Tuesday 20 November 2018

Capturing Kinsale: Photographer transforms old townhouse, complemented by stunning imagery

Photographer Giles Norman and his wife Catherine have transformed an old Georgian townhouse into a 21st century guesthouse, complemented by stunning photos and a harbour view

Giles Norman Townhouse, Co Cork
Giles Norman Townhouse, Co Cork
Wild, wild west: Giles Norman photographs the rugged beauty of West Cork

Joe O'Shea

When acclaimed landscape photographer Giles Norman "went digital", shutting down the dark-room above his gallery in an old Georgian terraced house, he found himself looking at a large blank canvas.

The former merchant's house, one of the oldest in the Cork harbour town of Kinsale, had been (at different times) his home, workspace and gallery for more than 30 years. But with the upstairs darkroom gone and their three children ready to fly the nest, Giles and his wife Catherine could think of no obvious use for the two floors of rooms and giant attic space above the landmark gallery.

Already living in the countryside outside Kinsale, they could have just done what so many owners of old, town and city-centre properties in Ireland have decided to do, simply closed the window-shutters and left the high-ceilinged rooms to shabby, stately decay.

Kinsale, like so many other Irish towns, has its fair share of crumbling, often empty old stores and houses, rooms above old shops and pubs that are left to moulder, considered either too expensive or too old-world to be brought back to life and given a new purpose. And in recent years, the harbour town, for so long synonymous with gourmet food and high-living, had been in something of a slump, hit hard by the financial crash and losing some of its lustre as other towns such as Dingle revived and reinvented themselves.

Locals talked of empty shop-fronts, shabby streets and restaurants, hotels and pubs which were stuck in the golden days of the '80s and '90s, when Kinsale had a lot of cachet as a Yachtie and Foodie paradise. Any money that was being spent locally was being lavished on eye-wateringly expensive new-build houses and estates in the hills and wider countryside above the harbour.

However, there is a sense that the old town is now reviving, with an ambitious, new generation of chefs and restaurateurs - most notably John and Julie Finn at Finn's Table and Helen Noonan and Paul McDonald at Bastion - once again making Kinsale a gourmet destination. These restaurants, together with the town's heritage pubs, cafés and characterful newcomers like the Black Pig wine bar, are giving Kinsale a fresh feel.

Giles and Catherine have added their own contribution to Kinsale's revival, investing a huge amount of time, resources and heart into turning their much-loved but time-worn Georgian home into a stylish guesthouse on the old Main Street by the quays.

Opened towards the end of last summer, the traditional Georgian terraced townhouse is now a gallery on the ground floor, with an interior-décor showroom and three guest bedrooms on the two floors above. A roomy studio sits under the eaves of the slate roof in the converted attic.

Giles and Catherine - together with interior designers Ventura Design and Cork-based conservation specialists Jack Coughlan Architects - have brought an old Georgian townhouse into the 21st century, retaining as much of the original character and features as had survived but giving the rooms a warm, contemporary look and feel.

"We did think about giving the rooms a classic Georgian look," says Giles. "But we talked to the architects, gave it a lot of thought ourselves, and we really felt that a more contemporary design, rather than a recreation of what it might have been, was the way to go."

Catherine says that by the time they came to tackling the house it had lived a pretty tough life. "This building had a lot of different uses through the years, a lot of lives. When we came here first we had the gallery, we lived on the middle floor and then we had Giles' darkroom and storage spaces. But when we decided we wanted to renovate the house, to offer accommodation, I think we looked at these really great new restaurants and cafés that had opened around us in older buildings and took a little inspiration. People are coming here looking for something a little bit different with their accommodation now, and a little bit different with their food."

With their three children having reached college-going age, Giles and Catherine felt like opening a new chapter, as hosts as well as gallery owners. And they have been busy almost from the weekend they opened last summer. "We have had a great reaction and I think we are offering something that's a little different in Kinsale. In a lot of ways, we set out to create the kind of place we love to stay in ourselves when we are travelling," says Catherine. "And everything we wanted to achieve upstairs had to reflect what we do downstairs in the gallery and with Giles' photography, we wanted to get that overall feel where there is a lot of thought, a definite look to the rooms and a continuity throughout the house."

The Wedgewood grey colour of the walls throughout the house is no accident. Giles chose it as the perfect colour scheme to complement his black and white photography - a familiar feature on the walls of so many homes throughout Cork and, indeed, the country.

"It wasn't really that complicated for us, apart from the obvious difficulties you can run into when totally renovating a very old building," says Giles of the revamp. "We had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve. We started with the gallery, with my photography. And for the décor and feel, I think we may have been subconsciously storing away ideas from our own travels and experiences for years."

Giles has been deeply involved in the new townhouse. But he is still working and creating full time as a photographer, working in black and white with the landscapes of Cork's Atlantic coast which have fascinated him for three decades and more.

He does still venture further afield, to work in cities in Europe. But Kinsale and West Cork, the rugged coast that has now been successfully branded as the Wild Atlantic Way, remains his inspiration.

Giles has his own idiosyncratic style. He shoots, often, on the hoof, exploring down rutted lanes in deepest West Cork, scrambling across fields and headlands to a spot where a landscape will open up before him.

And though West Cork has changed greatly in recent years, Giles says there are still new vistas for him to explore. "The landscape doesn't change, but the elements within it do. Old stone buildings disappearing or being rebuilt, new bungalows going up. You could say that it is becoming harder and harder to find the classic West Cork landscape, the subject matter that I would have found everywhere when I started. But you can find new places, new landscapes, it just takes time. And this is just something that I have to do. I can't imagine not doing it."

For information on the Giles Norman Gallery and Townhouse, see gilesnorman.com

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