Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle. By Judith Hill

Charleville Demesne and district c,. 1900

‘Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle’ is the title of an online lecture via Zoom provided by Offaly History for Mondy 20 September at 7. 30 p.m. Our speaker is Dr Judith Hill. She has kindly provided this note for Offalyhistoryblog readers on her forthcoming lecture.

When I started researching my PhD on Gothic revival architecture in Ireland after the Union I had no idea that Charleville Castle, one of the first and most impressive of the castles of this period, owed its inspiration to a woman. I wanted to compare the castles at Birr and Charleville, and was very much aware that their (male) owners had voted on different sides for the Union and that they came from different political traditions. Would this play any part in the designs for the castles that they built, or in the case of Sir Laurence Parsons, remodelled in the very first years of the nineteenth century?

Women at that time played no direct role in politics. They are also relatively (though not entirely) invisible in the historical record. It is only when you can look at family papers that you might find some evidence of what a woman might have done. Catherine Maria Bury’s letters have survived; some of these were published in 1937. They tell us about Catherine (later Lady Charleville) as a person, her friends, her interest in literature. They are tell us that she was close Charles William Bury, and that when he (for it was he) went to see how the building of the castle was progressing he would send detailed descriptions to her. Although he does not ask her directly for her advice, it is clear that when they were together they discussed the project.

Catherine Maria Bury and Charles William Bury

But the letters do not reveal that Catherine was involved in the design of the building. In fact, she seems to have deliberately given the impression to her friend, Lady Louisa Conolly, that her husband had designed the castle, for Louisa, who had herself been involved in designing buildings and interiors at Castletown, wrote to Catherine that she thought Catherine’s husband ‘will enjoy [the building of Charleville] much, having planned it all himself.’

Charleville Castle about 1910. It was soon to be vacated for upwards of sixty years.

 We get an idea that this is not the full story from the diary of Judge Robert Day, who visited the castle on 1812, and recorded that he had been told that it was Lady Charleville rather than Lord Charleville who had worked with the architect, Francis Johnston, on the design.

Francis Johnston by Henry Meyer, after Thomas Clement Thompson, stipple engraving, published 1823

Having seen that, it was time to look more closely at the collection of Charleville drawings which had been auctioned in the 1980s. Many of these are in the Irish architectural Archive, and those that were not bought were photographed. Here I found two pages of designs for windows that were signed by Catherine (‘CMC’: Catherine Maria Charleville). There is a sketch of a door annotated in her hand writing. There is a drawing showing a section through the castle depicting the wall decoration and furniture that had been attributed to Catherine. Rolf Loeber had a perspective drawing of the castle which showed the building, not quite as it was built, in a clearing in a wood. The architecture was quite confidently drawn and the trees were excellent. It was labelled ‘Countess Charleville’. I looked again at some of the sketches of early ideas for the castle in the Irish Architectural Archive. In one, the building design was hesitant while the trees were detailed; an architect wouldn’t bother with such good trees for an early design sketch. There was another that had an architect’s stamp; the massing of the building quickly drawn, the surrounding trees extremely shadowy. I could see Catherine and Johnston talking about the design in these drawings. 

A design for two windows for an eating parlour signed by Catherine Maria Bury

In this talk I want to look at what Catherine and Johnston may have talked about and to try to tease out Catherine’s role in the designing and building of Charleville Castle.

Judith Hill

Judith Hill is a Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin (2020–23). An architectural historian and author, she has published extensively on Irish art, architecture and culture. Her publications include: Irish Public Sculpture: A History (Dublin, 1998); Lady Gregory: An Irish Life (Stroud, 2005); ‘Architecture in the aftermath of Union: Building the Viceregal Chapel in Dublin Castle, 1801–1815’, Architectural History, 60 (2017), 183–217. ‘She is currently writing a book on Gothic revival architecture in post-Union Ireland.