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Building of the Month - August 2012

Westport House, WESTPORT DEMESNE Td., Westport, County Mayo

Westport House 01 - Entrance Front 

Figure 1: A view of the entrance front of Westport House as designed by Richard Castle © Westport House

Westport House is one of the largest country houses of national importance surviving in the west of Ireland (fig. 1).  The Brownes of Westport were introduced to Ireland by John Browne who arrived from Sussex in 1580 and married Maud Bourke [Burke] the great granddaughter of Grace "Granuaile" O'Malley (c.1530-c.1603).  Later, another John Browne (c.1638-1711) acquired lands at Westport including O'Malley's tower house, Cahernamart, on which foundations he set about building the first Westport House (1679-83).  The present Westport House built for John Browne (c.1709-76), first Earl of Altamont, to a design (1731) by Richard Castle (d. 1751) has remained in the continuous ownership of the Brownes (fig. 2).

Westport House 02 - Westport House (1760) 

Figure 2: A painting (1760) of Westport House by George Moore.  Tree plantations to the north and south, and pathways parallel to the river define the landscape with views of Croagh Patrick, Clew Bay and Clare Island.  The church visible in the foreground and the stable block are also attributed to Castle © Westport House

Numerous eighteenth-century Irish country houses drew on the influence of the sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80).  Arriving in Dublin from London in 1728, Castle became the apprentice of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (d. 1733), a leading Irish neo-Palladian.  In addition to Westport House Castle's significant commissions included Carton House (1739) in County Kildare; Hazelwood House (1731) in County Sligo; Powerscourt House (1731-40) and Russborough House (1742), both in County Wicklow; and Leinster House (1745).

The first phase of Westport House, although not large, fitted well into its natural setting and the entrance front is of cut-limestone construction.  The entrance hall is significant as the only domestic interior by Castle to survive intact.  Other distinguished architects were involved in the later improvement of the house including Thomas Ivory (c.1732-86) who significantly extended the house as a quadrangle around an open courtyard.  In the 1780s James Wyatt (1746-1813) was employed to redesign the interior of the house and the north and south wings were added by his son Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775-1855) in 1819.  Subsequently the open courtyard was reconfigured to include an impressive staircase hall to a design (1857-9) by George Wilkinson (1814-90) featuring an elegant Imperial staircase of fine Sicilian marble and cast-iron work supplied by Francis Skidmore (1817-96) of Coventry.

Westport House 03 - Garden Front 

Figure 3: A view of the garden front of Westport House showing William Henry Romaine-Walker's terraces descending down to the Carrowbeg River © Westport House

An extract on Westport from Pigot's City of Dublin and Hibernian Provincial Directory (1824) reads as follows: 'The Marquis of Sligo is sole proprietor of this place: his mansion and domain are extremely beautiful, and a mixture of hill, dale, wood and water render his residence fascinating in the extreme'.  The natural and manmade setting creates a picturesque landscape and illustrates the agricultural, arboricultural, archaeological and horticultural legacy of previous generations.  The house in its parkland setting, sheltered by tree belts and with paths flanking the Carrowbeg River, emphasises a strong east-west axis.  The layout is clearly influenced by the naturalistic English landscape style of Lancelot "Capability" Browne (1716-83).  The most immediate eighteenth-century parkland remains.  Westport House Lough was created in 1800 and the gardens were further embellished in the early twentieth century to a design by William Henry Romaine-Walker (1854-1940) (fig. 3).

Fine ancillary structures such as bridges, the model farmyard, Rusheen Lodge, the boathouse, gate lodges, and demesne walls survive intact.  The so-called called "House Bridge" (1734) and the nearby stable block (1734-5) have both been attributed to Castle.  Following a fire the stable block was rebuilt with modifications by the sixth Marquess in 1914.  In the parkland stands the ruined tower of the late eighteenth-century Westport Church (Oughaval).

Today Westport House is important in illustrating the artistic capabilities of the craftsmen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The delicate Adamesque plasterwork designed by James Wyatt in the dining room is regarded as being among the best examples of his work surviving in Ireland.

Westport House 04 - Westport Quay (1818) 

Figure 4: Westport House and Quay (1818) by James Arthur O'Connor (1792-1841) © Westport House

Many of the original contents of the house survive and offer a comprehensive insight into the evolution of the house over succeeding generations.  Fine examples of Irish craftsmanship including furniture, paintings and other artefacts can be seen.   Among the paintings are portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Sir William Beechey (1753-1839).  A series of landscape paintings (1818-9) by James Arthur O'Connor (1792-1841) include images of the house, the fisheries and the surrounding landscape (fig. 4).  Works by other artists such as Barrett, Brooks, Chalon, Gibson, Lavery and Opie form part of the impressive art collection.

Westport House 05 - Aerial View 

Figure 5: An aerial view of Westport House © Westport House

Westport House is open to the public.  Click here to view the official Westport House website.

Siobhán Sexton, Architectural Conservation Officer, Mayo County Council

Click here to view the records for Westport House in the NIAH Mayo County Survey

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