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The Irish Country House and the Art of John Nankivell​: Gaybrook, Mullingar, County Westmeath


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Gaybrook, Mullingar, County Westmeath

Partly windowless with a telling sag in the main roof, Gaybrook is here represented in the 1970s on the eve of its execution. It was then in the ‘last throes of its decay, its falling interiors highly dangerous to explore, and very dark’, the big forlorn block set over its wilding, but still ‘ravishing’ sunken Victorian formal garden - the lawns thick and lank, the pink and white roses turning feral as they scrambled up the tall yews that marked the steps that once gracefully descended to neat parterres. All of this a world away from the smart house occupied until 1960, its chicly presented rooms and well-tended garden photographed in the 1950s displaying a sort of grand formality that seemed a little too pretentious for its quaint rustic name, which in fact originated with a different, much earlier, house.

As a demesne, Gaybrook emerged in the eighteenth century out of Redmondstown, the forfeited lands of Edmund D’Arcy that were granted to John Gay in 1666, and it was perhaps he who built the first house here. It was still referred to as Redmondstown as late as 1743, when another John Gay was living here. According to his son, Nicholas, he was ‘a generous and hospitable man, but improvident’. By 1772, indebtedness brought Gaybrook (then described as being ‘now and for several years past in the possession of, and held and occupied by…John Gay’) into the court of chancery when the house, gardens and its ‘sundry parks’ (which were intriguingly called ‘the Ark’) were offered to the highest bidder for three years. The estate remained impaired however, and by 1784, Nicholas Gay, described as a person a ‘very high sense of honour…extremely tenacious about being in debt’ considering it ‘highly derogatory to the character of a gentleman’, decided to sell it.

A newspaper advertisement described the 450 acre demesne in considerable detail, ‘270 of which are within one fence; the home in the centre…. the house, though not a modern one, is convenient, and, with small expense might be made much more so, as there is an additional building of two rooms, roofed and glazed, but not finished within’. More significantly perhaps, it also suggested that to ‘a person disposed to build there is a most eligible situation in the midst of a lawn, of above fifty acres, from which may be seen the Curragh, the Wicklow Mountains, the lake…’ The property was eventually purchased by Ralph Smyth (descended from the branch that also established the Smythes of Barbavilla) and he soon proceeded to plan a new house, on a new site. Although its architect is not recorded, one possibility is the amateur architect Rev. Daniel Beaufort, the rural clerical polymath, rector of Navan, interested in architecture, map-making and agriculture who helped found the Royal Irish Academy. Beaufort was a frequent visitor to Gaybook, and seems to have assisted and advised the Smyths, even to the extent of collecting their rents. He had evidently been consulted about choosing a site for the new house, which he noted in his diary in 1786. Beaufort was an accomplished draftsman, though his designs are a little stiff and his ideas, rooted in mid-Georgian Palladianism, were somewhat old-fashioned.

The house was a tall, rather lumbering mass, three-storeys high on a raised basement, and though well-proportioned with refined interiors, eternally its restrained astylar classicism bordered on the dull, its deep plan – extending to five-bays contributing a bulky prominence likely to have been lessened, and certainly less blunt, had it been composed with symmetrical wings. The entrance front had three bays, the central bay advanced, to which an unusual semi-circular porch was added in the early-nineteenth century, ringed with Tuscan columns that heightened the architectural interest. On the garden front, shown here, its neo-classicism was expressed in the central bow, an elegant three-bay projection extending the full height, and in the Wyatt windows which flanked it on the ground floor. A long service wing was added in the 1830s by Robert Smyth, who succeeded his elder brother Ralph in 1827 and in 1830 married Frances Alexander, daughter of Nathaniel, Bishop of Meath. This was balanced somewhat by a conservatory on the opposite side, which had already been removed by the 1950s. Today, only the fading ghost of the terrace suggests there was ever a house here.

The above text, written by Kevin V. Mulligan, is from the catalogue that accompanied the 2018 exhibition 'Vain Transitory Splendours': The Irish Country House and the Art of John Nankivell, and it can be purchased online from the IGS bookshop.

You can purchase some of John Nankivell's drawings from the IGS bookshop.

Kevin V. Mulligan is an independent architectural historian.