Category: Exhibitions & Reviews

Requiem for a House

Requiem for a house with a musical connection

A ruined, boarded up house sits on a hilly site in the lush countryside of county Wicklow. Bought low by a series of destructive fires, the build – originally comprising two-stories and five bays – was the first to be created in Ireland without a fortress. Dating from the end of the seventeenth century the design of Kilmacurragh House is attributed to the architect William Robinson, the Surveyor General of Ireland at this time, who was also responsible for the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and Marsh’s Library. The structure was instigated by one Thomas Acton, who would with his wife Elinor, in the 1730’s, become one of the first members of the landowning class to plant trees in any great number, especially exotic varieties from overseas. Initially the surrounding estate covered 5000 acres, but today only fifty-two of these – comprising the house, arboretum, entrance drive and woodlands – are maintained under the auspices of the National Botanic Gardens. A link furthered on account of the importance and rarity of horticultural specimens that can be found in the grounds. The interest in all facets of horticulture was perpetuated through the succeeding generations of Thomas Acton’s descendants, culminating in the 1850’s by another Thomas Acton and his sister Janet who became avid collectors of seeds and plants. They would also be the initiators of the arboretum, which today is known for its collection of Himalayan Rhododendrons. Did the passion for the cultivation of the soil lead to neglect of the house itself?

It is hard to determine, as most written data relates to the estate rather than to the house. Of course, the build was not in the same mode as the “Big House”, much beloved and avidly desired by both the wealthy industrialist and the Aristocracy of England in the first half of the eighteenth century. Instead it took the form of a comfortable country mansion that remained in the same family until World War I in which two of the penultimate members of the Acton family, Charles and Reginald, met their demise. Kilmacurragh House then passed to Charles’ son, another Charles – an infant at the time – who became a Govenor of the Royal Academy of Music and renown and much respected as an Irish music critic. It was during his tenure, that in the 1920’s the house was abandoned and fell in to disrepair. Briefly rescued when rented to a German businessman who ran the house as a hotel – albeit a popular one – it was sold by Charles Acton just before the end of World War II. To date, a member of the Acton family who lives in Australia holds the title of heir. Even if Kilmacurragh looks out at the world through broken, half-shuttered windows and boarded up doors (there appears to be no plans for any form of restoration) the name will not be forgotten. Its requiem will not be of the musical type, but the unique collection of plants and trees that abound throughout the grounds and which are today a magnet for the interested visitor, green fingered or otherwise. Elements that will live beyond the demise of bricks and mortar!

Online Education

There are some really good resources available for free online education and I have been using Coursera for a couple of years now. Also referred to as massively (or massive) open online courses or MOOCs. There are lots of different courses to choose from: Arts and Humanities, Business, Computer Science, Data Science, Life Sciences, Math and Logic, Personal Development, Physical and Science and Engineering, Social Sciences and Language Learning.

There are some courses that you can do at your own pace or they are self-paced so you can complete them in your own time. You can also take specialization courses for which you pay for and they involve a Capstone Project designed to apply the skills that you’ve learned and you earn a Certificate. There is also Financial Aid available if you can’t afford a course.

The majority of the courses are like an interactive textbook, and feature prerecorded videos, online quizzes that are usually multiple-choice (some of which you are able to do at your leisure), essays and/or projects. The quizzes I took were actually graded instantly by a clever computer and some assignments were judged and graded by fellow students. You can connect with other people or learners through forums to talk about course material and get help. There were pass rates for the course that you had to attain in order to receive a Certificate on completion of the course.

I think MOOCs are a good and effective way to learn some more and without needing a prior certificate or any associated certificate pressures. Some of the institutions that offer courses include: Standford, Duke, Johns Hopkins University, Penn State. However, there are many other institutions from other parts of the world to choose from. In the courses that I completed, there were between 1 and 3 instructors and I found all of them to be good and some with interesting personalities but that just added a layer of fun to the course. Some instructors arrange meet ups for learners presently taking a course, so you can get to meet your instructor and other learners. However, one instructor informed us that he would be in a particular location and he could be identified by a particular red baseball cap with the institutions logo on it. He also included a previous photo of him wearing said hat standing on a street somewhere just to clear up any possible identification issues. But overall I can’t say anything bad about any of the instructors delivering the courses that I took – some were even charming and quirky. Talking of learners or students, there can be thousands of them taking the course or that are in your MOOC classroom, and from all corners of the world.

There are some downsides such as little or lack of contact with the instructors or professors, but then again you could be talking about one or two professors and thousands of students. Some have Google hangouts but the odds of actually of getting a response from a professor feels like something akin to the odds of winning the lottery. Sometimes the professors will respond via discussion boards or you can get responses from teaching assistants.

There’s lots more I could say about my online learning experience but it’s a way of learning something new, or refreshing something that you learned awhile ago, and it’s a relatively painless source of self improvement. I am not sure if I would call my experience life-changing but I do think there is that potential.

Coursera is not the only website offering online courses, there are lots of others too. Some are:

The above is just a partial list.

Photo from StockSnap

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown: Green-Fingered Genius of the 18th Century

A previous blog post pondered on the different ways it is possible to improve ones creativity. The choice differed from one person to another, although a preference for exercise or walking would appear to be high on the list. For the pursuit of either activity, what better place can there be for the enviable out-of-doors ‘gym’ than the vast landscaped gardens surrounding any of the ‘Big Houses’ that still march across the countryside, many built during the 18th Century. The lovingly tended acres belonging to these ‘piles’ are seemingly as popular today as they were with contemporaries in the early days of inception – though possibly not for the same reason.

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Blenheim Palace

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s career (and lucrative business) as a garden designer evolved from his initial experience of working in the grounds of Stowe in the mid 18th Century. Soon his name would become synonymous with the gardens of the period, and who today is still revered by many horticultural fanatics for his landscape designs. To achieve his vision, Brown deconstructed the formal gardens of the 17th Century.

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Bowood House

He simplified their rigid structured formats through the use of rolling lawns, invariably bisected by a path, which ended at the walls of the house. It was an element causing much hard work for the labourers, as continuous scything was needed to maintain green perfection. Additionally, through sheer manual effort, artificial lakes were created, together with the illusion of diverted rivers, usually taking a serpentine form and seemingly flowing through the gardens themselves. Clumps of trees were planted in the mid distance to give added interest to the wide panoramas, as may be noted in the images of Blenheim Palace and Bowood House. Did all this reconstruction appear magically by the wave of a wand? Of course it didn’t! As was the case with the erection of the ‘big piles’ where the workforce was never acknowledged in paint, the masters now strove to hide the extent of the manual labour involved in the creation and upkeep of these ‘extensive landscaped playgrounds.’ They choose not to divulge either the monetary or physical cost required to achieve the ultimate rural perfection – an expensive and self-indulgent Arcadia. Brown gave the instructions and orders necessary for the transformation of the estates to unknown men (and sometimes women) whose names remain lost in the mists of time. Yet it was their muscle power that seemingly, with little effort, flattened and destroyed entire villages, diverted rivers, dug lakes, made hills. To ensure nothing would destroy the aesthetics of the vista, cattle were provided with underground passages so they could move unseen from one field to another. Once a design was instigated, Brown’s team of assistants and foremen oversaw the work whilst he moved on to his next commission. Obviously, with the increase in demand for rural excellence, gardening was becoming a lucrative business!

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Stowe Lake and Gardens

Brown’s successor, considered to be Humphry Repton, who is credited with coining the phrase ‘landscape gardener’ was even more akin to the ambitious modern businessman. Not only did he advertise his work through the use of Trade Cards but produced the ‘Red Books’ (due to the colouring of their binding) which contained an explanatory text and watercolors to help prospective clients visualize his designs.

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The Glass House in New Canaan

Today, the work of these two gardeners is still recognized, and when this author visited The Glass House in New Canaan, designed by the architect Philip Johnson, the arrangement of the landscape incorporated in the gardens bore a startling resemblance to the work at Stowe. Proving surely genuine creativity, in whatsoever form, will always be appreciated and endure over many periods of time.

 

 Feature Blog Post Photo from StockSnap

Yale Center for British Art

There is a very interesting exhibition currently showing at the Yale Center for British Art called Moving Earth: “Capability” Brown, Murphy Repton, and the Creation of the English Landscape.

The exhibition runs from March 7, 2016 – June 3, 2016. For further information click on the following link Moving Earth: “Capability” Brown

The Yale Center for British Art is located in New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

Their website is Yale Center for British Art

Picture from Yale Center for British Art.