December 16, 2010

Catherine de la Poer, Curraghmore shell house

picture (2005) courtesy of Sarah Boles

The self taught artists who create art environments in general do not belong to the world of high society. But of course, there are exceptions. Here is the story of the countess who decorated the Curraghmore Shell House in the Waterford region in Ireland

Life and works

Lady Catherine de la Poer, countess of Tyrone (1701-1769) was born in a family that for centuries owned and inhabited the Curraghmore Estate. The family migrated in the 10th century from Normandy to Ireland (so the name Poer should probably be pronounced as in French)

Catherine's father died in 1704 and since there were no male heirs she became the first female heir to Curraghmore Estate.  In 1717 young Catherine married Sir Marcus Beresford.

Currently Curraghmore House exists some 800 years.Through the ages the original castle has been expanded and restyled. The actual facade of the mansion is Victorian with flanking Georgian ranges.

Lady Catherine herself has been active in restyling and redecorating the estate.

picture courtesy of Michael 678 (Flickr)

In 1754 a shell house was built on the premises. At that time it was quite en vogue among the well to do to have some kind of shell decorated folly on their estate, constructions in general made on commission by (travelling) artists.

The shell house has the shape of a cruciform miniature church, with a stone-flagged roof and walls made of uncut, slightly rounded stones. Inside there is a large central space, surrounded by three circular apses, each with a window and an entrance lobby. The floor is composed of pebbles laid in an elaborate pattern

Lady Catherine is known to have decorated the shell house with her own hands. She managed the entire project, like she commissioned captains of ships that sailed to foreign coasts to collect shells, which also entails that the shell house has a lot of exotic specimen.

The Curraghmore shell house became an admirable project, realized by a lady in her fifties (and in a social environment that probably was not enthusiastic about ladies doing this kind of manual labor).

An inscription says that fixing the shell decoration on the walls took her 261 days. Cement had not yet been invented, so the shells had to be glued with a a mixture of pig blood, horse urine and sand. There are no reports saying that the condition of the decoration raises problems, which is also a compliment for lady Catherine's capabilities.

 statue of lady Catherine in the interior of the Shell House
as pictured on the Curragghmore House website 

In the center of the interior room of the shell house there is a marble statue of Lady Catherine holding a shell in her left hand. It was created by sculptor John van Nost on commission of Catherine's husband. sir Marcus Beresford, in admiration of her creative activities. 

An inscription says: “In two hundred and sixty one days these shells were put up by the proper hands of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine, Countess of Tyrone, 1754.

Through the centuries, the Beresford family always has been present at the estate, so they have never been "absent landlords". 
Public visits

The house, gardens and shell house of Curraghmore can be visited in May, June and July (guided tours). The house ranks as one of the important country houses in Ireland. And, as far as I know, its shell house with its DIY decoration by a countess, is unique in the world.

* Article about the Shell House on the website Curraghmore House & Gardens
* Article (February 2018) about the Shell House on weblog Portlaw Walking Trails 
* Article (March 2018) In a shell on website The Irish Aesthete

first published  December 2010, last revised August 2019

Lady Catherine de la Poer, countess of Tyrone
Shell house
Curraghmore House,
Co Waterford, Ireland
can be visited in may, june, july
for days and hours see website

1 comment:

  1. I am related to the de la paor family and I can inform you that lady catherine used a mixture of pigs blood,horse urine and sand