Peter's Reflections A monthly column by ICAA President, Peter Lyden
Though the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see,
Yet wherever thou art shall seem Erin to me;
In exile thy bosom shall still be my home,
And thine eyes make my climate wherever we roam.
Along with 15 fellow ICAA patrons and friends, I recently had the pleasure of experiencing Great Houses and Gardens of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, one of the ICAA’s travel programs. Our trip included many highlights, but the gracious welcome we received from the owners of the homes that we visited made an indelible impact on me. It was a true delight to learn about the history of these homes through each owner’s personal tales and family lore.
All of us on the trip came away with a greater appreciation for the “uniqueness” of classical architecture and interiors of the Irish Big House. We were struck by how the great Georgian estates differentiated themselves from their English influences, creating their own unique tradition.
These distinctive traits were observed in so many aspects of the Irish Big Houses, from interior design, to architectural details, to landscape features. Many Irish Georgian homes have severe fronts with scaled down ornaments. Flanking wings were often added to the central block at a later period to make these houses much grander in scale and appearance.
Inside each home was a magical surprise of fanciful mouldings and decorations like nowhere else. Mahogany imported from Cuba was a highly sought after commodity for the Irish. The wood landed in the city of Cork where Irish estate keepers had the first choice of the very best wood pieces for their furniture and decor. Seeing these fanciful wooden pieces in so many of the houses where we stayed was an absolute joy. The patterns in the furniture, such as goblins carved into tables, were exuberant and uniquely Irish, demonstrating what Desmond Guinness calls “Irish Fantasy at work.”
In the typical Irish classical style, staircases in many of the homes are located to the side of the structure. This is a feature that I particularly admired, as it gave the first hall clean, proportional, and classical lines reminiscent of Palladio’s Villas.
In Ireland it’s common to see two interior design styles within the same house. The Gothic style (à la Strawberry Hill) did have an influence on Irish homes, but only partially. This was the case at Grey Abbey, a classically designed Georgian Home with a drawing room converted to the Gothic style. While the Irish may have converted a room or a few rooms to a new style, they would not change the entire house.
Although the Irish Big Houses had their own tradition and unique aesthetics, the impact of great British designers and architects remains. The influence of Capability Brown is evident at many of the sites, where the houses were designed in natural settings with flower and vegetable beds that were kept away from the homes in walled gardens. Unlike many English estates, the homes that we visited have stayed “true to form” and have not added Victorian garden designs.
Many of the great British architects produced their best works in Ireland, without ever stepping foot on Irish soil. Sir William Chambers produced one of Europe’s finest classical buildings – the Casino at Marino – for James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont. Additionally, James Wyatt who visited Ireland in one brief trip designed one of the most perfect, classically designed homes at Castle Coole. The famed Lafranchini brothers, known for their ornamental plasterwork, were revered in Ireland and even resided at Castletown until their deaths, as if they were members of the Conolly family.
The ICAA’s travel programs provide a wholly unique opportunity to experience classical and historic homes and sites firsthand. If you’ve been a participant on any of the ICAA’s travel programs, we’d love to hear highlights of your trip in the comments below. To view upcoming travel destinations with the ICAA, please visit www.classicist.org.