24 October 2016

An afternoon in Powerscourt House and
in one of the best gardens in the world

Powerscourt House is among the Top 10 Houses in the World, and the gardens are No 3 in the World’s Top Ten Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

It was a busy weekend, including three services and two sermons in Saint Bartholomew’s, a seminar in Trinity College, Dublin. But on Saturday [22 October 2016], two of took a break in Co Wicklow and spent the afternoon at Powerscourt House and Powerscourt Estate on the edges of Enniskerry. It was a bright sunny afternoon, with clear blue skies and warm sunshine, and it felt more like the end of summer than the end of autumn.

Powerscourt is a large country estate, noted for its house and landscaped gardens and includes 19 ha (47 acres). In 2011, the Lonely Planet voted Powerscourt House in the Top 10 Houses in the World, while in 2014 National Geographic listed Powerscourt as No 3 in the World’s Top Ten Gardens.

I had been to the Powerscourt Waterfall in the past, and in Powerscourt Church on many occasions. But this was my first visit to the house and gardens. It is a popular tourist attraction, and includes an Avoca restaurant, a luxury hotel, a garden centre and a golf club.

Powerscourt House stands on the site of a 13th century castle, originally owned by the Le Poer or Power family. The castle was of strategic importance, giving control of access to the nearby Dargle, Glencree and Glencullen rivers and the valleys leading into the Wicklow Mountains.

In the centuries that followed, the Powerscourt estate was fought over by many families, including the O’Tooles, who were the Gaelic territorial lords in Co Wicklow, and the FitzGerlads, Earls of Kildare.

In 1603, Sir Richard Wingfield was granted Powerscourt and over 40,000 acres of land as rewards for his military assistance to Queen Elizabeth I, and the Wingfield family remained at Powerscourt for over 350 years.

The title of Viscount Powerscourt has been given on three occasions to members of the Wingfield family. It was first given to the Chief Governor of Ireland, Richard Wingfield, in 1618. However, the title died out when he died in 1634. It was given a second time in 1665 to Folliott Wingfield, the great-great-grandson of George Wingfield, uncle of the first viscount.

However, when he died in 1717 this second title died with him too.

For a third occasion, in 1744, the title was given to Richard Wingfield (1697-1751), along with title of Baron Wingfield, of Wingfield in Co Wexford. He was a grandson of Lewis Wingfield, uncle of the 1665 holder of the title. Earlier, Richard Wingfield had been MP for Boyle, Co Roscommon, in the Irish House of Commons.

Before this Richard Wingfield was given the Powerscourt title, he commissioned the German-born architect Richard Cassels to alter the castle extensively. Work started in 1731 and finished in 1741.

The view of the Sugarloaf Mountain from the south terrace is one of the most photographed panoramas in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

On a commanding hilltop position, Cassels deviated slightly from his usual sombre style, giving the house something of what John Vanbrugh called the ‘castle air.’ This is most noticeable in the Palladian façade on the north side the house, book-ended by two circular domed towers. The south side of the house faced the gardens, and at first was only two storeys in height.

Inside, the three-storey house had at least 68 rooms. The entrance hall, where family heirlooms were displayed, was 18 metres long and 12 metres wide. The main reception rooms were on the first floor rather than on the ground floor, the more typical location. A mile-long avenue of beech trees leads to the house.

This Richard Wingfield’s eldest son, Edward Wingfield (1729-1764), the 2nd Viscount Powerscourt, was MP for Stockbridge in the British House of Commons. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Richard Wingfield (1730-1788), 3rd Viscount Powerscourt, who married Lady Amelia Stratford, from the ancient Stratford family, and all the later holders of the Powerscourt title descend from them.

The third viscount’s grandson, Richard Wingfield (1790-1823), 5th Viscount Powerscourt, sat in the House of Lords as an Irish Representative Peer (1821-1823). King George IV was his guest at Powerscourt in 1821.

His son, Richard Wingfield (1815-1844), 6th Viscount Powerscourt, was once an MP for Bath. In the 1830s, the house was the venue for a series of evangelical conferences and meetings on Bible prophecies. The meetings were held at the invitation of his mother, Theodosia (Howard), Dowager Lady Powerscourt and were attended by people such as John Nelson Darby and Edward Irving, leading to the foundation of the Plymouth Brethren.

In 1844, at the age of 8, her grandson, Mervyn Wingfield (1836-1904), 7th Viscount Powerscourt, inherited the title and the Powerscourt estate, which comprised 200 sq km (49,000 acres) of land. When he was 21, he began an extensive renovation of the house and created the new gardens. He was an Irish Representative Peer (1865-1885), and was also given the title of Baron Powerscourt, of Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, which gave him a seat in the British House of Lords that his descendants held until 1999.

The main attractions on the grounds include the Tower Valley, with a stone tower, Japanese gardens, winged horse statues, Triton Lake, pet cemetery, Dolphin Pond, walled gardens, Bamberg Gate and the Italian Garden.

The terraces were designed in the 1840s by the architect Daniel Robertson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Italian Garden, immediately below the south terrace of the house and looking out towards the Sugarloaf Mountain provides one of the best-known and most photographed scenes in Ireland. The terraces were designed in the 1840s by the architect Daniel Robertson and took 100 men over 12 years to build.

Here there are sculptures of Greek and Roman gods and myths, including statues of Apollo Belvedere and Diana, collected by the sixth and seventh viscounts during their Grand Tours of Europe, including visits to the ornamental gardens at the Palace of Versailles, the Schönbrunn Palace on near Vienna, and Schwetzingen Castle near Heidelberg.

The life-sized winged horses guarding the lake are inspired by figures on the Wingfield coat-of-arms.

Below the Italian Garden, the Triton Lake with its fountain was inspired by the Piazza Barberini in Rome. Hidden in the trees by the lake is a tiny boathouse.

The four busts in ‘Julia’s Memorial’ depict Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Benvenuto Celini (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The seventh viscount bought the Dolphin Pond in Paris in the late 19th century. The Dolphin Pond leads through the Bamberg Gates, bought from Bamberg Cathedral in Germany, into the Walled Garden, which includes ‘Julia’s Memorial,’ a tribute to the seventh viscount’s mother, the former Lady Julia Coke.

The four busts depict four great Italian masters: Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Benvenuto Celini. They are copies of the busts in the Vatican and were completed by Alexander McDonald in Rome in 1878.

When the seventh viscount died in 1904, the Powerscourt titles and estates were inherited by his son, Mervyn Richard Wingfield (1880-1947), 8th Viscount Powerscourt. He was a Lord Lieutenant of Co Wicklow and was a member of the short-lived Senate of the Irish Free State.

The Japanese Garden was laid out in 1908 on reclaimed bog land (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The eighth viscount laid out the Japanese Garden in 1908 on reclaimed bog land south of the Triton Lake.

To the north-east of the Japanese Garden, the Pepperpot Tower was designed after a favoured three-inch pepper-pot on the eighth viscount’s dinner table, and was built in 1911 to celebrate a visit to Powerscourt by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 and became Duke of Windsor.

For children, one of the most popular attractions is the pet cemetery with its tombstones that have been described as ‘astonishingly personal.’ I wondered what the many Chinese tourists made of a gravestone to a dog named Sun Yat Sen.

In 1961, the estate was sold by Mervyn Patrick Wingfield, 9th Viscount Powerscourt, to the Slazenger family, founders and former owners of the Slazenger sporting goods business, who continue to own it to this day.

Ralph Slazenger’s daughter Wendy married Mervyn Niall Wingfield, the 10th Viscount Powerscourt, in 1962. In 2015, her son, Mervyn Anthony Wingfield, inherited the family titles as 11th Viscount Powerscourt.

Meanwhile, on the night of 4 November 1974, Powerscourt House was destroyed by a fire and was left as a shell until it was renovated 20 years ago in 1996. The house was opened to public by President Mary Robinson in 1997.

Today, only two rooms are open to the public as they once appeared when Powerscourt House was a family home. The rest of ground floor and first floor are now retail units and an Avoca restaurant, where we had a late lunch on the terrace, facing the Sugarloaf Mountain, at the end of our visit late on Saturday afternoon.

The Triton Lake with its fountain was inspired by the Piazza Barberini in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)