Behind the faces on the canvas: Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters

A portrait is a useful tool to access the history of Irish country houses and tell the stories of individuals and the estates they called home

During the compilation of my new book Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters, I discovered many interesting things, such as that the grand-uncle of Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, lived in Louth; that the Monet recently damaged in the National Gallery once hung in a Galway castle; or that Ireland's own Downton Abbey can be found in Waterford.

Whenever I see a portrait I always want to know the story behind the face that stares back at me from the canvas. To me any portrait is enriched if one is familiar with the life story of the sitter and the provenance of the painting. A number of years ago I purchased a portrait of a gentleman called John Walsh in Adams on St Stephen’s Green. It was an affordable way of owning something that had an untold story, maybe a mystery that I could possibly uncover one day. While this painting might not be considered a masterpiece or created by a well-known artist, I often wonder about the life of the man in the picture, who he was and where he lived. The stories associated with these individuals immortalised in works of art fascinated me.

In one instance in 2011, during a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin while researching my first book, I noticed a painting of Constance Markievicz hanging on a wall at the end of a corridor. This painting depicted Constance Gore-Booth, a month after she had married Casimir Dunnin-Markievicz in London in September 1900. After the marriage, the newlyweds returned to Paris where they were studying art. They rented four rooms and a studio at 17 Rue Compagne Premiere. Their new landlord was artist Boleslaw Von Szankowski, who painted Constance in an often overlooked phase of her life as a young woman, wife and a soon-to-be mother. This portrait gave me a fresh insight into the life of this woman whose name we are all so familiar with and immediately associate with 1916.

I now think of a portrait as a useful tool to access the history of Irish country houses from a fresh viewpoint and tell the stories of individuals and the Irish country estates they called home.

One of the masterpieces featured in my book is associated with Glyde Court, a house in Louth which must be one of the greatest losses to our nation. A truly unique architectural tour de force, it has been derelict since the 1980s and is in danger of complete collapse. It was once the home of Sir Augustus Vere Foster, Anna Wintour's granduncle. Despite the advanced state of decay of the house, one still hopes that a saviour will arrive over the horizon. It was here that the artist William Orpen came to stay in 1907 to paint the Vere Foster family. As it rained a lot at the time while the painting was being completed, the family's favourite donkey was often entertained in the drawing room for a sitting. It seems that the animals were as unpredictable as the mildly eccentric Foster family as Orpen humorously noted that "the dogs and donkey get in odd times, after tea mostly". Today Glyde Court is a wreck: producers of the Bond film Skyfall thought it too fragile to be used as 007's Scottish ancestral home.

Another revelation awaited me in Tulira Castle in Galway, the former home of Edward Martyn, a man often forgotten in terms of the cultural revival of the early twentieth century. Martyn was a patron of the arts and became involved with the poet WB Yeats and Lady Gregory whom he introduced in 1896 at his Galway home. The Dutch owners of Tulira have restored the castle and are at a loss to explain why the Irish nation has never honoured this man.

Recently we have read about the damage caused to Ireland’s only Monet by a man who decided to punch a hole in the canvas. As a result, this painting was subject to one of the most intensive restorations of recent times. When one looks at the gold frame that surrounds the Monet, currently on display in the National Gallery in Dublin, we see a plaque which indicates that it was donated by Martyn. It once hung in Tulira in Galway where Martyn’s collection of paintings also included pastels by the artist Degas depicting his famous ballet girls. The paintings hung in Martyn’s private quarters as his mother would not allow them in the main reception rooms. She thought modern art depicting women of the stage were not suitable subjects for the walls of her refined Galway home.

One of the most impressive houses that I visited in recent years is Curraghmore in Co Waterford, home of the eighth Marquis of Waterford. If there was one country house in Ireland to challenge Highclere Castle’s alias, Downton Abbey, this house would certainly be a contender. The painting associated with Curraghmore is one of a pair; it is the portrait of John Charles de la Poer Beresford, seventh Marquis of Waterford. He is the father of the eighth Marquis, who is now in his eighties but who was an infant when his father, featured in the painting, died tragically in their ancestral home. In the early 1900s in Curraghmore, it wasn’t uncommon for the 80-roomed house to have an indoor staff of 20, excluding many more employed in the grounds and on the estate. The portraits of the seventh Marquis and his wife were painted in 1930 and 1931 by the society painter Philip de László, who had an association with Ireland as he was married to a member of the Guinness family. Today, Curraghmore is open to the public by prior arrangement and is worth a visit as it is one of Ireland’s hidden treasures.

The success of many of these portraits found in my new book Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters is that the artist understood the sitter and they successfully transferred their character to the canvas. It was never a simple case of an artist capturing the individuals that sat before them but also to capture an image of how the sitter saw themselves.

Committing one’s likeness to canvas has always been the most expensive way of commemorating one’s existence but it was also something that has lasted for generations. In some cases, the painting has outlived the house in which it was painted and displayed, such as the portrait of the Vere Foster family from Glyde Court that now hangs in the National Gallery. These portraits capture a way of life that no longer exists and each chapter of my book paints a picture of a bygone age.