There's history to be found in every nook and cranny of a great Irish house: but like many of the houses themselves, much of that history has been broken up, dispersed and forgotten. In his book Abbey Leix: an Irish Home and its Demesne, the art historian William Laffan has put one dynastic jigsaw back together, telling the story of a house and its surroundings, its inhabitants and its furnishings, in vivid and fascinating detail.
It’s the house tour to end all house tours, taking the reader not just around this “austerely neoclassical country seat” as it is today but deep into the decorative, architectural and socio-political changes which make up its history. In particular the book records the restoration of the house and demesne over the past two decades by its current owner, the Welsh businessman Sir David Davies.
But let’s begin as house tours do – by stepping into the entrance hall at Abbey Leix. These days it’s a cool, formal space with a limestone-and-slate tiled floor, a grand marble chimneypiece and an elegant interplay of Ionic columns and mahogany doors.
As Laffan writes, the purpose of a hall such as this was to set the tone for the house; “its classicising intention is immediately announced and so, too, is its aspiration to grandeur”. Hard hall chairs reinforced the message that it was not a space in which to linger.
It wasn’t always so, however. A black-and-white photograph from 1994 shows a very different entrance hall at Abbey Leix: carpeted, crammed with furniture and obviously in use as a drawing-room, probably because it was easier to heat than the larger reception rooms beyond.
Nose sliced off
Back in the present-day hall, there’s an impressive 18th-century side table made from oak and pine, painted black and elaborately decorated. It came from Ashfort House in Co Roscommon and was, the book explains, accompanied by a letter from the vendor which explained that her father had accidentally shot the table, damaging one corner. Not only that, but he had also “deliberately sliced off the nose of one of the masks on the left hand side, as he always caught himself on it when passing”.
The nose has not been replaced – it would, Laffan suggests, have been heresy to do so. The lock on the hall door is also in its original state and, he notes, “turns perfectly after almost two and a half centuries of constant use”.
Two and a half centuries, it turns out, are as the blink of an eye in the history of Abbey Leix demesne. The site has been occupied since French Cistercian monks settled on the banks of the river Nore in the 12th century, clearing a swathe of land for farming. After the monastery was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540 there followed waves of plantation and centuries of conflict until the land was acquired by the Vesey, later De Veschi, family.
It was Thomas, the second Baron Knapton, who commissioned the English architect James Wyatt to design a mansion for himself and his wife Selina. According to a date stone set into the basement level of the house, work began in earnest on “ye 24 June 1773”. Well, perhaps not so very earnest: a party marked the beginning of the build, with three large tables “plentifully served with good beef and mutton” for the workmen and tenants, along with “such plenty of liquors as banished all their cares . . .””
Despite this apparent profligacy, Lord Knapton’s house was built on a tight budget, as he was building a townhouse on Merrion Square at the same time as Abbey Leix. Laffan traces the cost-cutting modifications to Wyatt’s design – including an internal revamp which resulted in the service stairs ending up in a totally inappropriate place.
Damp and decay
He also explores the De Veschi family history up to the point where, in 1994, the estate had incurred £1.5 million in death duties and the house needed a further quarter of a million to make it habitable. An eloquent photograph from that time shows the magnitude of the task at hand: a row of riding boots lined up against a peeling interior wall in an atmosphere of damp and decay.
It was a time when many Irish historic houses were being “converted” to golf courses, or simply left to rot. Abbey Leix must have been within inches of a similar fate – except that, one day, David Davies, then based in Hong Kong, got a phone call from Ireland. It was the Earl of Rosse, an old friend from Oxford, asking whether he could help find a sympathetic buyer for the ancient woods at Abbey Leix.
On his next trip to Ireland – he had recently restored his family home at Killoughter in Co Wicklow – Sir David visited the forest at Park Hill, untouched since the days of the monks. He decided to buy it even though, as he writes in the foreword, he had “absolutely no idea” what to do with it. In the event the land was withdrawn from sale; two years later, however, he purchased both house and demesne, and a mammoth restoration project got under way.
This is documented room by room as Laffan takes the reader through the Gold Room, with its green and pink colour scheme and exquisite ornamentation; the Drawing Room, with its arched windows and collection of Irish art; and the Dining Room, with its set of 14 chairs designed by James Wyatt himself. There follow several chapters devoted to 1,100 acres of parkland and forest, from formal gardens and lilyponds to ancient oaks and beeches, with their “heavenly carpet” of bluebells.
The heroes of this new chapter in the life of Abbey Leix, apart from Davies himself, are the conservation architect John O’Connell, the antiques expert Val Dillon and the gardener John Anderson, whose “day job” is at Windsor Great Park. The late Desmond FitzGerald, the last Knight of Glin, was hugely influential – Davies is passionate about Ireland’s built heritage, and the current president of the Irish Georgian Society – while Lord Rosse and Thomas Pakenham have advised on the management and planting of some 150,000 trees.
The importance of the latter is emphasised throughout the book, which begins and ends with a specially commissioned map of the demesne, and includes more than 20 pages of tree-planting photographs, dating from 1996 to 2016 and showing everyone from David Rockefeller to Princess Michael of Kent wielding a spade at Abbey Leix.
It took William Laffan three years to research and write Abbey Leix: an Irish Home and its Demesne. The aim, Sir David Davies explains in the foreword, was "to try and capture the essence of this mesmerising place". This magnificent volume succeeds admirably.
Abbey Leix: an Irish Home and its Demesne, by William Laffan, is published by Churchill House Press, and can be bought from the Irish Georgian Society's website at €45