By Kate Youde
There is no need to take James Hennessy’s word for it that his Irish home is “an inspiring place to be”; the proof is in museum art collections.
Kilmurry House in County Kilkenny, south-east Ireland, was the birthplace and dwelling of Mildred Anne Butler (1858-1941), an artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy and found great inspiration for her landscape and wildlife paintings in and around her rural home.
The settings she put on canvas, such as the woodland, lake and walled garden, survive within the 90-acre grounds that are included with the Georgian manor, which is on the market for €8.8m.
Hennessy and his wife Christa bought the house in 2010 after deciding “it needed to be saved”. While remedial work had been carried out in the years since Butler lived in the property, it was damp and needed bringing up to modern living standards.
“Like a lot of properties at that time, the money wasn’t around [following the 2008 financial crash] and people weren’t buying them,” says the Irishman, a dealer in Chinese art and antiques. “I felt if something didn’t happen then, chances were that it would fall into further disrepair and eventually something quite special would be lost.
“I’d worked at Christie’s in London previously so I was aware of Mildred Butler and her importance as a watercolourist for Ireland, and that most of her work was based around Kilmurry, so the historical significance of it wasn’t lost on us.”
The family has renovated the house from top to bottom, including removing features not in keeping with a Georgian property, such as radiators. Work done includes rewiring, roof repairs and the installation of underfloor heating. They extended the orangery, which Butler had used as her studio, back to its original footprint.
There was expansion outside too thanks to the later purchase of about 70 acres of land in order to protect the views from the house. The two-acre walled garden was brought back to life with hundreds of tonnes of topsoil and Butler’s paintings provided a guide to what to plant.
Soil that had filled in a rear courtyard was excavated and used to create a seating area. “It’s our little bit of Tuscany when we’re there because it’s a real sun trap,” says Hennessy.
New additions included a swimming pool, housed in a converted stable block, and a children’s activity area in the woods with climbing ropes, a zip line and rope bridges.
Hennessy and his wife have acquired about 25 of Butler’s watercolours that relate to the house and its surroundings and hung them in a reception room. “Basically, it’s Mildred’s gallery,” says Hennessy. Should the new owners not want to buy them in addition to the house, he hopes the paintings might find a home in nearby Kilkenny at the city's Butler Gallery, which is not named after Mildred but does feature her work. The Tate and National Gallery of Ireland also own Butler paintings.
Hennessy says they are selling because, as their three teenage children grow up and the family splits its time between Dublin, London, the US and Asia, they are not using the house as much as they feel they should. “It’s a wonderful family house and it should be used more in that way,” says Hennessy. “It’s a house that lends itself to great parties.”
In addition to the orangery, entertaining spaces include a ballroom with bookend marble fireplaces and a dining room with an elaborate oak chimney piece carved by Butler’s sister. Overnight guests have plenty of options: the main house has eight bedrooms, a cottage connected to the house provides a further three, and there is a separate two-bedroom gate lodge.
“We feel like we’ve taken this to a point where we’ve done all we set out to do … and we’ve enjoyed being the custodians of the house,” says Hennessy. “Hopefully, somebody else will see it in that same light.”
Photography: Christie’s Images Limited 2021; Christie's International Real Estate