Desmond Guinness, Cofounder of Irish Georgian Society, Dies at 88
Guinness and his wife, Mariga, brought Irish Georgian architecture, furniture, and art onto the international stage in the 1960s
By Mitchell Owens
August 21, 2020
There was an enormous amount of gin consumed the afternoon that I met Desmond Guinness, a cofounder of the Irish Georgian Society, who died on Thursday, age 88. Which explains why my memories, decades ago, are fragmented. The location was his flat on the King’s Road in London, where he lived with his second wife. I recall a steep flight of stairs and the aforementioned alcohol; I was generously overserved. Joined by my great friend Barrie McIntyre, the archivist of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, we talked about many subjects aesthetic—the dangerous beauty Daisy Fellowes, Guinness’s restoration of the Irish country house Castletown, his memories of the 1951 Beistegui Ball, et cetera. I also have a dim memory of Penny Guinness, walking in toward the end of my visit, seeing us both tanked well before the official cocktail hour, and admonishing her husband with, “Oh, Desmond, how could you?!” (I think they were expected somewhere for dinner.) Down the stairs Barrie and I sheepishly crept, me hoping against hope that my farewell descent, though unsteady, possessed some sort of dignity.
Blessed with a crystalline profile and glacier-blue eyes (“I got the pretty one,” his first wife once said, comparing him to his Oxford University classmates), Guinness was born in 1931, the elder son of the Hon. Bryan Guinness, the future second Baron Moyne, a member of the Irish beer and banking dynasty who also happened to be a poet. His mother was a more complicated creature. With a beauty that admirers compared to that of a Greek goddess, the Hon. Diana Mitford, a sister of novelist Nancy Mitford, abandoned Guinness’s father in 1932 for the arms of the married Sir Oswald Mosley, sixth baronet, the charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists. After he was widowed, they were secretly married in 1936 in Berlin, at the home of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, with Adolf Hitler as the guest of honor. (Among Lady Mosley’s jewels was a diamond swastika brooch.) It was a union so politically scandalous that Lady Mosley, declared a “public danger” by MI5, was incarcerated at London’s Holloway Prison for three years with Sir Oswald, followed by house arrest. Small wonder that, for a time, she was called “the most hated woman in Britain.”
Days after graduating Christ Church, Oxford, in 1954, Desmond Guinness married Her Serene Highness Princess Marie-Gabrielle von Urach, a.k.a. Mariga, the dynamic half-Scottish granddaughter of a onetime king of Lithuania and a relative of Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The Guinnesses were a meteoric pair, him with his staggering looks, dashing personality, and deep pockets, and her with her extravagant gestures, high energy, and vintage clothes. Soon after their marriage, they decamped to Ireland, where the plight of 18th-century architecture—largely denigrated, willfully ignored, and being knocked down by developers—led them to establish the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
As the New York Times observed in a 2008 profile, “Given that they did not have to work for a living (Mr. Guinness lived off family money), they were in a rare position, they realized, to do something about it.” The brewery scion cheerfully agreed, adding, “You know, we were free. We didn’t have to go to the office every morning.” That same year, he and his wife bought Leixlip Castle, not terribly far from Dublin, and restored the 12th-century fortress themselves, using brilliant paint colors and employing a shared eccentric eye, so much so that it became one of the most memorable interiors that Horst P. Horst photographed for Vogue. After having two children, the Guinnesses separated in 1969 and divorced in 1981. (Mariga Guinness died eight years later and is buried beneath Conolly’s Folly, an ornamental 18th-century structure that they saved in the 1960s.) His survivors include his wife, the former Penelope Cuthbertson, a Lucian Freud muse, whom he married in 1984; a son and daughter from his first marriage, historian and former Irish Georgian Society president Patrick Guinness and Irish-music patron Marina Guinness; and several grandchildren, among them fashion model Jasmine Guinness. One of his nieces is Daphne Guinness, the fashion icon and singer.
Aided and abetted by likeminded friends such as Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin, the vibrant young Guinnesses put Irish Georgian architecture, furniture, art, and decorative arts onto the international stage in the 1960s, winning the respect of previously sniffy scholars as well as connoisseurs who snapped up fine Irish antiques at then-bargain prices. In a visit that resulted in international headlines, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped by to see their restoration of Castletown House, the country’s biggest Palladian residence, in 1967, shortly after the Guinnesses acquired the abandoned property for $259,000. “The lead was being stripped from the roof,” Desmond Guinness recalled in a 1998 newspaper interview. “People were ripping out the light switches and so on, but luckily the fireplaces weren’t stolen.” In the decades since, swaths of Dublin and other cities have been saved from bulldozers by the Irish Georgian Society, while the organization’s viewpoint has broadened to include the conservation of significant buildings of many periods.
“I regard these houses as works of art,” Guinness told the New York Times in 1985. “But the survival of the Irish country house is a matter of chance and luck, because of the negative attitude on the part of our government toward our architectural heritage. The trouble is, when we wake up to it, in many cases it will be too late. We're a very small organization, compared to the projects we tackle, and we're always trying to think of ways of making money, which we put into buildings.” That included a licensing agreement with American furniture company Kindel, which launched a collection of Irish Georgian reproductions that same year.
A gifted writer with a puckish wit—he was for a time a contributor to AD—Guinness also wrote and co-authored several seminal books, including Portrait of Dublin (1967), Georgian Dublin (1979), and Irish Houses & Castles (1973). As the Irish Independent observed in 1999, “In an age when the quality of much writing appears often to be in inverse proportion to the quality produced, Desmond Guinness reigns supreme.” Irish style was a subject that fascinated him until his final days, whether it was the discovery of an obscure craftsman of long ago or a historic building in need of attention. In an Instagram tribute, AD100 interior designer Steven Gambrel recalled dining at Leixlip Castle with the Guinnesses some years ago, where “we poured endless glasses…and drank well into the night discussing Georgian houses.” It was, he added, “a life highlight.
A 50-Year Battle to Save Old Ireland
largest Palladian house, above, was one of Desmond Guinness’s biggest victories.
By Christopher Hann
Nov. 26, 2008
WHEN Desmond and Mariga Guinness first lived here in the 1950s, they were unlikely champions of Irish architecture. Mrs. Guinness, the daughter of a German prince, had grown up in Europe and Japan, with no real link to Ireland. And although Mr. Guinness had Irish roots going back more than two centuries, he had been raised and educated in England (Oxford, class of ‘54).
But he was a Guinness, descended from the 18th-century brewer who put the family name on the lips of stout drinkers the world over. His father, Bryan Guinness, Lord Moyne, kept a home in Ireland, and by the mid-’50s his mother, Diana, one of the famous Mitford sisters, was living in County Cork with her second husband. And Ireland’s long economic decline had made property far more affordable than in England, making it an attractive alternative for the young couple, who moved across the Irish Sea in 1956.
In the two years they spent searching for a home, driving through the countryside and making regular forays into Dublin from a house they rented in County Kildare, the Guinnesses became familiar with the country’s architecture particularly its 18th-century buildings, from grand country homes to town houses filled with working-class flats and found themselves increasingly bothered by its state of decay. And given that they did not have to work for a living (Mr. Guinness lived off family money), they were in a rare position, they realized, to do something about it.
In February 1958 they announced plans to re-establish the Irish Georgian Society, a group that had created a photographic record of Dublin’s best Georgian buildings earlier in the century; this new version, Mr. Guinness wrote in The Irish Times, would “fight for the protection of what is left of Georgian architecture in Ireland.” The following month they began restoring a building of their own, Leixlip Castle, a dilapidated 12th-century fortress on 182 acres west of Dublin, which would be their home and the group’s headquarters.
Now observing its 50th year with a series of celebrations and a lavishly illustrated book, the revived Irish Georgian Society has been credited with restoring dozens of architectural gems across Ireland, from a former union hall for Dublin tailors to the country’s oldest Palladian house. (The society’s early preservation efforts focused on Georgian Dublin, but in later years it expanded its mission to cover noteworthy buildings from any period.) Perhaps more impressively, the group has helped bring about a national change of heart regarding Irish architecture.
“We weren’t the only people concerned, but we had the time and the youth 50 years ago and not much to do,” said Mr. Guinness, now 77, as he reclined in the circular sitting room at Leixlip, beside one of the castle’s 20 fireplaces. He still lives here, now with his second wife, Penelope, whom he married three years after his divorce from Mariga in 1981. “You know,” he continued, “we were free. We didn’t have to go to the office every morning.”
Free or not, Mr. Guinness and his followers faced a tall order. Saving old buildings was hardly a priority in Ireland in 1958. The year before, more than 50,000 Irish citizens emigrated and 78,000 were unemployed. There were few, amid the grinding poverty, able to maintain a 200-year-old mansion. Many Irish people also reviled the lavish Georgian buildings for their association with the British occupation. “May the crows roost in its rafters,” one farmer is said to have remarked about the large house on his family’s land.
Meanwhile, the Irish government had neither the money nor much inclination to support preservation. Some officials openly assailed the Irish Georgian Society as elitist, a charge that endures to a lesser degree today. In 1966 the Lord Mayor of Dublin dismissed the society’s efforts, saying ordinary citizens had “little sympathy with the sentimental nonsense of persons who had never experienced bad housing conditions.”
Mr. Guinness was equally dismissive in return. “We were confronting a philistine state,” he said, a point that was driven home to him one day in 1957 when he saw workers systematically dismantling a pair of 18th-century houses on Kildare Place in Dublin. The city, which owned the houses, planned to demolish them in favor of new construction.
“People on the roof slinging slates down from perfectly good, beautiful buildings, with red-brick facades and good interiors,” recalled Mr. Guinness, indignation still evident in his voice. “And now they’d be worth millions.”
Mr. and Mrs. Guinness envisioned their group as a guardian of the nation’s architectural heritage, never mind that neither had formal training in architecture, Irish or otherwise. With 16 volunteers Trinity College professors and students, friends who owned country houses and some whom Mr. Guinness called “ordinary civilized people” they set out to spread their preservation ethos.
“They did start a quest, a sort of mission, when Irish 18th-century buildings were completely unfashionable,” said Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin, an early convert to the Guinness cause and, since 1991, president of the Irish Georgian Society.
The Guinnesses led members of the society on regular scouting missions to view buildings at risk. They lobbied local and national authorities, reminding policy makers that Irish craftsmen had constructed these buildings. They held cricket matches and galas and lectures to raise money, and Mr. Guinness, and later Mr. FitzGerald, began traveling to the United States to lecture on Irish architecture and design.
Two projects in particular helped galvanize public support for the society’s work. The first was Mountjoy Square, a cluster of town houses in north-central Dublin that dated to 1791. By the early 1960s, many of them had been abandoned, and a developer was buying them up with plans to replace them with a large office development. In 1964, the Guinnesses intervened, buying a single decrepit property, 50 Mountjoy Square, that stood in the middle of the proposed construction. The standoff got plenty of attention in the Irish press, and two years later a court hearing resulted in the developer’s backing out of the project.
The following year Mr. Guinness wielded his checkbook again, buying what many considered the most important house in Ireland for $259,000. The house, Castletown, in County Kildare, was the country’s largest Palladian house and the only one designed by the Italian architect Alessandro Galilei. It was built starting in the 1720s for William Conolly, the speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and had been in the Conolly family for nearly 250 years.
But by 1967 Castletown had been abandoned for two years. A housing development had recently sprouted next door, and an auction of its possessions, accumulated over two centuries, had left it virtually empty. Preservationists worried that it could succumb to the whims of a short-sighted developer. To buy it, Mr. Guinness borrowed against a trust he would come into in a few years.
Led by the Guinnesses who, for aristocrats, were unabashedly bohemian and did not shy from taking a paintbrush in hand or climbing a ladder to remove moldy wallpaper an army of volunteers descended on Castletown. Donors supplied period furnishings to fill its vast rooms, and that summer, Castletown opened its doors for visitors. Jacqueline Kennedy made a surprise visit and was given a well-publicized tour. Today, Castletown is owned by the Irish government and remains open to the public.
“When you think that that house was nearly lost to dereliction,” Mr. FitzGerald said.
Mr. FitzGerald, now 71, studied art history at Harvard and has written about Irish art, furniture and architecture. He also knows a few things about restoring old houses. Glin Castle, his home in County Limerick, has been in his family for 700 years. He inherited it when he was just 12, after the death of his father in 1949. At that point, according to Mr. FitzGerald, the family had no money and the house was in disrepair. His stepfather, a Canadian businessman, saved it, he said.
Today Mr. FitzGerald and his wife, Olda, live in a wing of Glin Castle, which they operate as a 15-room hotel. (They have a second home in Dublin.) His own experience, he believes, underscores the importance of preservation to Ireland. “I think we need the historic houses if we’re going to set ourselves up in the grand shop of tourism that the rest of Europe takes part in,” he said.
Under his leadership, the Irish Georgian Society operates on an annual budget of less than $1 million, raised from private donors. Based in Dublin, it keeps an office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; 600 of its roughly 3,000 members live in the United States and provide two-thirds of its funding.
The group now publishes an annual scholarly journal, gives scholarships to Irish students of architecture and preservation, conducts trips abroad to historic sites and funds grants for restoration projects, like the recent repair of a conical roof at the 15th-century Barmeath Castle in County Louth.
This year the society organized a series of fund-raising events for its golden anniversary, to pay for restoring the “eating parlor” at Headfort, an 18th-century estate in County Meath, in its original colors what Mr. FitzGerald called “a very intricate and complicated paint job.” The parlor, a high-ceilinged room with ornate plasterwork, is part of a suite of six rooms designed in the neoclassical style by the renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam. They are the only rooms he designed in Ireland that are known to exist.
LEIXLIP CASTLE has its own place in Irish Georgian Society lore. For many years it served as the organization’s de facto clubhouse, the scene of picnics and parties and a magnet for glitterati. (Mr. Guinness remembers Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull visiting in the 1960s and walking off into the grass just as lunch was being served. “I suppose they got bored with our conversation,” he said.)
Over the years, the Guinnesses have outfitted their home with objects largely reaped from native soil. The library’s gilt mirror, which Mr. Guinness bought at the Castletown auction in 1966, was made by John and Francis Booker, premiere mirror makers of mid-18th century Dublin. Mr. Guinness bought the dining room sideboard at a 1973 auction at nearby Malahide Castle. The 1740s Kilkenny marble chimneypiece in the front hall came from Ardgillan Castle in County Dublin. Mr. Guinness acquired it around 1960 by swapping the Victorian fireplace that had been in the front hall.
“I try to collect Irish furniture and pictures,” Mr. Guinness said. “And you used to be able to buy it very cheaply. Now people have discovered it.”
He has only himself to blame. Mr. Guinness, who has written extensively about Irish architecture and design, received an award in 2006 from Queen Sofia of Spain on behalf of Europa Nostra, a pan-European cultural heritage group, which cited his “fifty years of unrelenting voluntary efforts” on behalf of Ireland’s architectural heritage. The following month the Irish government provided about $645,000 in start-up funds for the Irish Heritage Trust, an independent charity designed to take ownership of historic properties.
Kevin Baird, the executive director, said the trust is just the sort of government-sanctioned body for which the Irish Georgian Society had long lobbied. “The Georgians deserve huge praise,” Mr. Baird said. “They were swimming against the tide for so long, and they were instrumental in turning that tide.”
That the tide had truly turned became evident last month, when the society published a book by Robert O’Byrne, an Irish journalist, documenting its history. The foreword, which described the society as “a fine example of the extraordinary lasting effect that a small but committed organisation can have,” was written by Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland.