The story of how one of England’s most talented young architects and King George III’s official Sculptor were commissioned by a grieving Irish husband to design one of the most important mausolea in Ireland, hidden deep in the Co. Monaghan countryside, for his young English wife is an intriguing one, although not yet fully unravelled, and involved three major country houses, one Irish and two English, and their families. The most more recent chapter in this story is a happy one, as this beautiful building is at last now undergoing full repair and conservation, after having become a derelict and roofless ruin since the last war, and the repairs that the Irish Georgian Society had carried out in the 1960s having been totally vandalised.
The young Lady Anne Fermor, the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Pomfret, of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, who married the Irish merchant banker Thomas Dawson in 1754, died aged only 36 on 1st March 1769. Dawson’s grandfather had laid out Dawson Street and built a house for himself that in 1710 he had sold to Dublin Corporation and became the Mansion House. Soon after her early death, Dawson decided to commemorate Lady Anne by constructing a building to her memory – and maybe to contain her corpse. Possibly through a family connection that has not yet been fully established, he seems to have given the commission to the young James Wyatt [1746-1813], who was just starting his career in London, having returned in 1768 after studying for 6 years in Rome to work for his older brother Samuel. His very first building, in 1769, was the Pantheon, an Assembly Room in London’s Oxford Street. Horace Walpole called it ‘the most beautiful edifice in England”, and it was an instant success when it opened in 1772, making Wyatt’s reputation. Based on the Pantheon in Rome, it was demolished many years ago, and Marks and Spencer’s store now occupies the site. Dawson, ennobled as Baron Dartrey in May 1770, must have approached Wyatt soon after Lady Anne died, and although no documents have yet come to light to confirm this, even the late Sir Howard Colvin attributed the design to Wyatt. If this attribution is correct, then the Dawson Temple is probably the architect’s next building, although its exact date is not yet known. Unsigned and undated drawings showing its front elevation are in the Murray Collection of drawings at Dublin’s National Library; it is a miniature version of the Pantheon, to be seen across the park and lake from the house, Dawson’s Grove, and also to house a memorial sculpture to her. The Roman Pantheon is a large circular domed structure, entered through an attached temple front or portico, and lit only by a large open oculus in the centre of its dome, and Dawson obviously wanted the same. On clear nights the moonlight would shine down with breathtaking effect through the oculus onto the only object in the building - the magnificent memorial sculpture of him, their son and an angel, grouped dramatically around the huge urn supposedly containing Lady Anne’s ashes, and would remind him of his young wife – despite the fact that he remarried just over a year of her death, and before work started on her mausoleum.
This sculpture, a vitally integral part of the original concept and design, was designed and carved by Joseph Wilton [1722-1803], one of the finest sculptors in the British Isles, who had been appointed ‘Sculptor to His Majesty’ by King George III in 1764. Although it, his only work in Ireland, still survives, and fro which he was paid 1000 guineas, it has been very badly vandalised. Wilton’s design drawing is still in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Hibernian Journal announced in its issue of 19th August 1774:
‘A few days ago was landed in Dublin a beautiful Marble Monument done by Joseph Wilton, Esq., of Portland Street, London, which Lord Dartrey is to erect in a Temple at his seat in Co. Monaghan, to the memory of his late wife, Lady Anne Dawson, daughter of the late Earl of Pomfret’.
Dawson clearly wanted, and paid for, the best designers possible when commemorating his wife. But she was not buried there, but was laid to rest in St. John’s Church near the house – nor was this rest was for long as, in 1798, as a result of Dawson’s worries about the Wexford Rebellion, her remains, with those of their children, were exhumed and taken to Stoke Poges Church in Buckinghamshire. And there is a curious link between his two wives – Lady Anne’s older sister, Lady Juliana Fermor, was the wife of John Penn, owner of that estate, who was the son of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. In 1771, Dawson married as his second wife Philadelphia Freame, grand-daughter of the same William Penn. When the Penn’s son, also John, inherited Stoke from his father in the 1780s, he employed Wyatt carry out a great amount of architectural work there over the following twenty or more years, including rebuilding the house between 1793 and 1797, building the Vicarage in 1802-04, the vestry of the church, the famous monument to Thomas Gray – who wrote the famous ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ [Stoke] – in 1799, and the commemorative column to Sir Edward Coke [a former owner] in 1800. He also designed Penn’s Pennsylvania Castle in Dorset in 1800. When Dawson died in 1813, 44 years to the day after Lady Anne, he was buried at Stoke Church, as was Philadelphia when she died in 1826, also on 1st March. It is presumed that all three lie together under the handsome tomb there, hopefully in perpetual harmony. Where else have we heard someone saying there were ‘three people in the marriage’? If Wyatt designed this tomb, he must have so between March and his own death on 4th September 1813, on his way to Doddington Park. It has been suggested that around 1770 Wyatt also designed Dawson’s Grove [that became Dartrey House in the 1840s] for Thomas Dawson, but neither its plans nor elevations, as shown in the only surviving drawings of it, done in 1842 by William Burn before he completely transformed it for Dawson’s great great nephew, the first earl of Dartrey, suggest any involvement by Wyatt.
Very little is known about the subsequent history of the Temple. Probably unloved and abandoned during the lifetimes of Dawson’s two successors, it seems to have been restored probably in the 1840s by his great great nephew, Richard, first Earl of Dartrey, as part of his building works then, principally the rebuilding and enlargement of Dawson’s Grove as Dartrey House or Castle. Perhaps the dome had collapsed by then; anyway, a shallow slated pyramid roof was put on the temple and its redbrick walls were plastered. Maybe it was used as a summerhouse to enjoy during excursions around the park. The last of the Dartrey family, Lady Edith WIndham, sold the estate in 1946 to the Irish Forestry Commission, now Coillte, and the house was completely demolished. By 1960 the pyramid roof of the mausoleum had gone, and both building and sculpture were open to the elements. As mentioned above, the Irish Georgian Society funded some repairs then, but soon afterwards further severe vandalism caused even more damage, and the building was abandoned to its fate.
In recent years, the Dartrey Heritage Association was formed mainly to carry out repairs to the nearby Dawson Column, and Noel Carney, a local resident who is Chairman of the DHA became concerned about the Dawson Temple. He steered the very complicated, lengthy, and successful negotiations to obtain a repairing lease from Coillte and also, on behalf of the DHA who has been managing the project on a voluntary basis, commissioned a report about the sculpture by the sculpture conservator Jason Ellis, and a Conservation Assessment Report on the building from John Redmill. This appraised the condition and the likely costs of repairs of the building, and was produced during the latter part of 2005, being most generously part-funded by John Coote, the owner of the adjoining estate, Bellamont Forest. It also examined the various options for the re-roofing of the Temple – replace the dome, replace the pyramid, or put on a modern roof of some kind. All agreed that a replica dome was the obvious solution, and plans and estimates for its reconstruction, together with the repairs to the interior and the sculpture, were put in hand. Grant aid towards the costs of the works have been generously given by Monaghan County Council under its Conservation Grants Scheme, the Heritage Council of Kilkenny, and the London Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society, together with funds raised by various means by the Dartrey Heritage Association. Although a new use for the building has not yet been established, the repair works have continued apace, funded by the strenuous efforts of the Heritage Association, in a series of phases as funds have allowed. The first task was to create a suitable access road to the site and erect a security fence around it. Then the upper stages of brickwork were carefully rebuilt, mainly rte-using the existing bricks, and the loose stonework was reset. The new dome structure of laminated timber ribs was then put in place, together with the flat timber ‘triangles’ at each corner, Roughan & O’Donovan, Consulting Engineers, providing the design of this structure. There was then considerable discussion about what material would be best for the permanent covering of the dome, and while the original had been lead it was decided that, as this would be continuing temptation to thieves and copper would not look correct, grey zinc would be used, and this was completed by Robert Copeland & Sons, Coppersmiths, at cost, during the summer of 2010.
The repair and re-plastering of the interior, including inside of the the dome, and the repair of Wilton’s monument, will follow in due course as funds allow, hopefully sooner rather than later. Fragments of the sculpture were discovered buried in the debris of the interior, and various individuals rescued other pieces that had been smashed off, so hopefully these can be reunited as part of the conservation works. But whenever these may be done, the future of Thomas Dawson’s expensive, elegant and most touching remembrance of his young wife is at last now assured, for the benefit of future generations of Cavan and Monaghan residents, and all who are interested in Ireland's historic buildings, particularly its mausolea.
Written by John R. Redmill