Some houses seem to have it all, yet beneath the surface lie issues which, unless dealt with, grow and undermine all that the generations before have built. This week’s edition of Country House Rescue (Thursday 28 June, 20:00, Channel 4) gives a remarkable insight into just such a house and demonstrates exactly the situation so many families found themselves in at the turn of the 19th-century and which led, over the next half century, to the demolition of hundreds of houses across Britain. In a first for CHR, Simon Davis goes to Ireland, to Bantry House, County Cork, which, arguably, is one of the finest and most important houses to feature in any of the series so far.
The history of the country house in Ireland was, for too long, wrongly regarded as something of a provincial offshoot of the wider trends of England. Yet with the period of peace between 1690-1798, rising rents, and combined with the coming of Palladianism, Ireland developed a remarkably sophisticated response to the styles of elsewhere, marrying a confident use of the architectural language with a natural and extensive mastery of plasterwork. This resulted in a large number of houses which not only were architecturally impressive, placed in some of the most beautiful settings, but also with equally elegant interiors, complemented by a well-travelled elite who filled their houses with paintings, sculpture, books and the other assorted souvenirs of the Grand Tour.
Nestling at the southern part of Ireland, Bantry House sits in a truly spectacular situation overlooking Bantry Bay – a position which was to play a crucial role in the elevation of the family to the aristocracy. The fortune of the family came through judicious purchases of land by a succession of Richard Whites (each son being named after the father), so that, by the end of the 18th-century, the family had become the largest landowners in the area, generating about £9,000 per year in rental income – a sizeable fortune.
Although locally significant, the family appeared to have played little part in the social or political life of the area. Their elevation to the peerage started in December 1796 when a French invasion force, encouraged by the ‘United Irishmen‘, a group seeking to overthrow British rule, arrived in Bantry Bay. A violent storm on the way over had split the fleet and so, whilst waiting to re-group, they lay at anchor in full view of the White family from their house. Richard White took it upon himself to organise the local defences, gather intelligence on the ships and, wisely, placed his house at the disposal of the British general commanding the defenders. When the rest of the invasion force failed to rendevous, the sick, tired, poorly-led advance party abandoned the invasion and sailed home. Richard White was rewarded for his loyalty and was created Baron Bantry in March 1797, in 1800 he was made a Viscount, and in 1816, Earl of Bantry. The titles became extinct with the death of the 4th Earl in 1891 who died without a male heir; the inheritance passing through the female line.
It was the 2nd Earl (b.1800) who truly enjoyed the titles (he was Viscount Berehaven until he inherited) and wealth; travelling widely in Europe between 1820-40 and assembling a superb collection of paintings, sculptures, and furniture and creating a noted collection. His finest acquisitions were certainly the sets of tapestries from the famous Gobelin, Beauvais and Aubusson workshops, which were then hung in several rooms to great effect, particularly in the drawing room. Sadly, parts of the collection have been sold over the years, but many fine works do remain.
The house enjoys the slight deceit of looking as though it was built as a single phase when, in fact, it grew in three distinct phases. The original house was built in 1750 by the Hutchinson family, to create a house then called Blackrock, which was then enlarged by the first Richard White, a prosperous farmer, who bought the house in 1765 and renamed it Seafield. It was enlarged in 1820 when the six-bay wing with bowed windows was added, providing two drawing rooms and extra bedrooms. The house then grew again in 1845, probably to the designs of the second Earl, when it was remodelled with the addition of the two side wings. At this stage, the look of the house was unified with the grand full height red-brick pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals encircling the house with varying frequency, along with a neat balustrade around the roof. Inside, of particular note is the vivid blue dining room which features life-sized portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay which were given by the King in gratitude for White’s help against the French in 1797.
As with the UK, country houses in Ireland have suffered many grievous losses. Many fell victim to broken fortunes, particularly relating to losses in agriculture, on which much of the wealth was based, especially following the Potato Famine in the mid-19th-century. Much of Ireland, at that time, was owned by absentee British landowners who rarely visited, but for those who did live there they were determined that their houses would be as grand as those in the rest of Europe. Great fortunes were poured into ever greater buildings – larger, more lavish, decorated in beautiful, full flourish rococo plasterwork, and filled with fine works of art. This meant that when times became harder, the size of the houses worked against the owners, draining their diminishing coffers. Fire has robbed Ireland of a tragic roll call of houses; including the accidental gutting of places such as Powerscourt (though now restored as a hotel), but the greatest losses were the 275 which were deliberately burnt down or blown up in the Troubles between 1920-23. Today, Ireland is littered with hundreds of these sad ruins, reminders of their former grand lives.
In this context of such great architectural achievements combined with such devastating losses, Bantry House is truly remarkable in that it is still lived in by the family who built it, surrounded by many items bought for the house. However, running a house such as this is a constant struggle without wealth and the family have accumulated debts of nearly €1m, partially as a result of restoring and converting the wings to function as B&B accommodation. Bantry House is, in many ways, an insight into the situation faced by many families around the turn of the 19th-century as unfavourable events left them with mounting debts, falling finances, and expensive running costs. These circumstances conspired to create a situation which all too easily ended in a grand country house contents sale before the house itself passed from a reluctant last generation. One can only hope that Simon Davis can find the right solutions to enable the Shelswell-White family to remain in the house and pass it on to future generations.
Official website: ‘Bantry House‘
Official blog: ‘Bantry House‘
Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]
Related information: British & Irish Stately Homes – for sale and on screen