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Hidden Ireland + Clonalis Roscommon

The Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman and Artists as Young Men

Dia dhaoibh ar maidin. There really aren’t many left. A study of the 39 (what an odd number, why not 40?) country houses featured in the book Irish Houses and Castles with its strangely coloured plates, published in 1974, reveals just 13 remain in the hands of the same families. So which ones have been so lucky? Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath | Bantry House, County Cork | Beaulieu, County Louth | Birr Castle, County Offaly | Dunsany Castle, County Meath | Glin Castle, County Limerick | Kilshannig, County Cork | Lismore Castle, County Waterford | Lough Cutra Castle, County Galway | Mount Ievers, County Cork | Leixlip Castle, County Dublin | Slane Castle, County Meath | Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath. Like Hen’s teeth.

Not so much “Where are they now?” as “What are they now?” They’re not all sob stories. Some have never looked better. Sir David Davies has brought a new lease of life to Abbey Leix. Crazy but true. The London launch of a book by William Laffan celebrating the estate’s rebirth was held with great pomp and happenstance at Lindy Guinness’s Holland Park villa mansion. Nancy Mitford’s cousin Clementine Beit’s old house Russborough looks in pretty good nick, even if restoration comes at the price of paintings disappearing. And nobody’s blaming terrorists this time… John O’Connell has worked his magic at Fota Island, the first residential restoration of the Irish Heritage Trust. And there are high hopes that the Hughes brothers, the new owners of Westport House, despite contending, conflicting lights, will preserve one of the last Richard Castle designed houses for the nation. It’s hard to keep up with Bellamont Forest: it’s seriously serially for sale. Luttrellstown Castle might be corporately owned but Eileen Plunket’s ballroom would still give Nancy Lancaster’s Yella Room a run for its money. Christie’s recently told us Stackallen, which appears in later versions of the book, has been “enriched” since it was bought by the billionaire Naughtons in 1993.

Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.

Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!

His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.

Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.

“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.

Donough Cahill, Executive Director of the Irish Georgian Society, reminded the London Chapter of the recent fire at the 18th century villa Vernon Mount in Cork City. “’A study in curves’ is how the Knight of Glin described this classic gem,” lamented Donough. “A great loss. The community are heartbroken and we too are heartbroken.” It’s a reflection on the rarity and fragility of Irish country houses and makes the flourishing survival of Clonalis all the more remarkable. A former billiard room is now a museum of letters and papers from family archives, one of the best collections in private ownership in Ireland. Correspondence from the likes of William Gladstone, Samuel Johnson and Anthony Trollope is displayed in mahogany bookcases next to the harp of Turlough Carolan, a renowned 17th century blind musician. Oh, and a pedigree of 25 generations of The House of O’Conor Don hangs on the wall, starting with Turlough Mor O’Conor, High King of Ireland, who died in 1150. One ancestor brought a certain captive named Patrick to Ireland. And the rest, as they say, is history. Our patron saint. A Catholic chapel is discreetly located to the rear of the house. “There are only three such private chapels in Ireland,” remarks Marguerite. “The other two are at the Carrolls’ house in Dundalk and DerrynaneDaniel O’Connell’s house . Tread carefully. Thin places. “There is really too much to say.” Henry James again. Tráthnóna maith daoibh.

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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

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Architecture Country Houses

Holy Hill House Strabane Tyrone + Ballymena Castle

The Big White House | Relics of the Old Decency

Holy Hill House Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”

Holy Hill House Strabane © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”

Holy Hill Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.

Holy Hill House Bay Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.

Holy Hill House Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.

Holy Hill Outbuilding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.

Holly Hill House Rear Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”

Holly Hill House Ballymena Castle Stained Glass Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.

Holy Hill House Kitchen © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’

Holy Hill House Landing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architects Architecture Art Country Houses People

The 8th Marquess of Waterford + Curraghmore Waterford

Heirs and Graces

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The shadows were closing in. On a dark night in 1922, while heavy clouds curled and unfurled over the Comeragh Mountains, four IRA men crawled up the four mile driveway of Curraghmore. The fourth of four castles owned by the de la Poer family, who’d come to these islands during the French Catholic Norman Invasion, was about to become ruins. But St Hubert would save the night. As the terrorists approached, a flicker of moonlight silhouetted the crucifix surmounting a stag over the entrance tower: of St Hubert atop the balustrade. Illiterately, the terrorists assumed the family inside must still be Catholic. They fled and burned down the crucifix-free Woodstown House nearby. The de la Poer motto is Nil Nisi Cruce: “Nothing without the cross.”

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We’re in the James Wyatt designed staircase hall of Curraghmore. It’s a Sunday morning and John Beresford, 8th Marquess of Waterford, has graced us with his presence. Inspecting our old postcard of Curraghmore, he remarks, “Look, the fountain in the lake is clearly visible. It was the tallest fountain in Europe before my grandfather took it down.” The estate boasts the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka spruce. At 47.5 metres tall, its full height is not immediately apparent as it grows out of a dell. The Marquess is less than impressed by wind turbines visible from the neighbouring farm which mar the otherwise Arcadian setting.

Curraghmore

“That dashing red haired gentleman,” says the Marquess pointing to a portrait on the landing, “is Henry the 3rd Marquess. He was hot tempered and one day got into such a fierce argument with his father he charged up the staircase on his black stallion. That’s how the middle step got cracked. The portrait of his wife Louisa the 3rd Marchioness, herself an artist, is rather lovely. The 3rd Marquess was killed while fox hunting. My brother Patrick is a great soldier. He was awarded the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst.” The current Marquess was a talented polo player and is a friend of the Duke of Edinburgh. “I’m lucky to have three sons and five grandsons. Richard, my eldest grandson, is 6’8” and a professional polo player.” Sport’s in their (blue) blood. The 3rd Marquess enjoyed partying as much as sport. He was one of several wild sportsmen who sprayed the tollgate and houses of Melton Mowbray with red paint. The phrase “painting the town red” was born.

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Marquess of Waterford Curraghmore Tower © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

1 Marquess of Waterford Curraghmore © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

6 Marquess of Waterford Curraghmore © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

8 Marquess of Waterford Curraghmore © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

7 Marquess of Waterford Curraghmore © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

3 Curraghmore Gardens © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

2 Curraghmore Gardens © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

1 Curraghmore Gardens © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

“That’s Aunt Clodagh,” the Marquess grins gesturing to another portrait. “Do you know what the Irish name Clodagh means? Muddy water. Lady Muddy Water Beresford.” Over six kilometres of the Clodagh River run through the estate. “Curraghmore has always been a working farm.” Even more than that, it was once a self contained community. In contrast to the format of wings elongating the façade, at Curraghmore the ancillary quarters stretch forward from the entrance doors to form the mother-of-all-forecourts. More Seaton Delaval than Russborough. As well as the stables for 60 horses, this parallel pair of wings at one time housed the accountant, bookkeeper, butler, doctor, estate manager, gamekeeper, headmaster and woodcutter and headmaster. An estate school lay behind the gatelodge. Basil Croeser, the retired butler, still lives in one of the Gibbsian detailed houses lining the forecourt. A new butler, aged 23, has just started. He’s yet to be fitted for his uniform. Later, he will serve the Marquess lunch, a silver tureen on a silver tray concealing produce from the estate. Game soup’s a favourite. There are 25 estate staff, including a cleaning lady for every floor. There may be four poster beds but bathrooms are on the corridor. No en suites. This is an Irish country house, not a hotel. Chamber pots at the ready.

4 Curraghmore Gardens © lvbmag.com Stuart Blakley

“That painting’s by Gilbert Stuart who famously was George Washington’s portraitist. Those are of my parents and grandparents. Do sign the visitors’ book.” Lavender’s Blue is added to Prince Albert of Greece, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and, er, Iain Duncan-Smith. “The house is surprisingly warm, even in winter,” comments the Marquess, “thanks to roaring fires in the main rooms and the thickness of the walls.” We move into the Blue Drawing Room, walking across a 1770 Axminster. The wealth of art between these thick walls becomes even more apparent. One, two, three Joshua Reynolds. Same again for Rubens. A portrait of Catherine the Great by Giovanni Battista Lampi hangs over the doorcase. A Gerrit van Honthorst here; a Thomas Lawrence there. In the adjoining Yellow Drawing Room, filled with morning light from two windows on two sides (blind windows were unblocked in a major restoration 25 years ago), is a painting of another family aunt, Lady Wyndham. She’s wearing the pearl necklace Mary Queen of Scots handed to her lady-in-waiting before she lost her head. The pearls are upstairs, in the Marchioness’s dressing room.

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The dining room retains its original skin tone coloured walls and the nine metre linen tablecloth dating from 1876 is still in use. Standards are high at dinner parties. The Marquess and Marchioness sit at opposite ends of the table, 17 privileged guests on either side. Men wear bow ties; ladies, long dresses and jewellery. Candles perched in three silver candelabra provide the only lighting. Dinner is served on 10 dozen floral Feuillet plates. Upstairs, far flung corners of the house are piled high with boxes of English, French and Chinese china. After dinner, at a nod from the Marquess, the ladies withdraw to another room. A larger than usual party was recently held when the Marquess celebrated his 80th birthday with 80 guests.

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There’s so much else to write about Curraghmore. The stuffed lioness and her cubs lurking in a glass box. Elephant trunk and feet umbrella stands. The quatrefoil shaped shell grotto. The grass avenue which stops abruptly, unfinished since the 3rd Marquess’s untimely demise. The Curraghmore Hunt painting by William Osborne with name plates for everyone including the hounds Jason and Good Boy. Grisaille panels by Peter de Gree. Roundels by Antonio Zucchi. Francini plasterwork. Most of all, the great sense of peace that presides throughout the 1,620 hectares of Ireland’s last wilderness.

Curraghmore Postcards Lavender's Blue

 

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Lady Lucy French + St James Theatre Westminster London

A Class Act

Lady Lucy French copyright Stuart Blakley

Lavender’s Blue catch up with Lady Lucy French, Director of Development at London’s first and only 21st century theatre. Take two. The scene is coffee in the theatre’s ground floor brasserie. Walls of windows capture lively visual interaction with the streetscape, heightened by the dado level pavement. The world is a stage.

French Park Roscommon copyright Stuart Blakley

First, a little introduction. Lady Lucy French is the great granddaughter of the 1st Earl of Ypres, Commander in Chief on the Western Front in the 1st World War and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Sir John’s grandson, the 3rd and last Earl, had three daughters from his first marriage and one from his second. He died in 1988. Lucy is his youngest daughter. The 1st Earl’s elder sister was the suffragette and writer Charlotte Despard. A founding member of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support Republican prisoners, she didn’t quite see eye to eye politically with her brother.

French Park Roscommon

“One day, Charlotte was leading a suffragettes march down O’Connell Street in Dublin,” relates Lucy, “when she met a brigade led by her brother.” Awkward. “Neither of them was quite sure what to do. By rights the Lord Lieutenant should have arrested the protestors!” Instead, they each moved to the side and continued marching in opposite directions.” Literally and metaphorically.

French Park in Roscommon was the Italian inspired French family’s Irish seat designed by the German born architect Richard Castle. Like Russborough, French Park was Castle’s 18th century take on Palladio with curvy colonnades attaching wings to a colossal main house. Drama set in stone. It was the seat of the Barons de Freyne before it was demolished in the 20th century. Charlotte Despard spent a lot of time at French Park where she was born. The current Lord de Freyne, Lucy’s cousin Charles, lives in Putney. “Hampstead and St John’s Wood are my neck of the woods. A few years back I visited Roscommon,” recalls Lucy, “but couldn’t find the house. Some of the locals pointed it out. It’s a pile of rubble now.”

Back to St James Theatre. “I got involved over 18 months ago when it was just a building site,” she explains. The location is an enclave of to-die-for Georgian houses opposite Buckingham Palace. “After the previous theatre burnt down, Westminster Council had a clear vision for the site. The Council granted permission for 35 flats but insisted on a replacement theatre as well. It’s been an exciting journey for the team.” Lucy works alongside creative director Robert Mackintosh, executive artistic director David Gilmore, executive theatre director Guy Kitchenn and James Albrecht, studio director.

“It doesn’t look like a stereotypical theatre, does it?” muses Lucy, gazing towards the contemporary open plan ground floor reception and sweep of marble staircase. “St James is multifunctional. You can come here for coffee downstairs and fine dining upstairs. There are some great Italian signature dishes and a varied series of seasonal menus. Oh and never mind The Goring, we do afternoon tea here too! You can come see a show or play in the main house. And there’s comedy and cabaret in the studio.”

Lucy began her career in Liverpool, “a great city”, working in journalism and gradually moving into arts fund raising. It was the time when Liverpool was gearing up to be European Capital of Culture. She has since swapped the skyline of cranes over the northern city for that of Victoria. Lucy sits on the board of Victoria Business Improvement District. On her return to London, the theatre called. A five year stint as head of development at Hampstead Theatre was followed by the same post at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. All good grounding for her latest role.

St James Theatre is privately funded which gives us tremendous freedom,” Lucy confirms, “We’re self funding. With all the arts cuts and changes to arts funding, art and business are increasingly intertwined. I believe we’re at the forefront of this approach. We’ve secured a five year deal with Create Victoria which is fronted by Land Securities. We’ve got a lot of local support as well.”

The joy of building anew means there isn’t a bad seat in the house. No awkward pillars – actually make that no pillars at all – in this theatre thanks. Just a shallow curve of seats descending to the stage below in ever decreasing arcs. Comfort is key in the quietly decorated interior. Drama is saved for the stage. “It’s a highly successful theatre for actors and the audience alike,” Lucy observes. “It’s got terrific acoustics – pitch perfect for classical concerts!”

“So far we’ve hosted five plays, all wonderfully different, from Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy to Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs. In our first six months we even received an Olivier nomination.” A huge show is planned for next year. Lucy reveals a series of spoilers will be released in the run up to a September announcement. Next year’s a big year for her family history too. She’s planning a large scale event in honour of her great grandfather to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the 1st World War. Australia House on the Strand is the venue. Sir John French attended its opening in 1918.

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Lucy herself cuts quite a dash, complementing her innate prettiness with millinery zeal. Her theatrical headpieces have become something of a fixture at premieres. When the theatre’s staircase, designed by Mark Humphrey, was unveiled, she wore – what else? – a maquette of the staircase. To scale, of course. “I used to make a lot of my hats,” she says. “Recently I’ve been trying something a bit different – a collaboration with a local florist. Orchids are great – they last all evening without drooping.” Her most extraordinary hat to date was a three foot sofa atop an extravagance of ostrich feathers. She wore it to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. “It was properly upholstered by a Liverpudlian furniture maker.” Was it not a little heavy? “Darling, by mid afternoon I’d got used to it.” And with that, Lady Lucy French leaves the building.

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