IGS London: Mourne Park House, Kilkeel, County Down – a Recent History by IGS London Committee Member Stuart Blakley
Posted by IGS
The following article is an entry from IGS London's Stuart Blakley's Lavender Blue.
The first time we visited Mourne Park House, November 1992, the recently widowed Julie Ann Anley whisked us off 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. The country house as time capsule may have emerged as a phenonomen in the Eighties when Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly was applicable to an extreme at MPH in the wilds of County Down. While the Treasury saved Calke, sadly no knight in shining armour would come to MPH’s rescue.
The last time we visited the house, April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public rummaging over the soon to be dispersed contents. Everything was beginning to unravel. Beige auction labels dangled like insipid baubles from Christmas past, hanging on everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard while the building itself was crumbling at the edges. The auction was the outcome of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Needham Fergus Philip Gore Anley in 1992, dragging through the courts until the opening days of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or inter sibling love, it was finally settled.
“It’s something which all our family very much care about,” Marion Scarlett Needham Russell, Julie Ann’s younger daughter with the looks of a young Liza Minnelli, told us 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 by the end of the decade, the close of last century, this harmony of outlook had floundered following much brouhaha over how the estate should be run. 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 would archaically call them resulted in Marion spending a week at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only concluded when it was finally agreed that she could keep her share and her brother and sister 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 orthographic nuances? Althorp is “Althrup”; Beauchamp is “Beecham”; Beaulieu is “Bewley”; Belvoir is “Beaver”; Blakley is “Blakely”; Calke is “Cock”; Coke is “Cook”; Londonderry is “Londondry”; Monson is “Munson”; St John of Fawsley is “Sinjin of Fawsley”. One gets the idea. The Kilmorey family can trace its roots to the Elizabethan soldier, Nicholas Bagenal, founder of Newry. The 4th Earl of Kilmorey died in 1982. Before his death the family inheritance was rearranged because he had no sons, allowing his English 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, a former Northern Ireland Office Minister. He’s 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 4th Earl’s elder daughter, married Julie Ann Wilson at the start of the Sixties and together they had moved into the stables at Mourne Park. He had inherited the estate minus the title in 1984.
Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it doesn’t boast the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or share the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House, to take two other South Down seats. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Georgian and Victorian are the norm. MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn of local granite and its lavish use of green paint (Farrow + Ball’s Folly Green?) on bargeboards and garden furniture, window frames and porches, and the endless array of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century lending the house a magical nostalgic air. And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house and stables are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130 metres above oak and beech woodlands. A Victorian visitor, William Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park. “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 current building dates back to at least 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey employed Thaddeus Gallier of County Louth to build the central block. It replaced an earlier house on the site. An architect or ‘journeyman builder’, he had already completed Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned that five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the des res of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, the middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. A glazed porch under the semicircular fanlight partially obscures the double entrance doors in the middle of the three bay breakfront. Otherwise, Thaddeus Gallagher’s façade remains untouched. 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. His was no vainglorious provincial hand. Thaddeus 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 architecture. 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 multiple incarnations of MPH, Thomas 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. Next a third storey 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 newer block have much higher ceilings that those behind. The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of the Wyatt arrangement are twin windows 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 lends the garden front such a memorable look. In the central breakfront the bottom of the shallow recess floats 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 slender cornice partially conceals the hipped roof which wraps round the roof lantern over the staircase. Five attic bedrooms are tucked under the eaves with windows overlooking the roof lantern, unseen from the outside world.
Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl – the Kilmoreys had climbed a rung or two up 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’. This was a method used at the height of the Irish Famine by many Big House families to create work and keep locals from starving. The cheaply constructed three metre high granite walls also benefitted the estate. The 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gatelodges, 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 air. “It’s not fit for a gentleman to live in!” raged the 3rd Earl upon his inheritance. His gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows to the garden front and continued up until 1904 when he built a single storey peninsular wing perpendicular to the back of the house. Long Room Passage leads to Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and onwards to the dual aspect Long Room (four pairs of French doors face four sash windows) with its hammerbeam roof, the latter finished in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings in the 1890s with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.
A century or more of each generation making their mark on MPH has produced a fascinating interior full of surprising variations in floor levels and ceiling heights and room sizes. 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 glazing bars. A row of rooms overlooking the stables is accessed off the Long Corridor on the ground floor, the Rosie Passage on the first floor, and the Servants’ Passage on the second floor. The middle slice contains the Hall, Inner Hall, Staircase Hall and Blue Room, opening off each other like first class railway carriages. The first floor bedrooms in the front and middle slice are clustered together off two lobbies except for the Best Bedroom which appropriately takes pride of place in the middle of the garden front and is the only one to be accessed directly off the landing of the Staircase Hall. The ground floor of the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Dining Room (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?), the Ante Room and the Drawing Room where Sir Malcolm Sargent had once played the piano. A low two storey kitchen and nursery wing parallel to the Long Room wing links with the stables to create a courtyard to the rear of the house. Room naming at MPH clearly follows the Ronseal approach (“It does what it says on the tin”).
All the ground and first floor rooms were open during the auction preview weekend. We began the tour that we’d gone on a decade earlier, only with a printed rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats that had followed us around the first time round. “Come on, get out now!” Julie Ann had bellowed as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two! It’s not as if the cats even catch mice; they just watch them race by.” Now people were talking in mellow hushed murmurs as if at a wake, respectfully leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office, thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.
The Hall, dressed like a long gallery with paintings hung on pale painted (Farrow + Ball’s Wimborne White?) panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, MPH’s most exciting interior moment. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight accessed through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and apertures afford tantalising glimpses of corridors filled with shadowy ghosts. MPH, a Mary Celeste in granite.
Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study has an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room tucked away in the far corner of the house. A seven metre 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 space. On the other hand, the feminity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was enhanced by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoiserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. Outside, a life size marble garden statue of Ulysses and His Dog by Lawrence MacDonald sold for £110,000. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor. The house no longer felt private.
The main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. Shabby chic, to use another Eighties cliché, sprung to mind. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Ascendancy and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days. In the Billiard Room (or Morning Room), a corner timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declared this room to have been decorated in the early 20th century. Paint (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?) 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 poignantly hinted at past glories and forgotten parties. A suite of oak bookcases had been supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of window openings. One pair sold for £3,000. The kitchen had lost the lived in look that we remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. The rows of ceiling hooks for hanging game had gone. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.
The principal bedrooms – Avenue Bedroom, Corner Room, Caroline’s Room, Best Bedroom, His Lordship’s Bedroom, Her Ladyship’s Bedroom – contained plain sturdy furniture. A mahogany breakfront wardrobe and matching half tester or four poster bed dominated each room, accompanied by a matching desk and pair of pot cabinets. On average the wardrobes sold for £3,000; the beds, £5,000. The bedrooms looked slightly sparse. Perhaps they had been fuller in happier times. Minor bedrooms – Captain’s Room, Chinese Room, Knockcree Room, Garden Room – and servants’ rooms had brass beds (the one on 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 stood still in the house,” Philip Anley told us on the opening day of the auction. “That’s a tribute to mum,” he added, acknowledging Julie Ann’s efforts to maintain MPH while working full time as a teacher. Sales had taken place at Mourne Park before. Shortly before his death, Nicholas had sold more than half the original 800 hectare estate to Mourne Park Golf Club (since renamed Kilkeel Golf Club), allowing it to extend from a nine hole to an 18 hole course. A decade before he had bought out the interest of his aunt, Lady Hyacinth, which allowed her family to remove 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 was “the end of an era” according to Philip.
In the words of Herbert Jackson Stops’ introduction to the 1920s sales catalogue of Stowe: “It is with a feeling of profound regret that the auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sales 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 disarming honesty compared to recent excuses for flogging the family silver. Try, “We are delighted that others will have the chance to enjoy objects which it has given him so much pleasure to discover…” Or, “In this sale which has been carefully selected so as not to damage the overall integrity of the collection…” Alternatively, “In order to allow for reinvestment which will underpin the long term future of the estate, the trustees have carefully selected a number of pieces to be sold at Christie’s this summer…”
The raven haired Sara Kenny from HOK Fine Art (she would later set up on her own launching Sara Kenny Fine Art in 2005) conducted the auction raising a total of £1.3 million. Prices were high with dealers bidding against collectors against locals. “My dad worked on the estate so we want some sort of keepsake,” we overheard. It seemed everyone wanted their piece of MPH. Auction excitement reached fever pitch on the last day when lot 1391 came up. 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 invention of Humphry Repton, 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 exquisite beauty and historical importance. 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 each 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 Humphry Repton but its rugged character, derived from the granite face of Knockcree, remains mostly unchanged from sepia tinted 19th century landscape photographs. The same can’t be said for the interior of the granite faced house. “I’ll always remember the day you visited Mourne Park,” Julie Ann had said, strolling up the old drive, “as the day the boathouse collapsed.” And sure enough, the gable ended half timbered 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.
And so 11 years later, masterpieces and miscellany, a record of Edwardian living in its original setting, is gone, just like the boathouse. It was 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 very fine things. In the middle of the (now) 57 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.
Much Ballyhoo! That was then and this is now. Following the auction, Marion placed MPH on the market. “Life is taking us in a different direction,” she said wistfully. “We’re spending more and more time abroad. So it’s made a bit of a nonsense us being here. Em, so a very difficult decision. But we’ve decided to put the estate on the market. I’m sure the moment that I leave is going to be difficult. But having made the decision, you just have to go with it, really.” Its £10 million boom time price guide soon slumped to £6.5 million then £3.5 million but there were still no takers. Marion clung on, admirably restoring the house and beginning to add suitable furniture. Impressively she uncovered and restored an extensive lost Edwardian rock garden. “It was so exciting,” she enthused, “A bit like an archaeological dig. Every day a bit more would emerge.” A happy ending of sorts, but this is MPH, forever permeated by Ibsenesque melancholy.
In June 2013, Marion and her family returned from holidays to find fire engines lining the driveway. More than 80 firefighters were tackling an inferno which had engulfed the main block. The roof, where the fire had started, had collapsed – molten history. Fire Service Area Commander John Allen said, “Our priorities were, one, to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjoining wings of the building and, two, to save as many of the artefacts in the building as we could. Not only the artefacts in terms of history and legacy, but also, this is a family home where children live. Our intent was also to save their items which were of sentimental value.”
Mourne Park House: the place with the endless postscript. The irrepressible Marion Scarlett Needham Russell has plans to transform the house into a 126 bedroom hotel and spa. Since 2000, Irish architects Mullarkey Pedersen have been working up a vision to convert and extend the house and its outbuildings. The châtelaine confirms, “Since the fire, we have done everything we can to preserve the structure of the building: removing, storing and shoring up where necessary. We’re absolutely committed to seeing the restoration of Mourne Park once again and have open minds as to how this would be achieved. The rebuild is currently on hold until the right person or group comes forward to claim the opportunity.” Is a northern Castle Leslie in the making?