A spectacular neo-gothic castle is struggling for survival. Judith Hill describes the remarkable history of this building inspired by Strawberry Hill and Warwick Castle
Charleville Castle, Co Offaly
In a description of Charleville Castle, built between 1800 and 1809, the owner Lord Charleville wrote of his new creation in Co Offaly that it aimed ‘to exhibit specimens of Gothic architecture, as collected from Cathedrals and Chapeltombs, and to show how they may be apply’d to Chimney Pieces, Ceilings, windows, balustrades, etc’.
It is no coincidence that this passage is an almost verbatim quotation from Horace Walpole’s 1784 description of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. Lord and Lady Charleville had visited his house and admired it sufficiently to borrow directly from its repertoire of medieval decorative details. However, by the early 19th century, it was no longer groundbreaking to transpose medieval designs to domestic interiors regardless of function, context or scale as Walpole had done. At Charleville, this approach was enriched by a more contemporary romantic sensibility.
The castle’s architect was Francis Johnston (1760–1829), born in Armagh and trained in Dublin under the English architect Thomas Cooley. When he was approached by the Charlevilles, Johnston’s reputation was almost entirely associated with Classicism, as for example at Townley Hall, Co Louth, completed in 1802, where he demonstrated his remarkable gift for orchestrating spatially complex interiors within an austere and box-like volume.
His antennae attuned to the market, however, Johnston had visited southern Britain in 1796 and given as much time to medieval cathedrals and castles and newly built Gothic Revival churches as to the great houses of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. His tour diary reveals that practical concerns with structure and materials were never far from his mind, but that did not prevent him from being overwhelmed by the great medieval buildings; the massiveness of Caernarfon Castle, the sublimity of the cathedrals at Gloucester and Salisbury.
He was just as susceptible to the Picturesque, evaluating castellated style in terms of landscape setting and building type, criticising Samuel Wyatt’s additions of 1782 at Penrhyn Hall for not being in ‘that substantial style which the situation & character of the building requires’.
Johnston’s patron at Charleville, Charles William Bury (1764–1835) inherited the estate from his maternal uncle, Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville, in 1785. Bury immediately commissioned Thomas Leggett in 1786 to redesign the demesne and employed James Byres in 1789 to draw up plans for a Classical mansion, although this was never built. Moore’s earldom had become extinct on his death and Bury worked hard to regain it, becoming Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800, as a reward for supporting the Union, and Earl of Charleville in 1806.
Curiously, his interest in neo-gothic design seems to have developed in tandem with this ascent into the peerage, for, in the year he became Baron Tullamore, he commissioned
‘Towers and battlements it sees, Boosom’d high in tufted trees