The Four Winds of Heaven
The first time I visited Mourne Park, some 15 years ago, Julie Ann Anley took me on a whistlestop tour. “It’s great!” she laughed. “No one ever bothers us here because the house isn’t architecturally important.” This was no tourist attraction like Belvoir Castle. The country house as time capsule may have become a cliché, coined in the Eighties when Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly applied to MPH.
The last time I visited the house, in April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public prying over the soon-to-be-dispersed contents. The period perfection was starting to unravel. Small white auction labels hung from everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard and the building itself was looking the worse for wear.
The auction was the result of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Anley in 1992 that dragged through the law courts until the beginning of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or sibling love, it was finally settled.
“It’s something which all our family very much care about,” Marion Scarlett Russell, Julie Ann’s younger daughter told the BBC’s Northern Ireland rural affairs correspondent Martin Cassidy back in 1994.
“We’ve always known that this house and its land were non negotiable and it was something we would do everything to keep,” agreed her older sister Debonaire Norah Needham Horsman or ‘Bonnie’.
But this harmony of thought abruptly ended following disagreements over how the estate should be managed. Events reached a dramatic climax when Marion removed what she considered to be her fair share of the contents from the house in a midnight flit. Her refusal to reveal the whereabouts of these ‘chattels’ as the courts insisted on archaically calling them, resulted in her spending a week at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only ended when it was finally agreed that Marion could keep her share and the other two siblings would auction off their two thirds of the contents.
MPH was the seat of the Earls of Kilmorey (pronounced “Kilmurray” – what is it about the upper classes and their delight in nomenclature mispronunciation whether Calke as “Cock”; Belvoir as “Beaver”; or Blakley as “Blakely”?).
The family can trace its roots back to an Elizabethan soldier, Nicholas Bagnel, founder of Newry. The 4th Earl of Kilmorey died in 1962. Just before his death the family inheritance was rearranged because he had no sons, allowing his nephew and heir, Major Patrick Needham, subsequently 5th Earl of Kilmorey, to waive his right of succession to MPH in exchange for assets of equal value. And so the title returned to England where Charles I had created the original viscountcy in 1625.
This compromise allowed the 4th Earl’s widow, Lady Norah, and her two daughters to continue living in the house. Patrick’s son, the 6th Earl, is better known as Richard Needham, former Conservative Northern Ireland Economy Minister. He is now the deputy chairman of a vacuum cleaning company and declines to use his Anglo Irish title. However his son styles himself Viscount Newry and Mourne.
Nicholas, the son of the elder daughter of the 4th Earl, married Julie Ann at the start of the Sixties and moved into the converted stables at Mourne Park. He inherited the house minus the title in 1984.
Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it is no competition for the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Victorian or Georgian is the norm.
MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn out of the local granite and its lavish use of green paint on window frames and porches, bargeboards and garden furniture, and the abundance of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century which lends the house a nostalgic Edwardian air.
And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130m above the oak and beech woodlands that make up the estate.
A Victorian visitor, W E Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park, as archived by Dr Anthony Malcomson. ‘The scene… from the front entrance is indeed very fine. Before you, in the precincts of the mansion, is a lake. Beyond this lake, the demesne stretches away with a gently rising slope, which hides the intervening land, till one can fancy that the sea waves lap the lawns of the park.’
The genesis of the mansion dates from 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey (1748-1832) employed Thadeus Gallier (later anglicised to Thomas Gallagher) of County Louth to build the central block. It most likely replaced an earlier house on the site.
Gallagher, an architect or ‘journeyman-builder’, had already built Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned this five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the home of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, this middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. The large fanlight over the entrance door in the middle of the three bay breakfront is partially obscured by a glazed porch, but otherwise Gallagher’s design is untouched. Semicircular relieving arches over upstairs windows introduce a motif he was to later employ at MPH. At Anaverna he proved himself to be a designer of considerable sophistication.
Gallagher’s son James, who recorded in his autobiography that his father worked at MPH for nine months in 1818, emigrated to New Orleans where he carried on the dynastic tradition of designing fine buildings. His grandson, James Gallier Junior, was a third generation architect and his 1857 New Orleans townhouse is now the Gallier House Museum.
The first of six incarnations of MPH, Gallagher’s design was a typical late Georgian two storey country house with Wyatt windows on either side of a doorway similar to Anaverna’s with a fanlight over it. Next, a third storey was added was added and then some time after 1859 a new two storey front of the same height was plonked in front of the existing house, so that the rooms in the new block have much higher ceilings than in the older part.
The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of Wyatt windows is bipartite fenestration set in shallow recesses rising through both storeys with relieving arches over them. It is the combination of these paired windows and gentle arches, like brows over the eyes of the building, which gives the front such a distinct look.
In the central breakfront the shallow recess starts over the entrance door which is treated as another window, flanked on either side by a window of similar shape and size. A low parapet over a slim cornice partly conceals the hipped roof which wraps around the roof lantern of the Staircase Hall.
Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl (1787-1880) – the Kilmoreys had gone up a rung on the aristocratic ladder when his father, the 12th Viscount, was made an earl for his services to the development of Newry – commissioned a ‘famine wall’. It was a method used at the height of the Irish potato famine by many Big House families to create work to keep locals from starving. The cheaply built granite walls also profited the estate. Kimmitt Dean records that the 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gate lodges, at this time. Whitewater Gate Lodge was built in the 1830s and Ballymaglogh Gate Lodge in the 1850s.
But it was the alterations of the 3rd and 4th Earls which gave MPH its Edwardian flavour. “Not fit for a gentleman to live in!” exclaimed the 3rd Earl (1842-1915) upon his inheritance. His remedial gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows onto the front and continued until 1904 when he built a single storey wing perpendicular to the back of the house. This wing contains Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and the Long Room, the latter completed in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations.
Between 1919 and 1921 that son, by now the 4th Earl (1883-1961) built a sprawling flat roofed extension onto the avenue side of the house and relocated the entrance to this elevation. Double doors framed by pairs of squat square pillars formed the new entrance, balanced on either side by the two windows of the Billiard Room and Lord Kilmorey’s Study. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.
A century of each generation making their mark on MPH has resulted in a fascinating building full of surprising changes in floor levels and ceiling heights. The main block is arranged like three parallel slices of a square cake, each different in essence. The oldest three storey slice at the back of the house has low ceilings and small windows, some retaining their Georgian panes. The middle top lit slice contains the Long Corridor which runs parallel with the Hall, the Staircase Hall and the Inner Hall. Finally the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Billiard Room (formerly the Large Drawing Room), the Dining Room, the Ante Room, the Blue Drawing Room and above, the principal bedrooms with their plate glass windows.
The back of the house overlooks a courtyard enclosed by the Long Room on one side, a low two storey nursery wing on the other side and the obligatory row of outbuildings parallel with the house.
All the rooms on the ground and first floors were open during the auction preview weekend. I began the tour that I had gone on a decade earlier, only with a written rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats which had followed us around the first time round.
“Come on, get out of this room!” Julie Ann bellowed to the cats as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two!” I commented to her, “At least you won’t have mice.” She replied,” They just watch the mice race by.”
Now people were talking in hushed murmurs as if at a wake, quietly leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office and thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.
The Hall, arranged like a long gallery with paintings hung on white panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, the most exciting architectural moment MPH has to offer. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight of stairs through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and openings afford tantalising glimpses of bedroom corridors filled with the shadows of ghosts.
Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study had an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room which is tucked away at the back of the house. A 7m long oak bookcase, used as a temporary display cabinet for the preview (sold for £3,000) and a chesterfield sofa (sold for £800) completed the butch mood of the good Lord’s room. On the other hand, the femininity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was exaggerated by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the floor. The house no longer felt private.
The three main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. ‘Shabby chic’, another Eighties cliché, is an apt description. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days.
In the Billiard Room an off-centre timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declares this room to date from the 1920s. Paint was peeling, curtains were crumbling.
An air of faded grandeur pervaded the Long Room. Triumphal flags now in tatters and coloured wall lamps dulled by the passage of time hinted at past glories and parties long forgotten. A suite of oak bookcases was supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of windows running the length of the Long Room. One pair sold for £3,000.
The kitchen had lost its lived in look which I remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.
The principal bedrooms with their straightforward names – the Avenue Bedroom, the Corner Bedroom, Caroline’s Room, the Best Bedroom, His Lordship’s Bedroom and Her Ladyship’s Bedroom – had plain sturdy furniture. A mahogany breakfront wardrobe and matching half tester or four poster bed dominated each room, accompanied by a matching desk and pot cabinet. On average the wardrobes sold for £3,000; the beds for £5,000.
The bedrooms looked slightly sparse. Perhaps they had been fuller in happier times. Minor bedrooms and servants’ rooms had brass beds (the one in the Housekeeper’s Room sold for £70), lower ceilings, less dramatic views, and were full of clutter. Not for much longer.
“People say it’s as if time stopped in the house,” Philip Anley said on the opening day of the auction. “That’s a tribute to mum,” he added, acknowledging Julie Ann’s efforts to maintain MPH.
Sales had taken place at Mourne Park before. Shortly before his death, Nicholas had sold more than half the 800 hectare estate to Mourne Park Golf Club which extended from a nine hole to an 18 hole course. A decade before he had bought out the interest of his aunt, Lady Hyacinth, which meant her family removing various heirlooms in lieu of any stake in the house itself. The inheritance of the title and estate had already split in 1960. However this sale was different. It heralded “the end of an era” according to Philip.
Herbert Jackson Stops’ introduction to the 1920s sale catalogue of Stowe springs to mind. ‘It is with a feeling of profound regret that the auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sale catalogue which may destroy for ever the glories of the house, and disperse to the four winds of heaven its wonderful collections, leaving only memories of the spacious past’. A rare level of honesty compared to recent excuses of selling off the family silver from ‘wanting to share chattels with others’ to ‘streamlining the collection’.
Sara Kenny from HOK Fine Art conducted the auction, raising a total of £1.3m. Prices were high with dealers bidding against collectors against locals. “My dad worked on the estate so I want some sort of keepsake,” I overheard one bidder say. It seemed everyone wanted their piece of MPH’s history.
Auction excitement reached fever pitch on the last day when lot 1391 came up for sale. It was the Red Book of Shavington, in the County of Salop, a seat of The Right Honble [sic] Lord Viscount Kilmorey’. For those who don’t know, Red Books were the creation of Humphrey Repton (1752-1818), a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. He created or transformed over 200 English estates. His mantra was natural beauty enhanced by art. His practice was to complete a Red Book for each client.
The Shavington Red Book was a slim volume encased in red leather containing his proposals for ‘improvements’ outlined in neat copperplate handwriting and illustrated with maps, plans, drawings and watercolours. Several bidders appreciated its historical importance and exquisite beauty. In the end it went under the hammer for £41,000.
The 3rd Earl of Kilmorey had sold Shavington, the family seat in Shropshire, in 1881 to pay for debts his father had accrued. He crammed much of the furniture into MPH. Shavington items auctioned included two early 19th century pieces by Gillows of Lancaster which both sold for £11,000: the Corner Bedroom wardrobe and the architect’s desk from the Library.
Mourne Park estate may not have benefitted from the romantic touch of Humphrey Repton but its rugged character, derived from the granite face of Knockcree, remains unchanged from faded 19th century landscape photographs. The same can’t be said for the interior of the granite face house.
“I’ll always remember the day you visited Mourne Park,” Julie Ann said. Strolling up the old drive she continued, “As the day the boathouse collapsed.”
And sure enough, the gabled boathouse, which had stood there for centuries, not so much collapsed as gently slipped into the lake like a maiden aunt taking a dip in the water. After a few ripples, it disappeared. Forever.
Fifteen years later, masterpieces and miscellany, a record of Edwardian living in its original setting, are now gone, just like the boathouse. It is a sad ending for the collection that formed the soul of one of Ulster’s Big Houses. Sad for the family and for the people of Newry and Mourne whose toil allowed the family to amass a fortune in antiques.
In the middle of the 320 hectare estate still stands the house itself, stripped of its contents, naked as the classical statues that once graced the lawns around the lake, awaiting its fate.
Since this article was published, Marion Scarlett Russell placed MPH on the market with Knight Frank for £10 million. The asking price has now been reduced to £6.5 million. It is still for sale.