Belvedere, County Westmeath

A desire to escape from the formality of country house life during the eighteenth century led to the emergence of small, comfortable holiday retreats known as villas. Undoubtedly the best example of such a building in Ireland is Belvedere - an exquisite house with an unusual elongated plan set in a fine landscape park overlooking Lough Ennell. Belvedere was built around 1742 to a design by Richard Castle, probably as a fishing pavilion, for Robert Rochfort, Lord Belfield, whose seat at Gaulston lay five nniles away. Like other villas of the period, the building was distinguished from ordinary houses of the same size by the exceptionally high quality of its design and construction, most notably its superb joinery and brilliant plasterwork. But the very strange and terrible events that preceded its construction ensured that Belvedere was never really used as a villa, but rather became a country house in its own right.

Belvedere had hardly been completed in 1743 when a great scandal broke out surrounding its builder Robert Rochfort, and his wife Mary Molesworth. She was only sixteen when she married Robert in 1736, but at the time the match seemed highly suitable; he was intelligent, handsome and one of the country's richest young men, she was the pretty and well-connected daughter of the third Viscount Molesworth. They settled at Gaulston and all seemed well until 1743 when Robert, now Baron Belfield, was informed that his wife had committed adultery with his young brother Arthur, then living near Gaulston at Belfield. Robert, evidently a hot-tempered and self-centred individual, at once removed to his newly completed house at Belvedere, incarcerated his wife at Gaulston and plotted revenge against his brother, who fled to England.

For thirty-one years his wife remained confined at Gaulston with only servants to keep her company. Once in 1756 she managed to escape, but her father refused her entry into his house and within twenty-four hours she was back in Gaulston. Henceforth her movements were further restricted and she was no longer allowed visits by her children. It is said that she used to walk up and down the gallery at Gaulston gazing at the portraits 'as if conversing with them'. Aher her husband's death in 1774 she was released by her son, who was horrified to find that she had acquired a 'wild, scared, unearthly look, whilst the tones of her voice, which hardly exceeded a whisper, were harsh, agitated and uneven'. As for the unfortunate Arthur, he made the mistake of returning to Ireland in 1759 and was sued for adultery by his unrelenting brother, now Earl of Belvedere. Fined £20,000 in damages, he spent the rest of his life in the Marshalsea, the debtor's jail in Dublin.

Lord Belvedere's treatment of his wife makes gripping reading, but it is also an indictment of eighteenth century social attitudes. What is so striking is that his behaviour did his reputation no harm at all. At Belvedere he lived an extravagant lifestyle, entertained a great deal and rose through the social ranks to become Earl of Belvedere in 1756 and Master General of the Irish army in 1764.

Although its rooms are now empty, Belvedere remains much as it was in the Earl's time. A solid grey limestone house of two stories over a basement with a long front and curved end bows, it is probably the earliest bow-ended house in the country. Above the Venetian windows on the front there were formerly Diocletian or semi-circular openings, but unfortunately these were changed to their present shape in the nineteenth century. The Venetian and the bow windows provided light for the drawing-room and dining-room at either end of the house and between them are two small rooms (now united as one), a corridor and a handsome wooden staircase in a projection at the back of the building. Both the end rooms are grand but not large, with unusual chamfered corners and very high-quality joinery - their doors, windows and wainscotting all remain unpainted. The drawing-room chimney-piece is a victorian addition, but other fireplaces and overmantels are original to the house, including a fine example in the east bedroom, probably Lord Belvedere's room.

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