Rich in memories and promise
In the second of two articles, Myles Campbell explores how the revival of a suite of 1840s interiors builds on a rich family tradition of preservation and patronage
Writing in 1879, the antiquarian Evelyn Philip Shirley described his home county of Monaghan as a place ‘rich in the memories of the past’. With this evocative turn of phrase, he might just as easily have been describing his family seat near Carrickmacross in the south of the county, Lough Fea, to whose early history we were introduced last week. With its suite of 1840s interiors inspired by the Elizabethan age, Lough Fea richly expresses the memories of a long family lineage.
today, his descendant Philip Evelyn Shirley and his wife, Augusta, have done much to honour those memories through their sensitive conservation of these important spaces and their collections. More than this, however, with their thoughtful selection of contemporary artworks and bespoke furnishings, they have made the house live again.
the Shirleys can trace their family roots in Warwickshire back to the Domesday Book. in Co Monaghan, they have had a presence since 1576, when their ancestor, the 1st Earl of Essex, was granted the barony of Farney. When the time came for Evelyn John Shirley
In building Lough Fea, “Mr Shirley spared neither time, nor toil, nor gold”
to complete the interiors of his new house at Lough Fea in the 1840s, this ancient pedigree, coupled with his son Evelyn Philip’s antiquarian impulses, informed his approach.
By this time, the original architect of the house, Thomas Rickman, had been replaced by William Walker. With the constant input of the Shirleys, father and son, Walker created a series of highly atmospheric interiors that remain remarkably intact to this day.
Something of the changeful and occasionally whimsical quality of Walker’s exterior additions to Lough Fea can be found throughout the interior. In the same way that finials erupt to enliven the skyline on the outside, virtuoso oak carvings are deployed to offer relief from the stiff geometry of the Elizabethan Revival on the inside.
In some places, they are complemented by lighthearted carved maxims such as ‘Serve god and be cheerful’. Significantly, at a time when it was common for Classical interiors to hide behind a Gothic- or Tudor-style façade in Ireland, the programmatic extension of the Elizabethan Revival style from exterior to interior makes Lough Fea an early exercise in serious architectural revivalism.
As Shirley’s papers and directions to Walker make clear, shortcuts and gimcrack substitutes were no match for honest craftsmanship and old methods in the fitting-out of the interiors. Noting this high standard, one visitor to the house in 1856 remarked that, in building it, ‘Mr Shirley spared neither time, nor toil, nor gold’. The attention to detail may help to explain why Lough Fea took 23 years to complete from start to finish.
Among the earliest rooms to be finished was the drawing room (Fig 7). According to Shirley’s memorandum books, the finishing touches were being put to it in 1841, with the hanging of candelabra. Enjoying a nearArcadian view over the lake, this elegant room features a gilded heraldic ceiling and a frieze of colourful English roses.
Among its highlights is a portrait of Lady Selina Bathurst, neé Shirley, by Charles Jervas. Attired in avant-garde Turkish costume, she emulates the style of the famous Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. On the two sets of double doors is a series of 48 magnificently carved oak panels. A riot of writhing sea monsters and unicorns, they are likely to have been part of the consignment of Dutch carvings bought for the house in the early 1830s and noted by a visitor in 1835. Through one set of the doors is the library
(Fig 1). Here, the Shirleys’ Elizabethan ancestry is represented in the form of a ceiling copied from the Brown Room at Wiston House, a 16th-century Shirley residence in Sussex. Wiston was remodelled between 1839 and 1843 by Walker’s old mentor, Edward Blore, who likely provided him with the ceiling design. The library is a bibliophile’s paradise and features many original bindings and volumes from the famous book collection of Evelyn Philip.
The library bookshelves are rich in appliqué grotesque carvings and date mostly from Walker’s time. The exceptions are those either side of the double doors. These were added in the 1860s from a drawing by one George Thomson. The chimneypiece is also later. It was supplied by the Soho Marble and Stone Galleries, London, in 1880.
The sculptural coffee table by Joshua Gabriel is a recent commission. Its walnut base and
glass top defer considerately to the bookcases and harmonise with the newly decorated red walls. Looking down approvingly on it from above the doorway to the entrance hall is Evelyn John Shirley, builder of the house.
In the dining room (Fig 6), the horseshoe emblem of the Ferrers family appears at regular intervals on the ceiling, illustrating Evelyn John’s descent from his great-grandfather, the 1st Earl Ferrers. The carved figures of the chimneypiece reputedly represent two of the three gift-bearing Magi, one of whom, appropriately enough for a dining room, proffers a goblet. They are said to have been sourced in Italy by a ‘virtuoso’ who had been busy collecting there on Shirley’s behalf.
The chapel is an astonishingly wellpreserved space (Fig 5). From the redvelvet hassocks to the suite of holy books stamped ‘Lough Fea Chapel 1842’, it is an artistic and social time capsule. The interior was planned by Walker in June 1840.
By January 1841, Shirley was paying William Holland of Warwick a total of £240 for the two heraldic stained-glass windows. A month later, Holland was asking for an additional £33, which Shirley duly sent. It was £33 well spent. The south window, in particular, is a dazzling work of art and ranks with the very best to be found anywhere in Ireland or Britain in the 1840s.
Holland was justly proud, putting his name to the south window and, according to the
Leamington Spa Courier, exhibiting both windows for ‘public inspection’ at Warwick courthouse. After this auspicious inauguration in July 1841, they were dispatched on their voyage across the Irish Sea.
With the windows in place and a life-size carved angel supporting the desk of the pulpit, the chapel held its first service on August 21, 1842. The precious carved altarpiece depicting the Passion of Christ was later moved here from the library. It is Flemish and dates from about 1500. Built at a time when internal country-house chapels were relatively common in England, but still unusual in Ireland, this singular space is made all the more exceptional by its rarity.
Across the entrance courtyard is the conservatory, with its array of original glass panels. These were ordered from Mr Mulvany of the Union Plate Glass Company, Liverpool, in October 1842 and cost £2 6s 0d each. The adjoining great hall, with its minstrels’ gallery and great mullioned windows, is the crowning glory of the many glories of Lough Fea.
As befits the hall of an old noble family, the heraldic stained glass is at once festal, instructive and romantic. The sheer quantity of it is enough to provoke envy among the vestry members of a small cathedral. It was another commission from Holland and was in production by January 1845.
The hall’s linen-fold panelling is made of plaster and was finished with specialist
paint ordered from Smiths of Marylebone in June 1845. The heating apparatus was another English commission, this time from a Mr Hurward of Ipswich.
Unsurprisingly for a room that measures 75ft in length, the interior took several years to complete. Begun in 1841, the hall was finally finished in 1848, in time for a grand ball that revived the very best in old baronial hospitality. Reporting on a similar ball held in 1871, one enthusiastic correspondent rightly judged the hall to be ‘one of the finest rooms in Ireland’.
The last room to be created at Lough Fea was the saloon (Fig 2). It was developed as late as May 1845, when Walker enclosed five bays of Rickman’s seven-bay arcade overlooking the sunken garden to create it. It is divided by a screen of verde antico scagliola columns and has remained almost untouched since it was finished in 1846.
On July 27 that year, Shirley was keen to get the chimneypiece completed. It is made of Monaghan alabaster, of a mottled pinkish hue, and features a strapwork frieze (Fig 3).
The original Puginian wallpaper in deep shades of red and green was supplied by a Mr Riddel of 20, Belgrave Square, London. In September 1846, the hanging of the paper was almost complete and Shirley wrote to Riddel for the final time, asking him to send just ‘one more piece’. More than a century and a half later, this handsome wallpaper remains surprisingly vivid.
Looking out from the saloon, two recently installed sculptures by Charles Hadcock in the sunken garden respond effectively to the emphatic horizontality of the house. Beyond them, a long vista opens up towards a playful, Tudor-style fountain by Walker and a monumental ringed cross (Fig 4).
Erected by the tenants of the estate, the cross commemorates Shirley, who died at the house on New Year’s Eve 1856. In the age before the ringed cross became a beacon of Irish nationalism in the late 19th century, its use on this scale, on the estate of an Anglo-irish family, is novel and significant.
On Shirley’s death, the house passed to his son, Evelyn Philip. It remained relatively unchanged until 1872, when he created a High Victorian interior in the passage from the main house to the chapel. Since that time, successive generations of Shirleys have carefully stewarded Lough Fea through the vicissitudes of Ireland’s transition to independence and the more recent Troubles in neighbouring Northern Ireland.
Today, Evelyn Philip’s descendant, Philip Evelyn Shirley, has inherited more than his ancestor’s name. In restoring the 1872 chapel passage for the display of modern and contemporary paintings, he has also become the heir to his great-great-grandfather’s progressive yet sympathetic artistic outlook.
Here, works by Harold Cohen (1928–2016), Peter Kinley (1926–88) and Northern Irish artist David Crone (b.1937) hang in harmony a short walk from portraits by Lawrence and Gainsborough. At the summit of the main staircase, a large-scale work by Gillian Ayres (1930–2018) is a rewardingly bold, but not bombastic sight for the weary climber.
Elsewhere, as Shirley ancestors look on from within gilt frames, well-placed ceramics by Ewen Henderson (1934–2000) and Gordon Baldwin (b.1932) pay them quiet compliments.
By marking their family’s enduring presence here through thoughtful contemporary patronage, the Shirleys of today have paid a handsome tribute to their ancestors of the 1840s. In doing so, they have ensured that Lough Fea is as rich in the promise of the future as it is in the memories of the past.
Fig 1: Panels of carved sea monsters and unicorns adorn the double doors from the drawing room to the library
Fig 2 above: The saloon retains its vivid original wallpaper. Fig 3 below: The pink-hued saloon chimneypiece, with its strapwork ornament, was made from local Monaghan alabaster
Fig 4 left: Beyond a fountain by William Walker is a ringed cross dedicated to Lough Fea’s builder, Evelyn John Shirley. Fig 5 right: In the chapel, one of two stained-glass windows by William Holland forms the backdrop to an outstanding Flemish altarpiece of about 1500
Fig 6 above: The figures of the dining-room chimneypiece reputedly represent two of the three Magi. Fig 7 facing page: The ancestry of the Shirley family is the theme of the heraldic ceiling that dominates the elegant drawing room. English roses adorn the frieze