The Age of the Great House

George Stacpoole considers some of the treasures available from the sales at four of Ireland’s ‘Great Houses’

After World War II many Irish houses including their contents fell under the auctioneers hammer. These houses had in many cases been built by the ancestors of the sellers and in a matter of a few hours the family collection and history was dispersed to the four corners of the world. Ireland was a rich picking ground for dealers both here and abroad. The dealer would in fact be the controller of the prices realised unlike today where the private individual will pay what he thinks is the right price.

Four Irish houses with their original contents were sold between 1964-1984 and today none of them survive as private residences.

Kenure Park at Rush, Co. Dublin was the home of the Palmer family for 150 years until they sold the property and contents in a sale conducted by J.H. North & Co. Ltd. in September 1964. This perhaps was one of Ireland’s finest houses being an 18th century house that which had been grandly refaced with an enormous portico in 1842 by George Papworth. Internally the house was elaborately decorated with fine plasterwork, a vast staircase hall, with reception rooms on the first floor all wonderfully decorated. The furnishings at the time of the sale were of the best with finest porcelain oriental, Chelsea, Dresden, Spode, Worcester, Mason Ironstone etc. The silver included a William III salver, London circa 1696, a Queen Anne plain cylindrical tankard and cover by James Gibbon, London, 1704, 50 pieces of table silver by John Pittar, Dublin, 1787. Paintings including works by or of the school of Romney, Kneller Cuyp, Guercino, Wouverman, B.V.D. Helst, A van de Velde etc.

The furniture was perhaps the most interesting section with many superb pieces. In particular: Lot 290 a fine pair of carved gilt torcheres comprising a pair of Chinese gilt figures supporting trays on carved tripod bases with paw feet and probably by Chippendale. The piece of furniture that was perhaps the sensation of the sale and indeed perhaps one of the most important pieces of furniture to be sold in Ireland in the 20th century was a Chippendale cabinet, Lot 291. The description in the catalogue read ‘A very fine Chinese Display Cabinet in mahogany with carved gilt ornamentation and decoration, three gilt pagodas over three door cabinet with glazed doors enclosing shelves standing on a table with three pillared supports at each corner. The table has three drawers, the centre one being fitted as a writing drawer with green baize covered slide.’ This piece was based on a design from Thomas Chippendale Director of 1754 plates 105 to 111. The sensation of the sale making around £5000, it recently reappeared with an asking price of some millions of dollars. All that remains today of this outstanding house is its portico after demolition in 1974.

Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare is the largest and grandest Palladian country house in Ireland. It was built by William Conolly (1662-1729) the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He became one of the wealthiest men in Ireland but did not complete the building of the house, this was left to his great nephew Tom Conolly who married Lady Louisa Lennox, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond, who was instrumental in much of the decoration of the house. In 1966 the Conolly family (who had become Conolly Carew) decided to sell the house and residue contents. The sale was held over two days and comprised of some 1000 lots. There were over 100 lots of paintings but few making over £1000 and yet many today if sold would make many thousands.

Paintings of horses by H. Barraud made between £140 and £620. A painting of Parnel Moore aged 112 in 1761 made £25. There were many portraits from 17th century. A seascape by R.B. Beechey of the Mailboat Connaught in stormy seas made £95. A portrait of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Aubegny in France by Vandyck made £320. The furniture included such pieces as a set of 12 reproduction Irish Chippendale mahogany dining chairs by Hicks, circa 1920. Also an imposing pair of 18th century carved giltwood sidetables. The friezes with symmetrical leaf, berry and gadrooning on angular fluted baluster support terminating in ball feet, with dove grey marble slabs they were seven feet long. A Christopher Columbus sea chest with fitted interior; this had been in the Conolly family since 1720 following Lady Anne Wentworth’s marriage to William Conolly nephew of the Speaker. It was exhibited in Dublin and had been on loan to the National Gallery in the 1920’s.

The property was sold in 1965 and houses were built on the estate. In 1967 Hon. Desmond Guinness bought the house with some of the land and so saved the house from certain dereliction. He immediately opened the house to the public and began restoring it. In 1979 the house was taken over by Castletown Foundation and in 1994 the State took over the property. It is only in recent years that the state has seen the importance in preserving some areas of our heritage. Ireland owes enormous depth of gratitude to people like Desmond Guinness for their determination and foresight in preserving its heritage.

Powerscourt at Enniskerry has a different story as to the fate of the buildings to the two previous houses. Powerscourt was associated with the Wingfierld family from 1609 when Sir Richard Wingfield was granted the property by James I. The house was redesigned between 1731-1740 for Richard Wingfield M.P. who was created 1st Viscount Powerscourt from a design by Richard Castle who also must have laid out the bones of the garden, but it was not until the 19th century that the layout came about as we know it today with Daniel Robertson designing the upper terrace. The 6th Viscount bought the marbles, bronzes ornaments that adorn the garden having bought them on his travels to Italy, he was never to see them laid out because he died before they were unpacked. It was the 7th Viscount with Daniel Robertson who was to complete the lay out and it was he who wrote that Daniel Robertson was ‘given to drink and suffered from gout and used to be driven about in a wheel barrow with a bottle of sherry’. The 7th Viscount was the great recorder about everything and he was like his father an inveterate collector who became involved in the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1961 the estate was sold lock, stock and barrel to Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Slazenger. The marriage of their daughter in 1962 to the Viscount’s son maintained the family link. In 1974 there was a disastrous fire which gutted the house. In September 1984 there was a sale of what remained of the contents. Included in the sale was a well recorded view of the Powerscourt waterfall by George Barret RA, £21,600. View of The Lodge of Luggala, CO. Wicklow with Loch Tay beyond by William Ashford RHA, £4,104. A fine portrait of Richard Wingfield 1st Viscount Powerscourt by Antony Lee, £6,480, this was purchased by the 7th Viscount at the 1875 sale of Sir Charles Domville, Santry Court, Dublin and also a portrait of Mervyn Edards, 7th Viscount Powerscourt by Walter Osborne RHA, RA, £2,160. There was much arms and armour on sale as there had been a huge display of this within the house e.g. ‘A fine Irish mid-Georgian mahogany serving table, £15,660. When Lord Powerscourt bought it he recounts in his book how he came to buy it from Mrs. Brady of Liffey Street: ‘I was looking at it and admiring it and I offered her less than the price she put upon it, and she said ‘Oh! Now you had better take it, you will never see another like it, and the General will be here directly and he will have it soon enough’ – the General being the late General Charles Crawford Frazer VC, at that time commanding the troop in Dublin.

Powerscourt today flourishes as a tourist centre, the gutted house now has a roof, the ground floor is a shopping area while upstairs the once elaborate ballroom is again an entertaining area but devoid of all it’s wonderful decoration.

Adare Manor is perhaps one of Ireland’s finest houses of its period. The present house was very much the creation of the 2nd Earl of Dunraven and his wife Caroline daughter and sole heir of Thomas Wyndham of Dunraven Castle in Glamorganshire. Caroline was a remarkable lady of enormous talent and also came with money. She was a keen shot, sailed, played cricket, was a great tourist and also extremely interested in architecture as was her husband, so they rebuilt the house.

They asked James Pain of Limerick in 1825 along with his brother George Richard who trained with Nash, to b the architects. They had James Connolly as their remarkable mastermason, but by 1840 the Dunravens parted company with Pain. The Earl wrote to Pain ‘I did not cease to employ you professionally for the purpose of placing myself in any other professional’s hands. Building is my amusement and I am a dabbler in architecture and I have now for some years been carrying on the new work entirely from my own designs and without any assistance what so ever!’ The 3rd Earl was to be in contact both with Pugin and PC Hardwick. The house was completed by 1862. The 2nd Earl and his wife Caroline had the following inscription carved on the side of the house ‘This goodly house was erected y Windham Henry, Earl of Dunraven and Caroline his Countess without borrowing, selling or leaving a debt AD MDCCL’. Few houses today could have this sign put on them.

In 1982 the Dunraven family decided to dispose of the property and there was two-day sale held which contained many fine paintings including one attributed to John Boultbee of Charles Wyndham’s hound in a landscape, the collar of the dog inscribed with the owner’s initials.

There were many ancestral portraits which had all adorned the Long Gallery, including a massive portrait by Hugh Barron of Charles Edwin and his son Thomas Wyndham, Charles in the uniform of a Ranger of the Forest of Dean. One of the intriguing pictures of the sale and the bargain of the day was a small picture of an open row boat in mountainous seas signed AB. Unidentified by the auctioneers after much research, an American dealer flew in especially to buy it and got it for a modest sum. It was in fact by one of America’s greatest painters Albert Bierstadt – the auctioneers had overlooked in their research the Dunraven families connection with the painter. The furniture ranged from pieces that were in the original 18th century house to pieces attributed to AWN Pugin and William IV oak throne chairs probably by LN Cottingham 1787-1847. Today the house is a luxury hotel sadly the furnishings etc. have little relationship to the 19th century.

Gone are the days when there were regular house sales with their original contents. Many house sales with their original contents. Many houses are no longer in the ownership of the original families. Houses were demolished or converted into some other purpose as related in this article.

Castletown is the only one to be furnished again as it might have been during the ownership of the Conolly family. The Hon. Desmond Guinness and a few other dedicated people must be applauded for making the public aware of 18th and 19th century heritage at a time when government had little concern. Today there is concern and interest from all quarters.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Antique Dealers’ Yearbook 2001-2002