Sunday 22 October 2023

Powerscourt Gardens - among the world's best

Wondered what the banner which greeted us down the long beech-lined drive to Powerscourt Gardens was worth: it proclaimed the National Geographic's assignation of No. 3 among the great gardens of the world, yielding only to Kew and Versailles. Even the approach yields lovely vistas of the valley, though the Wicklow mountains beyond were only occasionally visible, and the top of the Sugarloaf, usually such a landmark, not at all.

Now I'm not anything like as well versed in international matters horticultural as my friend Kerry Richardson, an experienced director of TV programmes on the subject including Around the World in 80 Gardens, but when we passed through the ticket office and emerged on to the top terrace, the vista immediately made me realise the reason for the accolade. It's a little like La Foce, where the formal layout is in striking contrast to the hills beyond, but on a truly Versaillian scale (this vista, with my friend, driver and Powerscourt enthusiast Catherine, one level down).

The glory of the gardens can be assigned to two Viscounts, Sir Richard Wingfield (1697-1751, who built the house and oversaw the first wonders of the garden design) and No. 7, Mervyn Edward (1836-1904), with the terrace designs instigated under No. 6, Richard (1815-1844) by architect Daniel Robinson,  and now to the son of the present owners, Alex Slazenger, whose training to become head gardener has paid off (according to a local. the family is much liked for its good treatment of everyone who works there). Much of the statuary was bought by the Seventh Viscount on a grand tour or commissioned from Prof Hugo Hagen of Berlin, Fame and Victory on the top terrace being based on the design of sculptor Rauch.

Diana and Apollo Belvedere were purchased in Rome by the Sixth Viscount

while some of the vases (probably not this one) were bought in St Petersburg

and the bronze groups of children/Putti, imitating the ones in Versailles, are the work of Marin.

The patterned pavement at the next stage down is a wonder, and worth repeating in more detail.

Below it there are two 17th century Italian bronze figures of Aeolus ('the spitting men' with dolphins), bought by the Seventh Viscount at Christie's in 1872, with sundial in between. The sundial has a Latin inscription which translates as 'I only make the sunny hours'.

All perspectives down towards the lake

are more impressive than looking up towards the house,

the backside of which, originally only two storeys high and much altered, is less impressive than the north front, adapted in the Palladian style.

A major refurbishment came to an end with a fire on 4 November 1974, leaving the house roofless and all its main rooms destroyed. It's now a centre for retail by the ubiquitous Avoca and others, though I guess you could hire the piano nobile for a big event. Anyway, everyone I met here was very friendly, as more often than not in Dublin and environs. 

So to the Pegasi framing the lake. They're splendid, if a bit blingy, and though I thought they might be recent additions, they're more of Prof Hagen's work from 1869.

In the centre is a reproduction of Bernini's famous Triton fountain in Piazza Barberini, Rome. Can't help feeling this one has a happier setting, and the shaggy moss suits him.

Time here for Respighi's magnificent musical tribute to the original, based around a single horn note (Triton blowing his conch).

I hadn't expected the Japanese garden to be more than a couple of temples in a glade. But this is a ravine wonder apart. The descent is rather spectacular (a nice woman in the house told me that for crinolined ladies, it was a relief to descend in to lower temperatures on a hot summer's day).

This was laid out by the Eighth Viscount in 1908, but it embraces a wonderful grotto from the time of the First Viscount, established in 1740 and made from fossilised sphagnum moss. Ireland's moist airs do the rest for the greening.

Other shades in the Japanese garden are complementary, though I imagine it's also lovely in blossom time.

Heading back up to the lake, our route now took us past giant sequoias and other splendours - the garden, like Mount Usher which I visited in the spring and really ought to have chronicled, has some of Ireland's prize trees, which must be pursued with a guidebook next time - 

past the Pet Cemetery to the different feel of the Dolphin Pond zone, with more big trees surrounding it including Ireland's tallest Eucalyptus.

The pond features on a 1740 map, but the fountain was bought in Paris by our very statue-acquisitive Seventh Viscount.

We now went through one of many splendid gates to the Walled Gardens; the herbaceous border was still in full spare - praise young Slazenger for the choices - and not only dahlia/bee rich but even producing an Oriental poppy.

I was especially keen to see the Gate from Bamberg Cathedral, bought by the Seventh Viscount from one Mr Pratt, a London curiosity dealer. Again, it looks a bit blingy, but regilding is done every decade or so. The golden rose vase on top is reminiscent of those in Vienna's Schatzkammer which were given by the Pope to the daughters of the nobility, giving Hofmannsthal his idea of a silver rose for Strauss.

The English Gate at the other end of the walled garden proper - again, surprisingly extensive - was brought, as the title makes clear, from England in 1873. 

In between, the rose beds were still doing well

 and the two discoboloi, one pictured here, bought by the Seventh Viscount in Naples - they were copied from the originals in Herculaneum by one Massalli - look ready for action against a background of hydrangeas.

Murmurations of starlings flew overhead, 

while we didn't exactly fly back to Dublin - nearly missed the start of Irish National Opera's stunningly well-sung Faust - but what an afternoon. Can't wait to return.


Catherine B said...

Wonderful pictures and narrative that captures the magic of Powerscourt. It was special that day with so few other visitors and it was a privilege to have the Japanese garden entirely to ourselves for a while. The gardens are worth a visit in every season.

David said...

I'd gladly go any time, any day. I do think joint membership should be avaiable for you and your regular + ones. Kew does that. I might take up the argument about it being couplist to insist on only two people. They'd make more money if they opened it up.

As you know, J and Seamus went to see the big waterfall. I hope it's still in good spate when we visit, but I wouldn't wish more torrential rain on you...and I don't want it on my return.

Kerry Richardson said...

Wow, what a stunner. A very rich story on many levels and it would have been a perfect candidate for Around the World in 80 Gardens. Quite epic in scale, reaching out into its borrowed landscape. But then offering the secret treats of the Japanese garden and the grotto (how I love a grotto).

Actually, this is a garden that would have been better served by a Great British Gardens approach, because it would have rewarded the 60 minute treatment and the journey through all four seasons. But sadly, Channel 5, like all the other British terrestrials, is not commissioning any gardening documentaries at the moment. In fact, they don’t seem to be commissioning anything much, hence my unintentional early retirement from the business……

Thank you very much for drawing this to my attention, and I’m honoured to have been name checked.

David said...

So not among the 80...well, one's spoilt for choice. Ireland often slips through the net, of course. Glad you love the look of it. And yes, I also love a grotto, have done since childhood when there was one next to the model village in Eastbourne's Redoubt. Both attractions long gone.

The lack of commissions is affecting us all. Sure you'll find something else enterprising with your immense energy and positive spirit.

Rosanna said...

I now realise of course I have been to Powerscourt and had not forgotten the magnificent vista of the Wicklow hills, but I wish I had gone there with you as my guide since there was so much that I missed especially the statuary. I loved the photographs of Triton (and the musical tribute) and the photographs of the mossy Japanese garden.

There is an interesting biography of Sheila Wingfield, the poetess Viscountess Powerscourt, by Penny Perrick, which I must read again. I am inspired to go back to Powerscourt and also to explore Castletown House which I really haven’t seen.

David said...

I didn't find out details about the statuary until I bought the miniguide at the end - it looks like a glossy brochure but has some useful chapter and verse. They really should produce a decent book on the place, though.

We went to Castletown House to hear a concert in the Dublin Chamber Music Festival. Not really ideal since although the room was fascinating, the musicians weren't on a raised platform so we couldn't see them - a real loss since one was the wonderful Sean Shibe.

David Parry said...

Completely fabulous garden! Thank you for posting about it.

David said...

Hope you have an opportunity to visit Dublin soon for work or pleasure and we can make an excursion, possibly with Catherine as chauffeuse. I'll be seeing it again before coming up to Norfolk for your concert...

Peter said...

What an interesting account, David. Many thanks for bringing back many happy memories of several visits to Powerscourt. A joy to visit and revisit.

Susan Scheid said...

What a grand, gorgeous garden—and so close to Dublin, too. Your photos are wonderful, and your commentary, as always, full of telling details. I loved, just as one, your connecting the rose vase at the top of a gate with another in Vienna that formed the inspiration for Hofmannstahl’s silver rose. Beautiful post, David. Thank you for bringing us along.

David said...

I hope you'll both visit Dublin and we can all go together at some point, Sue. And lucky Peter, having known this jewel for so long.

Susan Scheid said...

That would be lovely. This is definitely now on our bucket list. Thank you, David.

David said...

The Irish keep saying to me, 'Dublin's lovely, but so small', but I find there are a thousand small but significant things I still have to see there, and I don't think I'll exhaust the possibilities. Everything on a human scale, though the bay is grand.

Kirk Davis said...

Wow.....what a wonderful set of images. Thank you very much! If I ever do get back to the UK, I need to see (and smell) this fabulous terrain in person!

Kirk in Huntington Beach, California

David said...

Thanks so much, Kirk, though NB - not in the UK, very definitely in Ireland! But we'd love to show you a good time in and around Dublin. And you MUST visit the west coast too.