Powerscourt House in Co Wicklow must be one of the best-known historic properties in the country and the destruction of its interior by fire in 1974 still ranks as a very great loss to the national heritage. What remains particularly upsetting about that disaster is that most of the house's contents were lost at the time of the fire. So there should be great interest in two items associated with Powerscourt which are being auctioned in the James Adam sale rooms early next month. Both dating from the early 19th century, these are a gold box and a mahogany-cased canteen of silver gilt cutlery.
The former is described as being a snuff box, but it seems rather large for this purpose, especially at a time when the taking of snuff was falling out of popular favour. More likely the item is ornamental and derives its size and form from the gilded bas relief medal contained beneath domed glass on the box's lid. The medal itself is a rather idealised profile portrait of the laurel-crowned George IV who briefly came to Ireland in 1821, the year after his accession to the throne.
As is well-known, the king had been expected to travel widely throughout the country and for this reason a number of Irish houses still contain state bedrooms which were prepared in expectation of a royal visit. In the event, George IV preferred to spend most of his time either in Dublin or at Slane Castle, home of his mistress Lady Conyngham.
One of the very few other Irish residents to entertain the king was the fifth Viscount Powerscourt. Shortly before his departure from this country, George IV called to Powerscourt House where he was served lunch in the first floor saloon. The intention was that he should also view the famous Powerscourt waterfall, but whether because of lack of time or due to the king becoming incapacitated through excessive consumption of alcohol, this did not happen. It later transpired that a serious accident had been narrowly avoided because Lord Powerscourt had arranged for the water above the fall to be damned so that it might be released while George IV stood on a bridge constructed specially for the occasion. In fact, when the water did come down, the force was so great that the entire bridge was swept away.
Presumably unaware of what might have been his fate, the king presented his host with the box which, in addition to his portrait on the lid carries the following inscription in its interior: "The Gift of His Majesty GEORGE THE FOURTH to VISCOUNT POWERSCOURT, on Monday, 3rd September 1821, on board the 'Royal George,' in Royal Harbour, Kingstown, after his having had the high honour and very great gratification of receiving His Majesty at Powerscourt, and of accompanying him in his carriage and in his boat to the 'Royal George'." The box is expected to make £10,000-£12,000 at the forthcoming auction.
This item appears to have been sold out of Powerscourt House many years before its destruction, as seemingly was the other lot in the same sale, originally acquired in London by the fifth Viscount's son and heir who from 1842 onwards employed Daniel Robertson of Kilkenny to transform the gardens of the Wicklow estate into their present Italianate appearance; in turn, his son the seventh viscount would fill many of the house's rooms with baroque furniture bought in Italy, all of it destroyed in the 1974 fire.
The canteen of cutlery is a composed set of pieces which, while all made in London, vary in date from 1805 to 1830 and come from a variety of silversmiths. But they share the same shell, fiddle and thread pattern as well as being engraved with the Powerscourt family coat of arms. Retailed by Garrard & Co, the label of which is still inside the mahogany case, the cutlery includes 12 tablespoons, 24 dessert spoons and forks, the same number of teaspoons, plus such useful items as two pairs of grape scissors and sugar tongs, four salt ladles and two ice spades. The estimate here is £10,000-£15,000. The two lots feature in Adam's fine art sale which takes place on Wednesday, September 5th.