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Headfort House, County Meath: designs for interior decoration for Thomas Taylor, 1st Earl of Bective, 1771-75 (18)

1771-75
The Headfort estate, including an unknown house, was purchased in 1660 by Thomas Taylor, an Englishman from Sussex, and his son was created 1st Baronet. It was Sir Thomas Taylor, 2nd Baronet, who had the idea of rebuilding at Headfort in c1754, and he commissioned various designs for the house but died three years later before any works had commenced. Construction was begun in 1760 by his son, Sir Thomas Taylor, 3rd Baronet (1724-95), to designs by George Semple (1700-82), resulting in an unadorned stone façade.

Thomas Taylor was the eldest son of the 2nd Baronet, whom he succeeded as 3rd Baronet in 1757. He served in the Irish House of Commons as MP for Kells in 1747-60, following which he was created Baron Headfort. Two years later, in 1762, he was advanced to Viscount Headfort, and in 1766 he was made 1st Earl of Bective. Further to this he was invested as a Knight of the Order of St Patrick in 1783, and became a Privy Councillor of Ireland in 1785. In 1754 Taylor - then still 3rd Baronet - married Jane Rowley, the daughter of the Hon. Hercules Langford Rowley and Elizabeth Rowley, 1st Viscountess Langford, Adam's patrons at Langford House, Mary Street, Dublin, and Summerhill, County Meath, from 1765. It was doubtless through this family connection that Taylor came to be acquainted with Robert Adam, and in 1771, when Semple's austere fabric had been completed, Adam was commissioned to decorate the interiors.

Although Adam never visited Ireland, he did provide designs for five rooms at Headfort: the great eating room, hall, staircase, saloon and Lady's room over the saloon. In the interest of economy, however, some of these schemes were simplified in execution. Adam made designs for only three Irish country houses: Headfort; Summerhill, for Bective's father-in-law, Hercules Rowley; and Castle Upton, for Clotworthy Upton, 1st Lord Templetown, a cousin of Elizabeth Rowley, Viscountess Langford. Only Adam's work at Headfort survives, comprising Adam's only extant major work in Ireland.

A sixth room at Headfort, the drawing room - later the Chinese room - was decorated with a copy of Adam's ceiling design for the back room overlooking the garden at Langford House, Mary Street, Dublin, the townhouse of Hercules Rowley. The ceiling survives at Headfort, although it does not at Langford House. Adam's drawing for the ceiling at Langford House, dated 1765, was found within the collection at Headfort in 1936. It was this discovery which identified the drawings for Bective at the Soane Museum as being for Headfort. The drawing is now in the Yale Center for British Art at New Haven, along with twenty Adam drawings for Headfort itself, including a couple of working drawings, and various designs and finished drawings matching those in the Soane Museum collection.

Headfort remained in the possession of the Taylor family until 1996, when it was acquired by the Headfort Trust, although they had moved into a wing in 1949 in order to make way for Headfort School, which continues to occupy the majority of the building. The park is now owned by a golf club. The restoration of several rooms in the house was undertaken in 2004 by the World Monuments Fund.

There are thirty-three Adam drawings for Headfort within the drawings collection of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. These include a number of working drawings, as well as ceiling designs for the hall, eating parlour, saloon and staircase, and wall elevations for the hall, eating parlour and staircase.

Literature:
A. T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 52, 62; C. Hussey, 'Headfort, Co. Meath - I-III', Country Life, 21, 28 March and 4 April 1936; J. Lees-Milne, The age of Adam, 1947, p. 165; J. Harris, Headfort House & Robert Adam: drawings from the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, 1973; E. Harris, 'Robert Adam, at Headfort House, Ireland', Christie's international magazine, November 1996, pp. 50-53; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 225, 248-49, Volume II, pp. 174, 179; E. Harris, The country houses of Robert Adam: from the archives of Country Life, 2007, pp. 124-127

I am most grateful to Michael Bolton, teacher at Headfort School, for information regarding the current status of Adam's ceilings at the house, and to Madeleine Helmer for information regarding the Adam drawings within the collection of the Yale Center for British Art.

Frances Sands, 2013
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