Saturday 30 January 2016

Muckross House
 Killarney , Co. Kerry


California, U.S.A.

Filoli located in California in America has a long association with Muckross in Killarney, 
Co. Kerry, Ireland

Many of those who remember the 1980’s will recall an extravagant American TV soap opera called Dynasty which featured a fly over shot of the roof top of an opulent mansion in its opening credits. Little did Irish viewers know that this house, known as Filoli located south of San Francisco, had a direct connection with another stately pile in Ireland. For in the grand ballroom of this mansion there are paintings on its walls which feature Muckross House and scenes of the lakes of Killarney in county Kerry. These houses situated on either side of the Atlantic Ocean were owned by the extremely wealthy Bourn Family between 1910 and 1936. Today both properties have been relinquished by the Bourn family and are now in their care of their respective country’s heritage bodies.

The Ballroom of the vast mansion that is Filoli has a series of murals that depict scenes from around the Bourn family's Irish estate Muckross, Co. Kerry
Photo Credit - Courtesy of Filoli

One of the paintings features a view of Muckross Abbey over a fireplace which was purchased in Paris in 1925
Photo Credit - Courtesy of Filoli

Filoli, located in San Francisco, was built by William Bowers Bourn who had accumulated vast wealth from mining in California. It is a vast mansion, extending to 36,000 square feet, containing 43 rooms and is set in 16 acres of formal gardens surrounded by 654 acre estate lands.  The construction of the house that became known as Filoli began in 1915 with the Bourn Family moving into two years later, before it was completed. The extravagance of the house also extended to the extensive gardens that were not completed until 1929.  The location, gardens and aspects of the design of Filoli were said to be based on the country estate owned by the Bourn Family located in County Kerry in Ireland called Muckross. In 1910, William Bowers Bourn purchased Muckross House and its surrounding 11,000 acres on the Lakes of Killarney for the sum of £60,000. It would become the home of William’s recently married daughter, Maud and her husband of Irish extraction, Arthur Rose Vincent.

Muckross House in Killarney in Co. Kerry
Image Copyright The National Library of Ireland

Muckross House with its new approach which was constructed for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1861
Image Copyright The National Library of Ireland

Previous to the Bourn family, Muckross House in Co. Kerry had been the home of the Herbert family and was designed by the Scottish William Burn. The house is described as an Elizabethan Revival mansion whose construction commenced in 1839 and lasted over four years. The house was designed during a period where it was a requirement that separate corridors were required for the family, children and servants. The design of the house was modified to reduce costs both before and during construction, ornamental details were omitted, the servants wing and stable block were reduced in size. Other expensive areas of the house were omitted altogether such as an orangery and a summer house. Despite the economies that were employed during the construction of the house, novel and ground breaking construction techniques were included. Cast iron steel beams were used to span large spaces to create vast reception rooms, central heating and plumbing were installed together with cavity wall construction to eliminate damp. Queen Victoria visited the house in 1861 for which the house was lavishly decorated and numerous items were purchased which ranged from tapestries to silver tableware in anticipation of the visit.  The garden was improved and a new driveway leading to the house was built for the occasion to create a more ceremonial approach to the house for the Monarch. The expense of the Queen’s visit undermined the Herbert’s fortune but it was falling rents and a number of failed business ventures which resulted in the house and estate being mortgaged and over extended. The mortgage on the estate was foreclosed upon and Muckross was forfeited to the Standard Life Assurance Company thus ending the Herbert’s tenure of the Kerry estate in 1898.

The visit of Queen Victoria put Muckross House on the front pages of newspapers around the world and made Killarney a tourist destination
Image Copyright The ICH Collection

The following year the estate became the property of Guinness Family when it was purchased by Lord Ardilaun who in turn let the estate to various tenants. Lord Ardilaun was married to a niece of Henry Arthur Herbert who built Muckross. One of the clients who rented Muckross was Willian Bowers Bourn, an Amercian, who would eventually purchase the Irish Estate and use it as a blue print for his new California home which he intended to build. Over the years, William’s daughter Maud made Muckross her European base as she and her husband travelled back and forth to the US.  Maud and Arthur eventually had two children and soon Muckross was the setting for extended visits for William Bowers Bourn and his wife Agnes from Filoli to visit their grandchildren.

The Ballroom Filoli was decorated in 1925 to remind William Bowers Bourn of Muckross once he was incapacitated by a stroke
Photo Credit Ned Gault

William Bowers Bourn, the owner of Filoli and Muckross had a stroke in the summer of 1921 which left him paralyzed and unable to travel. His wife Agnes decided that if her husband could not travel to Muckross then it would have to come to Filoli in some form. She commissioned an artist friend to paint scenes of Muckross in Co. Kerry on the walls of the ballroom of the mansion. The ballroom, which is over seventy feet in length, had always appeared unfinished, decorated in cream since the construction of the house in 1917. The artist chosen to complete this renovation was Ernest Peixotto, a San Francisco born writer and artist, who was one of the best and highest paid illustrators of his day. Agnes wrote to Ernest in 1924 with approximate measurements of the ballroom in order that Ernest could give an approximate idea of what such a commission would cost. The artist thought it was a stroke of genius ‘to bring the beauties of Muckross to Filoli’. Ernest indicated in the letter that he would travel to Ireland to make the sketches for the panels and return to Filoli in September or October to submit his proposals for approval. He made his visit to Ireland and the names of Peixotto and his wife are recorded in the Muckross House visitor’s book in 1924. In regard to the cost of this endeavor, the artist said that he ‘could do a very handsome series of large decorative paintings for the entire room for $25,000.’  A contract was signed in October 1924 under which Ernest would provide the paintings for the ballroom and also supervise the decoration and furnishing of the room.  He visited the house and studied the ballroom before completing a model and mock-up of the images he intended to display on the walls. 

A view of Muckross painted by the artist Ernest Peixotto who visited Killarney in 1925 to make sketches for the finished paintings that would eventually hang in Filoli in America
Photo Credit - Courtesy of Filoli

A photograph of Muckross House in Killarney in Co. Kerry which bears a similarity to the painting completed by Peixotto
Image Copyright The National Library of Ireland

The paintings were to include five murals painted by Peixotto in his New York Studio on canvas developed from sketches he made on a visit to Muckross. The completed murals were transported by train to Filoli in September 1925 where they were installed in the ballroom. The artist was also on hand in Paris to help Maud, William’s daughter, examine a number of chandeliers and  a mantelpiece for the ballroom, the cost of these items alone extended to $16,700. Other works to the ballroom included the re-plastering of the ceiling to correct an annoying echo that the room was found to suffer from. The years following the completion of the ballroom were not to be a happy time for the Bourn family beginning with the death of William’s daughter Maud in 1929 from pneumonia. By this time the expense of maintaining the estate in Ireland had become too difficult and Muckross House with its 11,000 acres were donated to the Irish State.  The estate became Ireland’s first national park as a memorial to Maud Bourn Vincent in 1932.  After William Bowers Bourn and his wife passed away in 1936, the house and estate at Filoli was purchased by the Roth family. After nearly 40 years of ownership by the Roth’s, the estate was presented to the American National Trust in the 1970’s and like Muckross has remained popular visitor attraction since.

One of the paintings captures the children of Maud Bourn Vincent playing in the garden of Muckross. The Kerry estate was donated to the Irish state by Maud's husband after her death in 1929.
Photo Credit - Courtesy of Filoli


  1. Hi David, my name is Martin Leonard, I am 16 years old and I have a great in interest in architecture and country houses. I have done some research into the kirkwoods of Bartragh island and I was wondering if you know anything about them and the history of Bartragh house.if you have any info could you please share. It would be greatly appreciated, thank you .

    1. Hi Martin, I have been working on a piece on Bartra Island and its house for a while but you message has made me finish it. I took some pictures there at the weekend and I hope to have the article online by the end of this week.

    2. Hi Martin, I have been working on a piece on Bartra Island and its house for a while but you message has made me finish it. I took some pictures there at the weekend and I hope to have the article online by the end of this week.

    3. Thank you very much for the article , It is amazing to find out all the history of this beautiful place. I have been to Bartragh house hundreds of times and always wanted to know more about it.(I am adiment I will own it some day ).again thank you very much for the article it is greatly appreciated.

    4. Thank you very much for the article , It is amazing to find out all the history of this beautiful place. I have been to Bartragh house hundreds of times and always wanted to know more about it.(I am adiment I will own it some day ).again thank you very much for the article it is greatly appreciated.

    5. Im glad you enjoyed it, after two books Ive decided to find a bit more about the history that is around me rather than travelling the length and breath of the country.