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Downhill, County Derry, Northern Ireland: (unexecuted) summer dining room, alterations and additions for Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and 4th Earl of Bristol, 1778-1780 (11)

1778
Frederick Hervey’s connection with Ireland was through his eldest brother, the 2nd Earl of Bristol. Briefly Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1766-7) the Earl appointed Hervey to the bishopric of Cloyne and a year later to the much richer see of Derry. Dying in 1775, the Earl was succeeded by his younger brother, and he in turn (on 22 December 1779) by the Bishop who thus became the 4th Earl of Bristol and was thereafter known as the Earl-Bishop.

The construction of Downhill Castle was begun by the Bishop in 1776. Built on the edge of steep cliffs overlooking the Atlantic five miles west of Coleraine, it was intended as no more than a villa. The construction in a rough, dark local basalt was supervised by Michael Shanahan (c.1731-1811), an architect and mason from Cork who was resident agent on the Downhill estate for eleven years from 1772. His task seems to have been ‘to give concrete form to his employer’s volatile notions and his role that of an executant rather than an initiator’ (Irish Architectural Archive Database of Irish Architects 1720-1940).

The Bishop spent a great deal of time in Italy, taking Shanahan with him to make sketches and measured drawings in 1770-2. On a later visit to Rome in 1778, the Bishop let it be known that he would welcome designs for a new dining room. Among others, Soane submitted a design, and this was to give rise to a quarrel with George Henderson, another young English architect abroad (see note to No. 11). Of the designs made in Italy, the rectangular plans (Nos 1-3) kept more or less to the 36 x 24 feet dimensions found also on Henderson’s design and presumably specified by Hervey. Another plan form arose from a shared tour from Rome to Naples that saw Soane and the Bishop (on Christmas Day 1778) discovering the so-called ‘triclinium’ of Lucullus (see SM volume 164/pp.5-10). Soane drew out its half-elliptical plan, later using it as the source for a dining room on a similar plan for Downhill (Nos 4i, iv) and at the same time making a rough design for remodelling and enlarging the principal front (No. 4ii). A plan of Downhill (No.5) includes a design for a semi-elliptical room.

The same plan gives some idea of what Soane found at the Earl-Bishop’s residence after he had been persuaded to cut short his stay in Rome and come to Downhill. As does the note/sketchbook kept by Soane (SM volume 80) that, as well as design proposals, details the bad planning, smoky chimneys, lack of conveniences and of a proper water supply, poor soundproofing, ill-fitting doors, windows and shutters and other evidence of poor practice and bad workmanship that he found at Downhill soon after his arrival on 27 July 1780.

See Sketchbook database for 'Downhill' note/sketchbook, 1780-1 (SM volume 80/ff.1-18v, 24). The rough plans from which are also given here - drawing 6i-iv.

Except for the east wing, Downhill was gutted by fire in 1851, rebuilt in 1876 and dismantled after 1918. It is now a gaunt ruin in a landscape park with a Mausoleum (q.v.) and other buildings administered by the National Trust.

Literature. E.E.R.Green, ‘Downhill Castle, County Derry, Northern Ireland’, Country Life, CVII, 1950 , pp.34-8; Brinsley Ford, ‘The Earl-Bishop’: an eccentric and capricious patron of the arts’, Apollo, volume C, 1974, pp.426-434; P. Rankin, ‘Downhill, Co. Derry 1-II, Country Life, CL, 1971, pp.94-7, 154-7; P.du Prey, John Soane's architectural education 1753-80, 1977, pp.139-44; P. du Prey, ' Je n'oublieray jamais: John Soane and Downhill,' Quarterly Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society, XXI, Nos 3 & 4, 1978, pp.17-40; P.du Prey, John Soane: the making of an architect, 1982, pp.110-11, 114-118.

Jill Lever, December 2005 - January 2006
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