Sunday 15 April 2012

From the Irish Times by Michael Parsons
Contents of Mount Congreve Waterford to be Sold

One of Ireland’s greatest unknown and unseen collections of art treasures has finally been revealed with the announcement of the sale of the contents of the Mount Congreve mansion in Co Waterford.
Mount Congreve, in the village of Kilmeaden, was the home of millionaire Ambrose Congreve, who died aged 104 last summer while in London to attend the annual Chelsea Flower Show.
International auctioneers Christie’s said “Ireland’s secret collection” would be sold in a two-part sale this summer in association with Irish firm Mealy’s. The sale – one of the most significant Irish country house auctions in a generation – is expected to raise millions of euro.
Mr Congreve was the last member of an Anglo-Irish family that had lived in the house – designed by Georgian architect John Roberts – for more than 250 years. His father was an army major and his mother the daughter of an earl. He was educated at Eton, where he shared a room with Ian Fleming, later the author of the James Bond novels. During the second World War he served with British Intelligence and later became a successful businessman. His friends included Winston Churchill, Aristotle Onassis and Lionel de Rothschild.
Although he had a house in London next door to Prince Charles, Mr Congreve kept his ancestral home in Waterford, which was reputedly the last house in Ireland to employ liveried servants. Over the past 60 years he added to the lavish collection of art and antiques at Mount Congreve. He acquired many important paintings, pieces of furniture and silver and porcelain at auctions of aristocratic house contents in England after the second World War. Ironically, some of these items will now be shipped back to London and are likely to attract interest from collectors worldwide.
Christie’s and Mealy’s said the contents of the house would be sold in two stages. Firstly, a selection of about 120 lots of furniture, paintings, silver and Chinese and European porcelain will be auctioned in London on May 23rd. On July 10th and 11th, a larger range of works will be offered in a two-day auction – expected to draw large crowds to west Waterford – in a marquee on the Mount Congreve grounds.
Mr Congreve also planted a vast, internationally acclaimed woodland garden at Mount Congreve – now open to the public – which employed 70 people and won 15 gold medals at Chelsea.
The gardens include 3,000 varieties of rhododendron. Mr Congreve’s gardening achievements were acknowledged by Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him a CBE for services to horticulture, and by Trinity College Dublin, which granted him an honorary doctorate.
Mr Congreve, who was pre-deceased by his wife and had no children, died on May 24th last. He had transferred the house and gardens to a trust, the ownership of which will eventually pass to the State.
Expressing the Government’s condolences last year, Brian Hayes, Minster of State for the Office of Public Works, said the gardens at Mount Congreve would “serve as a permanent living memorial to his [Mr Congreve’s] passion for the world-renowned gardens he created, and to his memory”. It is unclear what the Government plans to do with the house.
Catalogues for the Mount Congreve London and Kilmeaden sales will be published shortly. A Christie’s spokeswoman in London said the highlights would include a pair of side tables designed by Robert Adam (estimated at £200,000 to £300,000); a “magnificent George II” mirror, more than 7ft tall, which was originally in the Earl of Coventry’s mansion (also estimated at £200,000- £300,000), and a pair of French Louis XV cabinets – estimated at £120,000-£180,000 – that once adorned the Knightsbridge home of the “Nitrate King”, George Lockett, who made his fortune in the Chilean nitrate trade.
Charles Cator, deputy chairman of Christie’s International, said the collection was a “testament to the discerning taste and connoisseurship exercised”.


In the poem The Planter’s Daughter” by Austin Clarke he descibes the house of the planter being “known by the tress”. I thought this was an apt desciption of the “Big House”’s relationship with the landscape and the surrounding community. The trees that protected the privacy of the occupants of the “ Big House” lent them an air of mystery but this detachment also created suspicion and resentment. These same trees today have become the guardians of these houses, now that their original owners have long since departed.

Whenever I see the ruin of a once great house I am always filled with a natural curiosity to see what it would have looked like in its prime. Over the years I have often cross-referenced the black and white images from when these houses were at the height of their powers with the down at heal realities that remain today. One cannot comprehend what has been lost in terms of our heritage until you compare and contrast the period and contemporary photographs which will be contained in my book.

The history of all these houses share common threads, the social, political and economic forces of the time sealed their fate. The stories of the people that built, inhabited and loved these houses are often highly entertaining, their exploits would often test believability if included in a Hollywood script.

Family feuds, bad business decisions, careless heirs, World Wars, inheritance tax, stock market crashes, land wars, political unrest, recession and depression ensured that only the most resourceful or lucky houses survived. Stories of the implosion of many family’s and their fortunes were played out in the rooms of these mansions that now only echo with the sound of birdsong