Irish Country Houses book: Getting to the heart of the rise and fall of Ireland’s high society

Kya deLongchamps revels in a book which uses fascinating visual material from Irish mansions to illustrate life at that time and the dynastic tales behind the scenes

A consuming, highly illustrative book of luxuriant art, photography, architectural interest and convoluted dynastic tales, Irish Country Houses, Portraits & Painters, brings us to the beating, human heart of some of the most lovely and important mansions from all over Ireland.

Using fascinating visual material from private collections, galleries and public records, David Hicks celebrates the patrician personalities secreted behind the high castellated walls and snaking avenues that isolated Irish high society from the ordinary classes.

Framed by the houses they came from (or came to love), we meet the owners and their kin eye-to-eye in celebrated portraits by renowned society painters of the 19th and early 20th century. Maps, photographs, sketches and artworks narrate the stories of the great house alongside the commissioned work of painters including Sir George Hayter (1792-1871), Patrick Hennessy (1915-1980), John Lavery (1856-1941), William Orpen (1878-1931), Walter Osborne (1859-1903) and Edith Somerville (1858-1949).

Portraiture commissioned by the residents of this or that castle, palace or great house, has a tradition stretching back to Roman times. Following the royal and aristocratic lead, the portrait was a statement above all that the person was deemed (at least by their own) as being as monumental as the place in which they lived — and therefore worthy of remembrance. The choice of painter was vital, and confirmed to their peers, that the sitter was cultured and up to the minute.

What followed was an exquisitely sensitive project for the favoured artist. While retaining their integrity, they were expected to compose and transmit the good looks, acquisitions, and genteel pastimes and pleasures of their subjects with brush strokes loose enough to remove pocks, wrinkles and outright ugliness. This was a transient but intense relationship, where the artist might for a time even live in the house, rounding up reluctant subjects daily when the light was compliant. It was not always a pretty picture.

Hicks engages us from the start with the wrangles between the brilliant but mercurial William Orpen, trapped in Glyde Court, Tallantown, County Louth with the noble Vere-Fosters in 1907 who fancied the fashionable artist as a rather useful make-shift babysitter for their two young daughters. Orpen’s prickling comments by letter to his wife on the shortcomings of the fourth Baronet’s domestic arrangements, appear echoed in the painting itself — a somewhat surreal pastoral group. Sir Augustus complained to Hugh Lane, that the Baronet’s family and the beloved pet donkey featured in the picture, appear to share the same plank-featured expression. Whatever Orpen’s intentions for this prestigious commission — indeed they do.

The fortresses of the Irish landed gentry rose and collapsed with the lives of their inhabitants. There are several deeply poignant tales in Hicks’ book, made more moving by the portraits of the subjects and the moment of time in which they are found by the artist. The quiet, confident, formality of the picture belies the vulnerability of even these fortunate few, to the jagged turns life can and will throw.

John Charles de la Poer Beresford, seventh Marquis of Waterford, and his wife Juliet, were rendered in gorgeous matching oils to celebrate their marriage by painter Philip de László in 1930/1931. The young couple who settled in the palatial grandeur of Curraghmore, Portlaw, County Waterford, glow with youth, wealth and sheer glamour.

As fully committed members of the whole community of Portlaw, the family were visible, respected and benevolent. However, in 1934, just four years into their new life, the young marquis was accidently shot dead while loading a weapon in the gunroom, leaving behind a stricken young wife and two small sons. Curraghmore and its family have survived and thrived, however.

The painting, photographs and above all the stories chosen by Hicks, nurture empathy towards what could otherwise be dismissed as the privileged problems of a privileged class. The portraits, in particular the transcendent, naked power of Orpen’s work, deliver up fully fleshed-out human beings, a moment of their lives fastened in rigorous, confident impasto.

The mansions and castles featured in the book were homes, (if only seasonally for some families), where children were born and raised, passions ignited, books written, and in some cases great, nationally important ideas conceived.

Hicks is to be praised for bringing back to light the name of Captain John Shawe Taylor of Castle Taylor, in Ardrahan in Galway. He is portrayed in a fabulous work by Orpen, lounging over the back of a chair in hunting pink, his whip and top hat dangling from shapely, capable hands.

Shawe Taylor was no idle ascendancy sportsman and possessed what YB Yeats described as ‘a beautiful and graceful nature’. Already highly decorated as a British Army officer, Shawe Taylor for a time eschewed the upright, Anglo-Irish distractions of a country gentleman and was seminal in bringing parties together in the Land Act of 1903, a move which allowed tenants to purchase holdings from their landlords. Three years after Orpen’s painting was completed in 1908, Shawe Taylor would perish at the age of 45. By the 1950s Castle Taylor was in ruins.

The expense of the upkeep of any large stone country house or castle, made retreat to less daunting lodgings in Dublin or London by the family often inevitable. Hicks cites the 1901 and 1911 census on several occasion as testament to the decline in the numbers of servants available to warm beds and stoke fires for the venerated families still resolutely playing out an 18th century, upper class existence of hunting, shooting and entertaining.

Putting aside the incendiary adventures of Republican agitators in the 1920s — ensnared by wills, bills and the personal whims of eccentric, migrant heirs, keeping such a house was an expensive piece of social theatre, with little personal comfort to enjoy in the off-season. Even with a progressive, professional master or mistress working diligently at the helm, a vast, stone galleon, which had sailed the drizzled, Irish landscape for two or three centuries, could sink in the course of a single decade.

Writer Elizabeth Bowen’s outwardly cool retort on the demolition of her former home, Bowen’s Court in Farahy, County Cork at the hands of its purchaser — “it was a clean end”, must have concealed immense personal pain.

Patrick Hennessy’s masterpiece ‘Portrait of Elizabeth Bowen’ (she and the artist were firm friends), shows the writer on the staircase of Bowen’s Court in 1957. An elegant column of blue silk, so completely a part of the house, its complete disappearance, and hers, has a curious rightness to it. The painting now enjoys the hospitality of the Crawford Gallery, Cork.

Irish Country Houses — A Chronicle of Change, by David Hicks, is published by the Collins Press. €31.99.


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