May 27, 2019 @ 10:00 am – September 30, 2019 @ 5:00 pm
Emo Court & Parklands
Co. Laois
R32 C44V


This exhibition of original architectural drawings for Emo Court, Co. Laois, by James Gandon and others, curated by architectural historian Dr Judith Hill, marks the 25th anniversary of the donation of the house to the State by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison.

The genesis of Emo Court, Co. Laois, is to be found in the cultivated sensibility of John Dawson, Viscount Carlow, later 1st Earl of Portarlington. An accomplished artist, whose outstanding library was stocked with purchases from his grand tour, Carlow was responsible for bringing James Gandon to Ireland to aggrandize Dublin. He himself employed Gandon from 1780 for Emo, where an early eighteenth-century Palladian mansion (Dawson Court) built by his grandfather, Ephraim Dawson, sat in a formal landscape. Gandon produced a succession of designs for a new mansion, for which work began in 1790. Gandon’s Emo, palatial in scale, had formal grandeur and restrained neoclassical panache, but by the time of Portarlington’s death eight years later, only the shell was completed; the interior was un-plastered and there were no porticos. 

Portarlington’s successors would employ several architects in their attempts to complete the project. Indecision and financial problems resulted in unexecuted schemes and what became a long-drawn-out process of completion. The 2nd Earl commissioned the Dublin-based Williamson brothers to design both interior and exterior schemes, of which only the entrance portico was realised. Other work on the house was curtailed when the 2nd Earl ran out of funds; rooms were left filled with abandoned scaffolding and heaps of mortar and tools. The 3rd Earl, who succeeded in 1845, sold part of the indebted estate through the Encumbered Estates Court in 1852 and used the proceeds to complete the house. He employed William Caldbeck to decorate the rotunda, drawing room and library, and to build a bachelor’s wing above a new kitchen block and erect gate lodges. This work was completed in 1861. 

In the 1970s, after a period from 1930 to 1969, as a Jesuit novitiate, when many interior items were removed (but not lost), Emo was restored by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison to its mid-nineteenth-century state, so that it now reflects the various impulses that went into its creation. Major Cholmeley-Harrison donated the house and demesne to the State in 1994. 

The drawings in this exhibition, acquired by the Archive in 1991, return us to the uncertainties of the past: ideas entertained, altered and rejected; concepts developed and realised.

Support of the exhibition was provided by the OPW which, under the direction of Mary Heffernan, is preparing to open the first floor of the house to visitors for the first time since its acquisition.

This exhibition will run at Emo Court from Monday 27th May until Monday 30th September 2019.