Country House Rescue – Season 4: Bantry House, Ireland

Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland (Image: Bantry House)
Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland (Image: Bantry House)

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.

Bantry House and Bantry Bay (Image: Exos Lucius via flickr)
Bantry House and Bantry Bay (Image: Exos Lucius via flickr)

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.

Blue Dining Room, Bantry House (Image: Malcolm Craik via flickr)
Blue Dining Room, Bantry House (Image: Malcolm Craik via flickr)

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.

Main entrance, Bantry House, Ireland (Image: Smeets Paul via flickr)
Main entrance, Bantry House, Ireland (Image: Smeets Paul via flickr)

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.

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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

 

Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]

What may come? Ireland’s country house property crash

Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)
Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)

One side effect of the exceptionally buoyant Irish property market which made areas of Dublin as expensive as central London was a similar rise in value of their country houses.  Now with the drastic drop in property values, Irish country houses have proven to be far from immune and offer a useful indicator of what might happen in a similar situation on this side of the Irish sea.

The country house market in Ireland truly rode the boom when property became a sure-fire route to riches in the republic.  Houses which had been neglected for many years were suddenly ‘discovered’, bought and lavishly refurbished as private houses for the newly wealthy.  This is actually unsurprising as a key aspiration for anyone acquiring riches over the last 400 years has been to establish themselves in a rural domain.  Owning land was the route to power since time immemorial with greater acreage giving greater influence.  Despite the breaking of that link in the UK between 1870 and 1920 (and most decisively with the passing of the Lords Reform Bill of 1911) the idea of the country estate as the acme of achievement had become embedded as the ultimate status symbol.  Therefore any boom in the economy has usually led to a rush to the country.

Ireland’s situation was slightly different in that, unlike in the UK with it’s stricter planning laws, the purchase of a country house was also viewed with residential development potential in mind. For those projects which completed this meant that the house was simply a means to an end leaving fine houses stranded in the middle of a new suburb (many of which are now half-empty) thus ruining a perfectly good house. This also meant that some houses were bought with over-inflated ‘development value’ built into the price.

So now the crash has hit, what has happened to the houses?  For those owners who were simply in the family home and managed to sell a few acres for development they have ‘won’ as they still have their house and estate but also gained money to sustain the estate and complete much needed restoration and improvements.  For others who didn’t capitalise there must be a certain disappointment as they’ve gone from lying in bed thinking about how the house is now worth ten times what it was a few years ago, back to lying awake wondering how to pay the bills again.

Worse though are those who paid hyped prices and now are stuck either with a home they may have paid for but which is now worth much less than they paid for it – country houses prices can race ahead of the trend in a bull market but can easily do the same when it falls.  On a positive note, for those owners who can afford to, they are likely to stay longer than otherwise they might, providing stable ownership and perhaps a commitment to invest in the estate to sustain what value they can.  For those who bought on finance or who now lack the funds to meet the running costs they may now be forced to sell at a loss.  Declines of 30-50% aren’t unheard of, even for the very best properties.  The Lyons Demesne, one of the finest estates in Ireland and former home of Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, is currently for sale with 600-acres at €50m, down from its former valuation of €80m.  Even on the less stratospheric level, Bellamont Forest, the first Palladian house in Ireland (and ridiculously beautiful) was initially marketed at €10m but is now offered at €7.5m.

So what could happen over here?  UK country houses prices, certainly for the best properties, have risen dramatically over the last 10-20 years.  However, that rise has been on the back of a broader boom in the economy which, despite some aspects turning out to be smoke and mirrors, did actually generate real money. In addition, the commodity value of UK farmland which has risen from £2,000 per acre to around £7,000 per acre has also provided a stronger capital base for the estates.  The natural British caution does have its advantages.

The dangers are where owners are left with over-priced houses unable to meets the cost of maintenance and there is the risk that basic tasks are put off leaving the houses at risk from any number of ailments such as water ingress due to blocked gutters.  Unfortunately government austerity means that at a time when local councils need to be most vigilant they are going to be less likely to fund the necessary heritage conservation staff.

Country houses are never immune from the challenges of the wider economy but they can also be insulated if the owner has the resources to weather the storm.  Luckily for the UK, many owners are in a strong position but there is always the danger that the over-excited may get carried away and over-pay leading to problems if the property market weakens. The situation in Ireland should be watched as a useful case study in the dangers of an over-heated market.

Full story: Crash-landed gentry [ft.com]