In 1835 Richard White (1800-1868), 2nd Earl of Bantry, known as Lord Berehaven, came early into his inheritance; beautiful Bantry House overlooking Bantry Bay in West Cork. With arguably one of the best views in the country and enjoying the milder, warmer climate of the South West coast of Ireland, Berehaven could not have wished for a happier situation in which to achieve his goal of turning his modest home into a seat fit for Earls. Although he died without issue Bantry House remains in family hands today, often passing through side shoots along the family tree. It is a most unusual house, within the context of Irish grand houses, retaining an enigmatic air gained perhaps from an art collection and taste for display that appears to have bemused Berehaven’s contemporaries.
He appears to have commenced his first Grand Tour in 1817. A Grand Tour could last from a few months to a few years, with the young man travelling with a carefully chosen tutor, known as a bear, who was well-versed in all that was to be seen and experienced. Berehaven may well have started out in a similar manner, but unfortunately due to the loss of his journals there are many gaps in knowledge that remain unfilled. The earliest of his sketchbooks place him in Neuchatel, Switzerland at the age of 17. Entries in a later sketchbook note the names of professors he may have been hoping to engage while he was in Stockholm, Sweden. These notes dating from his later travels indicate a confident tourist comfortable with making private arrangements on an ad hoc basis.
Not content to tread the well-worn path of the Grand Tourist, Berehaven went further afield than many of his contemporaries, visiting Denmark, Norway, Finland, Poland and Russia. Everywhere he went he bought the materials with which he would carry out his plans of ennoblement for Bantry House, these included tapestries, paintings, brass, tiles, garden ornaments, statuary and leather wall-coverings.
Still available to view at Bantry House are an assortment of brass plates of German type. In the grand dining room and the library hang brass chandeliers and sconces adorned with a delicate floral motif, coming from the Baltics and the Netherlands respectively. There are beautiful majolica pieces throughout the house, most likely Minton, dating from the 1860s they may represent some of Berehaven’s final purchases. The sumptuously decorated sideboards and cabinets in the dining room are among the mystery items of the house, as their provenance has been lost.
Many of the doors and staircases still retain traces of the Spanish leather that covered almost all available surfaces, including walls and ceilings that were not hung with tapestries. The tooled and gilded leather even filled spaces between the magnificent set of eight Guardi paintings that once graced the ceiling of the Gobelins drawing room. Purchased in Italy around 1820, when Berehaven was only 20 years old, they are sadly one of the many dispersals that have occurred over the years.
While his collecting strategy was eclectic he did buy knowledgably. His tapestries were Gobelin and Aubusson, the group of five Aubusson tapestries having once belonged to Marie Antoinette. He purchased them while in France in 1851 at the Louis-Phillippe sale. Another French inspired purchase is the beautiful statue still gracing the main entrance to the house. This is an immaculate copy of the Diana of Versailles, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Placed to point towards the Deer Park and facing east, she would have offered a welcome that displayed Berehaven’s erudition and taste.
In 1836 on his marriage to Mary O’Brien a daughter of the Marquess of Thomond, he came into his estate. From this time the couple seem to have travelled together, including a tour of Naples in 1843, when they also visited Rome and had their portraits sculpted by John Hogan, and Irish artist living in Rome at that time.
Still remaining in Bantry House from Italy is a pair of maquettes by Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Apart from their inherent grace, they are of worthy of attention as their full-size counterparts reside in the gardens at Bantry House.
The painted tiles that grace the entrance hall of Bantry House) made by Giustiniani of Naples, are interpretations of the famous mosaics at Pompeii, including the almost universally recognized Cave Canem motif. See a Mixed Message for more. Rediscovered in 1748, it is not difficult to imagine the Berehavens touring the site feeling inspired to bring home a sample of the ancient world to West Cork. The house retains a series of terracotta figures of the type associated with the Giustiniani workshop; an elegant female head bears their monogram.
Berehaven remains as enigmatic as his house and his art collection. Bantry House is well worth a visit. With its mild climate and spectacular views on a fine day one you might feel that you are on your own Grand Tour.
Read more about Berehaven and Bantry House:
‘The Seat of Mr Egerton Shelswell-White’ by John Cornforth in Country Life July 27 1989.
‘John Hogan’s busts for Bantry, and Viscount and Lady Berehaven’s tour of Rome in 1842-43’ by Flavio Boggi in The Burlington Magazine November 2011, CLIII
‘Bantry’s Elysian Fields’ by Nigel Everett in Irish Arts Review Summer 2010, Vol 27, No 2.