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The Knight of Glin
Glin, home of the eponymous Knight, sits on the banks of the River Shannon in west Limerick. It is a magical place whose mood has been well evoked by the Hon. Desmond Guinness, founder of the Irish Georgian Society:
'There is something rather unreal about Glin; it looks like a toy cut from cardboard, and the illusion is only heightened by the little battlemented lodges resembling castles in a game of chess, that protect the demesne'.
For the last 700 years the Knights of Glin have survived confiscations and sieges, and the present 18th Century castle, which succeeded the medieval thatched longhouse, is still in the hands of the FitzGerald family. A French visitor to Ireland in the 1790s gave a somewhat fantastical account of the Norman origins of the knighthood: 'It is not a title of an English origin. It was given by the sovereign to four brave men of the country, before or at the time of the conquest and those who bear the title at present are their descendants'.
In fact the title may be a royal one, or a distinction bestowed by the Earls of Desmond or indeed an Anglo-Irish adaptation of a Gaelic chieftainship. Known variously as the Black Knights and the Knights of the Valley and then the Knights of the Glen or Glin, the term is documented from the 15th Century though its origin is undoubtedly earlier. Their lands, which were to vary considerably in extent in the centuries to come, were mainly acquired in the great Norman expansion of the 13th Century through the family being vassals of their FitzGerald cousins, the Earls of Desmond.
Today Glin Castle is known for its remarkable neo-Classical interiors and beautiful gardens, but also for the fine collection of Irish paintings and decorative arts formed by Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, a selection of which is offered for sale to raise funds to help maintain the castle in family hands.
A scholar of international standing, the Knight studied at Harvard under the architectural historian of the Renaissance James Ackerman, and for eleven years worked as a curator in the Furniture Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum under the directorship of Sir John Pope Hennessy. In London he was part of the remarkable group of scholars, dealers, decorators, and writers which included Mark Girouard, John Harris, John Cornforth, John Fowler, Christopher Gibbs, Geoffrey Bennison, David Mlinaric, Min Hogg and Peter Thornton - the head of the Furniture Department at the V&A. Thornton's studies on the history of interior decoration were hugely influential on this generation and are reflected in some of the delightful interior paintings in the Glin collection.
Glamour and academic rigour have never been seen as incompatible by the Knight. Very much part of the social scene of '60s London, which included Marianne Faithfull, and Mick Jagger, who were guests at Glin, the Knight briefly married Lulu de la Falaise, later to be the muse of Yves St. Laurent, before forming his life-long partnership with his second wife Olda Willes which has resulted in three beautiful daughters.
Returning to Ireland in 1975, Desmond acted for many years as Christie's representative. It was during this time that he collaborated with Professor Anne Crookshank of the Art History Department at Trinity College, Dublin, to write a magisterial series of books on Irish painting - including Irish Portraits, the catalogue of the seminal exhibition at Roy Strong's National Portrait Gallery in 1969, which travelled to Dublin and Belfast. This was followed by The Painters of Ireland in 1978, The Watercolours of Ireland in 1994 and Ireland's Painters, published by Yale University Press, in 2002.
More recently, in 2007, he published a pioneering work on Irish Furniture, also published by Yale, and written in collaboration with his Christie's colleague James Peill. Many of the pieces in this sale are illustrated and discussed in that publication. Early in his career he worked with, and was greatly influenced by, Dr. Maurice Craig the doyen of Irish architectural history, and together they published a guidebook of Irish architecture, Ireland Observed, in 1971. A few years later in 1976 with the late Edward Malins, the Knight wrote a book on the history and architecture of Irish gardening from the late 17th to the early 19th Century, Lost Demesnes.
Early in his life Desmond was greatly inspired by the newly-founded Irish Georgian Society. Centred at Leixlip Castle and inspired by Mariga the charismatic and life-enhancing wife of its determined founder, the Hon. Desmond Guinness, the Society has, since then, led the conservation movement of historic buildings in Ireland. Now based in Dublin, the Knight is its current President. He is also a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland, and sits on the Board of the Irish Heritage Trust, the Irish Landmark Trust, and the Castletown Foundation.
Desmond has spent his entire working life campaigning tirelessly for the conservation of Ireland's built heritage, and lectures extensively throughout the world on Irish art, architecture, gardens, furniture, and the decorative arts. Recently his scholarship was recognised with his election to the Royal Irish Academy. Whilst all this has been going on the Knight has been striving to maintain and improve the fabric of Glin Castle, and until recently running it as a country house hotel, in which role it won many accolades.
The Knight has been a collector since childhood and this collection is one of the most remarkable of its kind formed in Ireland, with an innate feeling of elegance combined with the discernment based on his connoisseurship and scholarship. Professor Roy Foster has described the collection as 'a gazetteer of Irish life'; from the bustling market place of Ennis in 1820, painted by William Turner de Lond, to elegant interiors such as Maria Spillsbury Taylor's drawing room at Rosanna, all of Irish life is here. From masterpieces of painting such as George Barret's Llanberis with Snowdon in the background, to more modest watercolours, the scholar's eye is discernable in all these acquisitions. Highlights of the furniture include a George II marble topped table acquired through Christopher Gibbs from Simon Sainsbury and an elaborate bureau bookcase with a swan pediment. The Booker mirror has its original label and so was the first piece of Irish furniture to be documented when the Knight published it in Country Life in 1971. This discovery began his long interest in, and research into, the history of Irish furniture.
Only a handful of ancestral pieces are included in the sale but the Knight has consigned some of the family silver, which has languished in the vaults of the bank for many years. Perhaps the most important pieces of silver are a pair of Dublin racing trophies awarded to Richard FitzGerald in the 1740s, reflecting the FitzGerald's love of sport and the chase, one aspect of his patrimony which has not descended to the present Knight!
If much of the collection at Glin reflects the Knight's passionate love of Ireland, elsewhere a distinctly international, and at times exotic, flavour emerges. Like several great Irish collectors of earlier times, the Knight is a member of the Society of Dilettanti, and in his youth spent an extensive period in the Far East after winning a scholarship to the University of Malaya in 1959. He studied under the distinguished orientalist, Michael Sullivan, and lugged a cumbersome tape recorder along the Thai-Chinese border for Gordon Downer, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who at the time was compiling a Yao-English dictionary. This period of his life is represented by a vibrantly expressionist portrait of himself as a young man by Affandi, Indonesia's most famous painter.
The present Knight's lifetime of collecting, has been accompanied by a passionate desire to repatriate as many Irish-made objects as possible to their country of origin. His collection reveals and records what a distinguished number of artists and craftsmen were working on in Ireland in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and illustrates the distinctive Irish characteristics and flavour of their output.
In a certain sense, the work is done; the collection he formed has succeeded in its scholarly purpose, as the paintings and furniture he gathered together have been published and have been subject to academic scrutiny. While naturally sad to see the fruits of his collecting escape his clutches, the Knight is delighted that others will have the chance to enjoy objects which it has given him so much pleasure to discover, in places as far away as America and Australia, and returning them to Ireland, where they now mean so much.