China in Her Hands
“I’m a 20th century girl,” breathes Desirée Shortt. She spent the closing quarter of that century as Ireland’s most successful china restorer. Before that she worked abroad including in America and Britain. “Los Angeles was my love affair. London was my friend. And Dublin is my marriage.”
“I’m a Dub. I’m from Dublin 4.” She is sitting next to a roaring fire in her elegant raised ground floor drawing room. “My grandparents owned Montrose which then became the RTÉ television centre. The original house was built by the Earls of Pembroke in the 19th century. I grew up a couple of miles from there in a big house on Anglesea Road. I saw a lot of my grandparents – we went for lunch on Sundays and for Christmas and Easter. I was privileged.”
Desirée reminisces, “All I wanted as a child was food – extra jelly and cream! I remember the lunches with the butler Byrne and his wife Mrs Byrne who was the cook and two standing footmen and three housemaids and the chauffeur who drove the Rolls Royce. To me a garden meant greenhouses and five gardeners. Folie de grandeur!”
“I was spoiled! I ruled the house from the age of six. What I wanted I got. My father was 20 years older than my mother. He was 53 when I was born, she was 33; my only brother was eight years older than me so I don’t remember him very well as a child. The males didn’t really figure in my early life as far I was concerned. I was my mother’s pet lamb! I was mostly brought up by women – I went to Catholic convent schools.”
The fire continues to roar; seagulls are howling on the street beyond the two tall sash windows. Desirée suggests it was both a good start and maybe a bad start. “I had a privileged upbringing but a hard learning curve lay ahead of me. I had to go out into the real world. I was one of the first of my lot to go to London. And from London I went to the US. I arrived in New York and rode the Greyhound bus to LA. The timing was right – I lived in California for three years. Lot of sunshine, lots of yachts, lots of men!”
Ireland called her back. “My mother had died, and my father was ill. He was a very nice man – he died aged 87. And I thought now I’m free! I was so excited about going to Brussels to work in the Common Market. I was a secretary there but it wasn’t a great success. They all spoke English so I didn’t improve my French. I’d a French nanny growing up so I used to understand when my aunt and mother talked about me in French. ‘Très mauvais. Très très mauvais!’”
“Then reality struck. I needed to settle down – with a house not a husband.” Ireland called her back, this time for good. Desirée relates, “I was 34 and I didn’t want to get married. To me marriage is a cage. Someone opens the door and then the door is locked on you. I just wanted freedom. I didn’t want to pretend to be a good cook with five screaming kids and a boring husband and a mortgage and locked in a cage. Best thing I ever did was not get married. In those days married people were very suspicious of single women. Wives thought you were after their husbands.”
“My godfather Patrick Glynn was an eminent solicitor and he said to me, ‘You need to buy a nice new two bed apartment. Ladies do not buy houses on North Great George’s Street.’ So of course I bought this house the next day. I had friends who lived across the road. There was an elite group of us – we were hedonistic and had parties. One of them kept saying, ‘Why don’t you buy the house?’ It had been up for sale for five years. And I looked over at this place and there seemed endless people coming in and out and of course there were – 27 of them!”
“It was up for sale for five years. I thought, me? No! Go on. Me? No. So I woke up that morning and thought I’m going to buy it. I paid 8,000 punts and wrote a cheque.” That was in 1974. She says, “There were 27 sitting tenants. It took me 17 years to get them out.” The fire roars a little more. “Relationships were not good – they hated me. ‘That one – who does she think she is?’ I knocked on their doors and deliberately collected the rents once a week. Rent was 40 pence; the income for the house was 415 punts per annum. Somebody once said, ‘There are no flies on Desirée and if there are they’re paying rent!’”
An Irish Georgian Society grant helped pay towards restoration of the roof and repointing the brickwork: she is a great supporter of the Society. “Otherwise, the house was actually in quite good condition,” Desirée admits. “It was just tired. Decorating it was a huge job. I would finish work and spend all evening painting the rooms myself on a ladder. Even the three storey staircase hall with its six flights. I couldn’t afford a decorator. I painted the dining room with six coats and then a semi-lacquer coat.” At the end of the return is her kitchen. “That’s my nest, not that I cook.” And beyond that an exquisite town garden. “It’s all green and wonderful in the summer. I’m very keen on mirrors in gardens.” Climbers grow across the basement area.
“I now have five one bed apartments on the other floors. Rent is a bit more than it used to be. No flies! I’m a very good landlord and they are very good tenants. We respect each other and are very courteous. They have security of tenure. I live in the raised ground floor and first floor and the return and have the garden.” Georgian Dublin houses are built on a gigantic scale. Desirée’s reception rooms with their 4.3 metre high ceilings are more like state rooms. She explains, “My memory was very definitely dependent on that memory of all the rooms being big at Montrose. So in a funny way 100 years later I wanted to live in a big house! Of course, I didn’t realise you don’t live in a big house for free.” So she made the house work even harder, all 560 square metres of it.
“Greatly to my surprise I launched a restoration china studio in my basement. I hadn’t a clue about china – I didn’t know the difference between a cup and saucer! Just before that, I went to London and saw a sign at the V+A for ‘China Restoration’, and I thought why not? So I did the six week course and came back to Dublin and set up as a professional. I don’t like metal and I don’t like glass. But china grabbed me, I just felt the texture. The dealers soon knew I was special and the studio just took off. Dealers would buy something at an auction with a missing finger or missing head or missing something. And I saw the market for china restoration.”
Her past professional experience came in useful: “In California I had worked for McCann Erickson who were the top ad agency in the world. They had staff of 300 and that was just in one office. I knew I had to sell. I did the china restoration for 25 years – I had a staff of 28 and trained a total of 283 students.” The house was working hard but not hard enough: there were still flies on the principal two floors. “Location agencies started taking an interest in the house. They would ring me and say, ‘We have some American film clients at the airport. Could we come and have a look?’ So 36 films were set here.”
Desirée confides, “Stephen Fry was my favourite – I had lunch with him. He was dressed in full 19th century costume for a film about Oscar Wilde. And of course we had something in common straight away. The interesting thing is that this house was the home of Professor John Pentland Mahaffy, Oscar Wilde’s tutor. We had that discussion – he’s a brilliant conversationalist. I’m not too bad myself.” The builder and first occupant of the house was another distinguished Dubliner. Stuccodore Charles Thorpe [Thorp?} built the house in 1785; he would become Lord Mayor of Dublin 15 years later.
“I also hired out my reception rooms for dinner parties; when the Foreign Office had conferences what could they do with the wives? So the wives would come here – I could seat 40 in my dining room. I didn’t do the cooking, I left myself free. I hate cooking! I would buy in the wine and I had a team of waiters and caterers. I was free to wander around pretending to be the hostess and again amusing them. That was a huge success. I had big companies and small companies dine here too. I would say 10,000 people a year came through this house over four decades. Every room in this house works for a living.”
One evening, Desirée’s two occupations of china restoration and playing hostess clashed. “In 1985 the famous Chinese Warriors from Xi’an came to Dublin. There was a huge party of 400 guests at Royal Hospital Kilmainham. I went to the opening with an American house guest. That was fine. I came back home. I was giving a dinner party afterwards, as one did in those days. And the phone rang. ‘Two of the warriors have got broken, you must come to the museum now.’ It was a government minister. ‘I can’t, I’m having a dinner party,’ I replied. ‘We’ll pick you up in 10 minutes.’”
“My American house guest took over as host of the dinner party which he thought was great fun. He had a great time entertaining his pals in the house for the next three days. The taxi arrived and I spent three days at the museum representing the Irish Government. Scaffolding used for putting up lighting had collapsed hitting two of the figures and they were originals, not fakes. A Chinese professor arrived, not a word of English of course, we both smoked, we understood each other perfectly. All thanks to body language … and smoke rings!”
She recalls, “Because it was the Government, 10 workmen arrived in about four seconds. They built a support round the broken terracotta warriors. A full size horse head had come off one. When it was fixed and it came to having the support removed, that was the nastiest moment. ‘Please don’t let the head come off!’ After the restoration was complete I asked could I publish this and the Government said no, it would be too embarrassing. No publicity and I thought, fair enough. So I picked up the phone, picked my people, and within 20 minutes the whole of Dublin knew exactly what had happened. That was great fun and about four years later I was lucky enough to go to China. And I went to Xi’an which was fascinating, absolutely fascinating, and I swear one of the warriors winked at me! I’m probably the only European who has ever been allowed to touch them.” In 38 North Great George’s Street, the fire is still roaring.
Desirée Shortt, a 20th century girl still enjoying life in the 21st century. “I’m lucky I have my own little bubble – somebody cooks for me, somebody drives for me, and I’ve very good friends.” And a very good 18th century house in the city she loves most.