Bantry House holding out for a ‘white knight’

THE sign on road heading into Bantry could be read as one offering reassurance. As the tarmac undergoes resurfacing, the cardboard sign declares ‘Bantry House, business as usual’.

Bantry House holding out for a ‘white knight’

It certainly looks like that, what with American, Irish and British tourists milling around the expansive gardens, but Bantry House is experiencing a period of upheaval. Its owners, the Shelswell-White family, had made the momentous decision to sell the contents in an attempt to resolve long-running financial issues. Then, weeks from the proposed auction, the event was pulled over a licensing issue, in what Brigitte Shelswell-White and her daughter, Sophie, lightheartedly refer to as “Garth Brooks II”. The question remains as to whether this was a lucky break, a stay of execution, or simply a postponement of the inevitable.

The sunglasses worn by Brigitte are due to recovery from a small cataract operation earlier in the week, rather than to combat the sun shining down on Bantry Bay, but such has been the strengthening focus on the house and its contents in recent months, you could be forgiven for wondering if she is simply trying to go incognito. The idea of the house shedding its collection of artifacts, gathered from around the world and including pieces from the Palace of Versailles, has dismayed heritage campaigners who fear it will be scattered to the four winds. Against that, is the struggles to keep it intact amid financial uncertainty for the owners.

“The thought of selling has been there for the longest time, the thought of selling the contents,” Brigitte says. “My husband [Egerton] and I had been thinking about that for years because we had serious financial problems.”

She says that for a property dependent on tourism they are not getting enough bodies through the doors. Gone are the days when they might expect between 75,000 and 80,000 people visiting in a year. Post 9/11, visitor numbers dropped, with American tourists less likely to travel and amid more competition generally for foreign visitors. Now she puts the annual visitor numbers at around 25,000, “so you can see the difference in income”.

The situation crystallised 18 months ago when Egerton died after an extended illness, and Sophie took over. “Financially, really, we are still stressed,” Brigitte says. “So I decided last year finally to make a serious decision and do that [sell the contents].”

Yet, due to the difficulties faced by the English auctioneers in securing a licence for the sale of the contents, the once-in-a-lifetime sell-off was pulled. The future, ahead of the traditional closing of the house to the public for the winter, remains uncertain.

Brigitte says: “I thought that by selling the collection, I may not be doing something that is desirable, but it would not be putting stress on anybody, not the government, unless they want to buy it, but they don’t have to. I burnt out a bit. If you live in a place like this you are always surrounded by things that should be fixed. And every time you look at it you say ‘I would love to do it, but I can’t afford that.’ And eventually it gets to you.

“One way of avoiding money problems is to change your life.”

In 1946 Bantry House, home to the Earls of Bantry, became the first Irish country house to open to paying visitors. It has an undeniable allure, with its supreme views, manicured lawns and diverse contents.

However, it does not seem to have ever been a moneymaking machine. Brigitte admits that, in addition to being caught by the effects of the recession, the family also overstretched itself financially, not least in developing the Gate Lodge at the height of the boom — “it cost so much, it’s not worth it”, Brigitte says.

The idea to sell the contents did not come easily, and she says at times she had “cold feet” about it, while at other times she was excited about the prospect.

“There is a difference between the collection and house,” she says. “I never thought because the collection would be sold that the house would crumble.”

The Heritage Counsel has voiced its concern that a house like Bantry, shorn of its unique collection, would then attract fewer visitors.

A quick chat to some of the visitors last Friday prompted differing responses. Helen Grace and Eleanor Cullinane from Co Waterford said it would be a “shame” if the house was emptied of many of its fine pieces, while Tina Philips, a Bantry native but longtime resident of Cardiff, said the house and gardens were the big draw.

“I don’t think the whole place depends on what’s in it,” Brigitte says. “I may be wrong, but that’s what I think.”

What is undeniable, she says, is the toll that running the house has taken on her. In an era when family homes are being repossessed and homeless services are under pressure, public sympathy might be in short supply, but for Brigitte and the family, there is what they describe as a duty to their predecessors to keep the show on the road, and also to do what is right for them as a family. Repeatedly, Brigitte says she is “burnt out” by the pressures.

Local people tend to visit once or twice a year and so the dependence on tourists is greater. Tourist numbers are up 8% this year and Sophie says she is speaking with the tourist board about carrying out a cost benefit analysis to illustrate how the house benefits the local economy. They say it is open for festivals, weddings, film shoots, in short, whatever you’re having yourself.

With the auction having been due to take place this autumn, the summer was one of items being moved around and valued.

“Any auction is a gamble,” Brigitte says. “An auction in a house like ours is a good thing because it’s interesting and all the pieces have been here for 150 years and that is good for any collector.”

The estimated revenue from an auction could be anything from €900,000 to double that, but Brigitte also says: “It can fall on its face.” Having auctioneers itemising everything with a view to being sold, and the subsequent brouhaha did little to ease the stress.

“It is emotionally draining,” she says. “Comments from people, saying good idea, bad idea, dreadfully sad, disastrous, how could you, how awful that you do this. And then after all this excitement and all this stress, then it’s not on. At this moment I can’t think.

“I look at things and I only see the problems — I don’t see the good in things.”

Between 2000 and 2010, €210,000 was provided by Heritage Council to Bantry House but Brigitte says that, staggered over a decade — and while “it’s good and I’m grateful” — was not sufficient. An offer from the Heritage Council to provide some more funding if the family could provide the remainder was turned down due to the council wishing to have “a charge on the estate, that we had to make concessions to the Heritage Council, which both myself and my husband have never done because we wanted to keep this place private”.

The auction being pulled so close to the due date could be seen as a blessing, with Sophie saying: “There have been lots of comments, ‘this has happened for a reason’,” while Brigitte laughs at the “silly” notion that the auction, scheduled for October 21, was simply to try and flush out a ‘white knight’ — “I’m not that clever,” she says with a laugh.

However, a white knight may have appeared, with news that Peter Murray, the director of Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery, has contacted a number of parties about the possibility of buying items and then donating them back to the house while also availing of a tax incentive for doing so. The Shelswell-Whites are obviously enthused by such a prospect, as it might also open up the possibility of Bantry House holding other types of exhibitions in a relationship with the Crawford.

Brigitte and Sophie believe there is a role for the State to play in maintaining the heritage in properties such as Bantry House, but are also aware of the straitened economic circumstances which means matters of heritage are unlikely to be top of the priority list.

“In a country where people are in corridors in a hospital for days it doesn’t seem right to ask for public monies,” Brigitte says. She queries if Bantry House is a museum or a private house; if it is the former, she says, it needs to be curated by professionals. Either way, she knows that any potential sale of the contents will disturb the natural order of the property, even if she also points out that a century ago Sophie’s grandmother sold contents in Britain to pay bills.

“It will [change the house] to begin with but it depends what you put in it to bring it up again. It may harm it, of course, but there is also the question ‘will I get harmed if there’s no change?’ I would say ‘yes’.” She laughs when saying this. “The people in it have to matter too. It is not just about the house and collection, it is about us as human beings.”

Faced with the prospect of selling the contents, Brigitte says she tried to be “philosophical” about it — “it’s things, you shouldn’t be too attached to things” — whereas for Sophie, “the more shabby it was, the more I loved it”.

She says she feels a sense of duty about the house, walking through it and having the eyes of her forebears staring down at her from the portraits. She says she will continue with the discussions with anyone who might offer a solution and jokes that in an ideal world, one of the small vases would turn out to be worth €10m, solving all the problems in one fell swoop.

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