Wednesday 17 January 2018

Book review: The Last Knight: A Celebration of Desmond Fitzgerald

Important insight into a defender of our heritage

Knight of Glin Desmond FitzGerald outside Glin Castle and with wife Olda and daughter Nesta
Knight of Glin Desmond FitzGerald outside Glin Castle and with wife Olda and daughter Nesta
Knight of Glin Desmond FitzGerald with his wife Lady Olda
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The Last Knight: A Celebration of Desmond Fitzgerald

Robert O'Byrne

Irish Georgian Society, €25

Desmond FitzGerald liked to introduce himself as a boarding house-keeper; under no illusion about title or inheritance, life was about effort, purpose, inquiry and not a little fun along the way. This attitude made an indelible mark within and beyond these shores.

Despite being a prolific collector and writer on Irish art, architecture, furniture and decorative arts, his collaborator on Painters Of Ireland, Professor Anne Cruickshank, confesses they knew little of the subject before they began research on the seminal book.

In this tribute to the Knight of Glin, Robert O'Byrne provides a rare insight into the early years and his developing taste and interests. O'Byrne demonstrates a clear grasp of the influences which came to bear on his passion for Irish heritage. Entitled The Last Knight, it celebrates a unique man without whom Ireland's art historical publishing would be sadly lacking and many architectural treasures would be a pile of rubble.

A photograph of a young Knight graces the cover, the epitome of golden youth framed in a castellated manor, he cuts a handsome figure and grasps a pike as if symbolising his defence of Irish heritage. A large key dangles from his finger – custodian and host, he kept open house for all who shared his interest and passion.

Tender insights are revealed in letters to his mother, Veronica, written while he was only 12 at Stowe school. They convey the loneliness of a boy away from home, his father dead and his mother in a distant place; he collects rare coins, developing his keen sense of value and rarity. It is not long, however, before Desmond is in Harvard, dating beautiful debutantes, establishing lifelong links with America or back in London leading the 1960s celebutantes. His first marriage to the beautiful and eccentric LouLou de la Falaise was short lived, though they remained friends and her death came but a few months after his.

While at the Victoria and Albert Museum he worked with great names of art and architectural research, Mark Girouard, John Pope-Hennessy, and developed a lasting friendship with the indomitable Maurice Craig. He married the love of his life, Olda Willes, the relationship that endured and supported all else. Photographs throughout the book provide a wonderful narrative, while Olda's beauty shines through the ages.

O'Byrne succinctly contextualises Desmond's role as an architectural conservationist and cites the Land Commission's announcement to demolish Shanbally Castle in 1957, the largest and finest house in Ireland designed by John Nash. Writing in the Cork Examiner, Professor Denis Gwynn condemned the proposal as an "act of vandalism". Soon afterwards the roof was removed and its cut stone broken up for use in road building. In response to this destruction and many more, the Hon Desmond Guinness and his wife Mariga established the Irish Georgian Society, an organisation which would form an integral part of Desmond FitzGerald's life.

A life-long interest was collecting topographical views of what seemed like minor works of art. In fact, many provided evidence of long demolished demesnes, town views and simple cottages, rendered in ink, pencil, watercolour and oils. A group of art and architectural historians was assembled to research the collection back in 2006. I was honoured to be of their number and Painting Ireland: Topographical Views From Glin Castle was published.

Glin was the place that bound all parts of him; it came alive with parties and dinners, with the sounds of their daughters Catherine, Honor, Nesta and grandchildren, it held his vast archive and library for visiting students. It was in that library the Knight helped me with research and when I visited him in hospital a month before he died, he asked how my book was going. I told him I turned it into a novel and asked permission to use his name. He thought for a moment and asked, "Are there heroes in it?" I hadn't thought of it like that, but there surely was, and I replied, "yes, you're one of them", to which he nodded, "then use it". Where there was generosity there was also a temper, where there was verve there was also gloom.

O'Byrne describes candidly how Desmond's energy and passion came with a price; once his depression was diagnosed and medication prescribed. In a typically no-nonsense approach, he spoke out about the condition, decrying the secrecy surrounding mental health issues.

There is so much more fascinating detail about the man and his peers, his collaborators and his legacy. Robert O'Byrne's book is of national and international interest. Through Desmond's life it tells a story of Ireland as it grappled with an identity crisis. Fortunately, there was someone who knew what should be preserved and did something about it.

The Last Knight is available from Irish Georgian Society's bookshop or by contacting the IGS directly, tel: +353-1-6767053 or info@igs.ie.

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