Sunday, July 04, 2004

An afternoon of architectural pleasure

EMO, CO LAOIS: I've just spent the afternoon at one of the least-known architectural treasures of Ireland. Emo Court in County Laois is one of the very few private houses designed by the architect James Gandon.

The demesne was over 11,000 hectares when it was sold by the Dawson family to the Irish Land Commission in 1920 - the family had decided to move to Australia - it represented the largest enclosed parkland outside Dublin's Phoenix Park.

Originally, the land was taken from Irish landowners in 1662 by the English king, Charles II, and presented to his general secretary, Henry Bennett, for 'services rendered'. Bennett subsequently sold his interest and eventually the property came into the ownership of the Dawson family, who were wealthy bankers.

But back to Gandon, who was the son of a Frenchman who ran through his fortune on Rosicrucianism and alchemy and left the London-born James with a determination to make his own way in life.

He studied assiduously, especially the classics, mathematics and drawing and was then apprenticed to the architect Sir William Chambers. After setting up on his own, he came to Dublin on invitation in 1769 from John Dawson - Lord Carlow, who was later to be the first Earl of Portarlington. Dawson wanted him to build a new Custom House, which is still one of the dominant buildings on the capital's waterfront. Subsequent commissions included the Four Courts in 1785 and the Kings Inns which were begun in 1785.

Apart from Emo Court, which he designed in 1790 though it took more than 80 years before it was completed, the only private houses designed by Gandon were Abbeyville for Sir John Beresford, currently the home of a former prime minister of Ireland, Charles J Haughey, Sandymount Park for William Ashford, and one for himself at Canonbrook, Lucan, where he died in 1823. The other local building designed by him at Emo is a small church at Coolbanagher, about a mile from the village.

After the sale to the Land Commission, nobody lived in the house until 280 acres and the building were bought in 1930 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for use as a novitiate.

During their tenure they committed acts of what can only be described as architectural vandalism, including the destruction of two magnificent Corinthian pilasters of Siena marble when they broke down a wall between the Rotunda and the Library to build a chapel. They also lifted part of a magnificent parquetry floor in the Rotunda to make way for the altar and sanctuary of the chapel.

They converted the then Library into a Refectory which could seat 90 men ... but only because they pulled down four internal Corinthian pillars made of Connemara marble.

In 1969, with not enough vocations to keep such an expensive facility going, the Jesuits sold the property to one Major Cholmeley Harrison, who set about restoring the house. He had the Library wall rebuilt and new pilasters made to exactly the design of the originals. He found the various sections of the marble pillars and had them reconstructed, leaving the top of one slightly offset, to illustrate his belief that 'nothing is perfect'.

In 1994 he presented the house and lands to the Irish nation, and the property is now managed by the Office of Public Works.

The grounds are now public parkland, some 250 acres, and laid out in the naturalised landscape style that was the style of the time. The idea was to surround the house with smooth open terrain.

A mile-long drive established in the late 1850s by the 3rd Earl is flanked all its length by sequoia trees.

There's a large ornamental lake with a wide variety of ducks and swans and other water-fowl who are very comfortable with people who feed them.

The house itself is open in summer for guided tours, and is furnished in the style of country homes in the 30s and 40s. All the furniture is owned by Major Harrison, who still lives at Emo Court. It also houses his extensive art collection, and many pieces of Wedgewood which are a particular passion of the Major's.

(The last time I was here was around 1990, when Major Harrison himself showed me around. If I can resurrect the negatives of the pictures I took then, I'll post them here. Unfortunately on this visit, no interior pictures were allowed.)

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