and when I first brought my husband to Mount Stewart we were all so used to it we’d forgotten what it looked like and he practically fainted! You know, you suddenly walk into the house for the first time and it was in the central hall and it was in its aviary. There was this blue skin with a beak and this huge crest!”

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“My mother is the most recent to be buried at Tír na nÓg and we designed the stone so that it’s got the Stewart dragon looking duly fierce because he has to protect the family and then it says beloved daughter of Charles and Edith Londonderry because she was the favourite daughter. And then the other side says devoted to Mount Stewart which she was. I wanted her to be bigger than her sisters but smaller than her grandparents and a different coloured stone so it’s a pinkish stone. I think it’s actually very pretty. You know often we come up here and just sit and you know you relax your mind and it’s so soothing to the soul up here and I know that those who’ve gone before us are resting in peace and they’re in a happy place.”

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Categories
Architecture Country Houses People

Mark Purcell + Irish Country House Libraries

Notes on a Lecture | The Iveagh League 

1 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

Libraries Curator of the National Trust, Mark Purcell, on country house libraries in Ireland, at the Irish Georgian Society lecture in the National Liberal Club

2 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

“When we think of historic private libraries we tend to associate them with the grand aristocrats of Palladian country houses but there were much earlier examples. There was a library in the now ruinous 16th century Maynooth Castle. Kanturk Castle, which incidentally was the National Trust’s first Irish property until it was transferred to An Taisce, was another case.

3 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

There aren’t that many privately owned libraries in Ireland. One of the great survivors is Clonalis, a slightly unlovely villa, but with contents going back much earlier. Ironically, it’s the library of a Catholic dynasty. Tullamore is another of the great surviving libraries. Thanks to Valerie Pakenham. Townley Hall is preserved as a building but the remains of its library are in Trinity College Dublin. The great Nash library at Caledon is only partially intact; much of it is now in Queen’s University.

Edith and Charlie Londonderry had two libraries at Mount Stewart. Their descendant Lady Mairi Bury gave them to the National Trust along with the house. The library at Castle Coole belongs to the private collection of John Belmore. It has an intensity of 18th century riches. But this library also retains all of its 20th century ‘trash books’ which makes it extremely interesting! On the eve of the Famine, there were over 2,000 Big Houses and presumably over half had substantial libraries? Plus pre Union there were the great houses of Dublin too. Some libraries disappeared in country house burnings of 20th century Ireland but many more did in major sales.

4 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

Florence Court is one of my favourite country house libraries of Ulster. I was very much involved in the rescue of the collection. The Earl and Countess of Enniskillen did not get on with the National Trust. They upped sticks in 1974 and moved the entire contents of the house to Perthshire. But in 2000 after a long hiatus the Dowager Countess came to an arrangement for many of the contents to be returned to Florence Court. My favourite book is the 1868 collection of photographs by the Kilkenny photographer John Hudson. It includes Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge which is now owned by the National Trust.

5 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

Then there is the octagonal tower at The Argory. It once housed a library. But in 1890 a servant named Tommy Sloane accidentally sent it up in smoke. The servants rescued linen and chair covers but not the books. Although there is no library as such now at The Argory, there are 8,500 books scattered all over the rest of the house. They represent a 20th century provincial collection. Like good wine, they may improve with age!”

6 Kenwood House © Stuart Blakley

Categories
Country Houses Hotels Luxury

Callow Hall Ashbourne Derbyshire + Lavender’s Blue

Dorothy and Friends

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Leaf through the editorial pages of Country Life circa 1970 and the text to image ratio is roughly 80:20. Pick up a recent copy of the magazine and it’s more like 20:80. Philosopher of Medicine and BBC New Generation Thinker Dr Charlotte Blease muses, “We are bombarded by media now. There are a million other distractions besides sitting reading a magazine article. And we’ve become used to a smorgasbord of appetisers served up to us that satisfies our attention and kills the appetite for something larger and meatier. Consequently there’s a competitiveness in grabbing our attention immediately before someone or something else does that.”

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Dr Blease argues, “Tweets are the ultimate informational candy. Tweets as sweets? Cognitively they’re like a carb overload. They rot the brain. They’re informational infantilism. McMedia.” On that note, for the attention span challenged, welcome to the first McReview by Lavender’s Blue. It features Callow Hall in Derbyshire. A relaxing hotel, handy for visiting country houses such as Calke Abbey and Alton Towers. There. Dunnit. Lived up to our reputation as self styled Snappy Wordsmiths. Even managed a callow pun in that 15 word review.

Of course if it wasn’t a McReview, we would talk about Callow Hall’s quirks such as how the bedrooms are named after previous owners, like Dorothy and David. Castle Leslie is another example of this trend. A different country house trend and not any less eccentrically egocentric is to name bedrooms after places visited by the owning family. Two Northern Irish houses come up trumps. Mount Stewart and Clandeboye. Who wouldn’t want to sleep in Amsterdam, Hague, Rome or Paris at Mount Stewart? And the bedroom corridors of Clandeboye read like BA departure lounges: Burma, Canada, France, Italy, Killyleagh, Muttra, Ottawa, Paris, Rome, Russia, Shimla, St Petersburg and Walmer. Ok, maybe not Killyleagh.

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