Lights go out in last 'Big House'
The lights are finally going out in Mount Congreve, Ireland’s last ‘Big House’, and the contents will be sold during a huge two-day auction next week
A POLISHED Rolls Royce is moored, like a cruise liner from another era, in a sea of gravelled driveway. The car’s cream leather and walnut interior is as comfortably sprung as a sedia gestatoria – the ceremonial chair used to carry a pope aloft. The front door to the house is framed by a classical portico. Inside, a liveried Indian servant pads silently across a Persian silk carpet beneath a sparkling crystal chandelier. The distant rustle of a skirt might be Cook scurrying to the kitchen below-stairs to make a Peach Melba with ripe fruit from the walled-garden’s glasshouses. The chauffeur is on stand-by. Waiting for his master’s voice.
A summer morning in an English country house 100 years ago?
No. It’s rural Ireland in 2012.
Didn’t the “Big House” go out with a bang during the War of Independence? Well, not quite. A handful of Anglo-Irish families hung in there and the twilight world of the ascendancy somehow survived into the 21st century.
For more than 250 years, eight generations of the wealthy Congreve family have lived at the eponymous Mount Congreve estate near Kilmeaden village, Co Waterford. The last surviving member, Ambrose Congreve, born in 1907, died, “without issue”, last year at the remarkable age of 104. He was the “end of the line” and Ireland’s last link to the Edwardian era.
During the boom, this 25-bedroom mansion on 70 acres might have fetched €10 million. Maybe much more. But speculation about its value is, thankfully, now academic. Mount Congreve is not for sale. In fact, it has been gifted to the people of Ireland – a rare piece of good news in a country much in need of it.
In a grand philanthropic gesture, Congreve left both the house and the surrounding world-renowned gardens (which he planted) in trust to the State. His generous legacy poignantly fulfils the Congreve family motto: Non moritur cuius fama vivit (He does not die, whose good name lives on).
The Office of Public Works will take over the estate and, while plans for the house have yet to be announced, it is hoped that the gardens – currently open to the public just one day a week – will become a major visitor attraction in the southeast.
However, although the State gets the house, the contents are being sold by joint auctioneers Christie’s and Mealy’s.
Ambrose Congreve also had a town house in London – next door to St James’s Palace – and spent many years in business in Britain where he ran Humphreys Glasgow, gasworks manufacturers and petrochemical engineers. He lived most of his later years in Mount Congreve with his wife, Marjorie, who predeceased him in 1995. He was a multi-millionaire and spent a fortune on his gardens and on assembling one of Ireland’s greatest – and hitherto publicly unseen – collections of fine art and antiques.
Last month in London, bidders spent £3.4 million (€4.2 million) buying 91 items of silver, furniture, porcelain and paintings which had been shipped over for the first auction. But there’s a lot more to come.
Next week’s huge two-day auction at the house will dispose of the rest of the contents. More than 1,100 lots will go under the hammer with estimates ranging from just €20 up to €100,000 (the highest estimate for a Regency-period Carlton House desk).