What a Fad
First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.It took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.
Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”
Ambrose was in London rather aptly for the Chelsea Flower Show when he died in 2011, aged 104. He had no children so eight generations of his family’s enhancement of Waterford came to a close. Geraldine Critchley, his partner, survives him. The son of Major John Congreve and Lady Irène Congreve, daughter of the 8th Earl of Bessborough, Ambrose inherited Mount Congreve in 1968 and restored and redecorated and replanted it to within an inch of its being. The good life took off, on a whole new level. Ambrose divided his time between Mount Congreve and his London townhouse near Belgrave Square. He employed a succession of fine chefs de cuisine including Albert Roux who went on to co-found Le Gavroche restaurant.
Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.