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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

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Architecture Country Houses People

Pollock Family + Mountainstown House Meath

Unbright Light

Mountainstownhouse Navan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s a doll’s house on steroids. Toy peacocks guard it. So pretty. John O’Connell, RIAI accredited Conservation Practice Grade I architect and founder of John J O’Connell Architects established 1978, calls Mountainstown House, “A baroque box due to the use of the giant order. And this recalls not only Castle Durrow, County Laois, but refers back to the work of hero Michelangelo who used this device for the first time at The Capitol, Rome. The presence of the dormer windows is rare, as they were not used or decayed. It is also an essay in ‘duality resolved’, though there may have been remodelling when the house was fluently extended in the early 19th century.” John observes, “The design and the adornment of urns to the entrance door is very confident. The date is 1740, and I would say, not by Richard Castle.” Around the windows the house makes a solid frame.

Back in the days when Mountainstown was in the hands of Johnny and Diana Pollock, over supper in the kitchen Diana had said, “It wasn’t easy auctioning many of the contents of the house. But you can always buy back furniture and paintings in the future. Once you sell land it’s – well it’s gone. We kept the pieces with the closest links to the house.” Lot 1122: ‘A pair of composition urns, the vase shaped bodies with gadrooned socles and spreading fluted bases, on square plinths, £5 to £10.’ Lot 237: ‘An equestrian portrait of Mr Dixon, Master of the Meath Hounds, on his chestnut hunter with eight couples of hounds at heel, by Thomas Bretland, £20,000 to £30,000.’

Together the couple sunk the funds raised from Christie’s 1988 auction into restoring the house.They also let out Mountainstown as a film location. “The film September was set here,” she had recalled. “The house was filled with stars – among them Jacqueline Bisset, Virginia McKenna, Edward Fox and Michael York.” A generation and great recession later, one quarter of a millennium of Pollock ownership is coming to an end. Mountainstown was passed down to Arthur Pollock, Johnny and Diana’s elder son, in 2004. Arthur moved in with his wife Atalanta and their three children. They continued the restoration work, installing a new kitchen to the former billiard room wing and painting the staircase hall fawn. But now Mountainstown is for sale through Savills for almost £3 million.

Atty explains, “It was a huge decision and not one that came easily. But we don’t want the children to struggle to keep it, y’know. We want it to be enjoyed to the full by a new family. Somebody who would use all this amazing pasture – and permanent pasture, 120 acres of it. Someone who has an interest in horses. Maybe someone who likes hunting. I mean there are copious stables, a lovely yard.” She knows the history well: “Samuel Gibbons who built the house, after he died an impression was taken of his face and it was embossed onto the ceiling in the hall.” As for the wild boar image which appears throughout the interior, Atty comments, “The story is and it may – it may well be true, that the King of France was being charged by a wild boar that they were hunting and Lieutenant Pollock killed it with an arrow. So he was given a crest – the family crest. And the house has so much personality cause you see all over the house this motif of a wild boar recurring.”

Atalanta Pollock reminisces, “We’ve had really memorable parties here. We filled the house with people and friends. We’ve had lots of people to stay the night which makes for much better parties as we all know. And it’s been a fun place to live in, yeah. It’s been a lot of work but it’s been a lot of fun as well.” Hopefully Mountainstown will remain a private house whoever buys it. Surely Ireland has reached country house hotel saturation? That said, one country house hotel has never looked better. After languishing on the property market for several years, Castlebellingham finally sold for £1.25 million, a quarter of its 2008 asking price. The Corscadden family have since spent over £3 million on a convincing restoration.