It wasn't all that long ago that linen wasn't linen unless it was of the purest white, embroidered or bordered with intricate openwork, and enormous. Tablecloths were routinely sized to accommodate a dinner party of 16, and three cloths might be layered on the table at once, with a sensuous topper of patterned organza to offset towering candelabra, ornately engraved flatware, and hand-painted porcelain.
Maria Alice Plunkett, the 20th Lady Dunsany, revels in that era, and her 14-month-old Dunsany Home Collection is helping to perpetuate it. "The civilized table is making a comeback. You must invite people to your home and show them beauty," says the diminutive Maria Alice, as she leads us through the collection boutique, brushing her fingers against favored pieces as we go. "Just look at this," she says, holding up an off-white linen tablecloth embroidered in a simple, meticulously executed cross-stitch. "It's from Madeira, from the 1960s. They have a wonderful tradition for handwork there."
Wandering through the boutique—in Dunsany Castle, the Plunkett family's ancestral home, 20 miles north of Dublin—we're surrounded by yard upon yard of delicately embroidered white-on-white bed and table linens peeking from cupboards painted an equally dazzling white; sheerest organza and crisp batiste draped on a lacquered Japanese screen; and a mocha-colored openwork linen bedspread on a very inviting Victorian brass bed. And although the exquisite vintage and new European linens are Maria Alice's specialty, she has also introduced all the accouterments of the finely laid table. In another room of the boutique, a former kitchen (now with walls rubbed a warm Tuscan rose and sporting the trophies of big and small game bagged by her husband's grandfather, the 18th Lord Dunsany), a formal table is set for 12, complete with handblown Italian glass chandeliers, antique Limoges porcelain, silver chargers, a French organza tablecloth, Irish linen napkins, and the Plunketts' 18th-century English silver flatware. Other than the family heirlooms, of course, one is welcome to make this table setting one's own.
The Dunsany Home Collection springs from Maria Alice's lifelong passion for fine linens, an enthusiasm cultivated in her native Brazil and pursued by her for more than 30 years to form her current, impressive collection, which may be purchased only at the boutique. She was inspired by her mother, "the great refinement in our family," says Maria Alice, who in addition to being a connoisseur of linen is a practicing architect. "She loved beautiful fabrics and embroidery and had a superb collection of lace. And she was a compulsive buyer, she went everywhere." Following in her mother's well-traveled footsteps, the current chatelaine of Dunsany Castle regularly visits Italy, France, and Portugal, even Russia, in search of the best old linens and craftspeople to create new pieces. Vintage embroidered florals by Porthault ("the stitching is unbelievable"), damasks from the former Czechoslovakia ("the most magnificent in the world"), and giant Irish linen tablecloths found in the United States are among her most treasured pieces.
"My mother once said, 'You can get the best tablecloths in America because the people were so wealthy. You know, like in The Great Gatsby.' They had so many linens that they rarely used them twice. The cloths, from the thirties and forties, were in perfect condition. Now there are few finds left there."
While she remains on the lookout for vintage pieces, she's also set her sights on creating new ones, crafted in the tradition of the finest old work. In particular, she has developed relationships with Italian manufacturers and cooperatives of Portuguese embroiderers. "In Portugal they're family groups, and they are literally my neighbors," says Maria Alice, who, with her husband, has recently purchased a 19th-century quinta in the southern Portuguese countryside. "I research, I study, and I draw," she says of her design methods. "Then I embroider." Having, as a child, learned the art of embroidery to "improve my coordination," she has again taken up the needle. "At this time in my life I am trying stitches that I'd never done before," she adds, laughing softly. "But unlike during my childhood, when I was a very unruly little girl, I embroider every night, in an utterly disciplined way." In this way she can design samples to show the artisans. "Then I know how to judge what I'm asking these people to do. I produce one, and it goes to Italy, where they do a whole set."
She shows us a set of pale-blue bed linens with an ornate floral-bedecked monogram embroidered in the French style on the pillowcase borders. It is intended as a wedding gift for a friend. "I can do an entire custom trousseau for my clients," she says. "It would take about a year to complete."
Given the reputation of Irish linen, one would assume that it held court in her collection. Not so, says Maria Alice, although she does have a line of colorful modern placemats and napkins produced a stone's throw from Dunsany Castle: "The traditions were disappearing here; many factories closed when the economy was bad." In the family's own collection, of course, are stunning examples of Irish linen, which Maria Alice and her husband, the painter and designer Edward Plunkett, use with their Meissen porcelain, French crystal, and English silver for dinner parties. For these gatherings, which may include Ireland's president, a visiting diplomat, or a group of close friends, the couple is aided by the unerring eye of Kathleen Ryan, the family's house supervisor for 45 years. She's been known to take out a ruler to measure the distance between place settings, "just to make sure it's perfect," she says, as she straightens a fork.
"This family has brought new life to this old house," Kathleen adds. (It's been about seven years since Edward and Maria Alice returned to Ireland with their children, after many years abroad.) Indeed, a long vista of Irish history can be viewed close up at Dunsany Castle, which is undergoing a slight facelift under the present Lord and Lady. The Plunkett family's coat of arms (emblazoned Festina Lente, or Hasten Slowly) and a collection of old-master paintings comfortably coexist with the current Lord Dunsany's abstract "Solid Space" series of paintings. Old bedrooms are being redecorated and awakened after a stately sleep. On the way to view the Home Collection boutique, located on the castle's main floor, Lady Dunsany ushers us into the recently repainted dining room, adorned with the gilt-framed portraits of various Plunkett ancestors and a self-portrait of the handsome, jeans-clad Edward Plunkett. "I'm in a burgundy mood!" declares Maria Alice with a wink and a toss of her bobbed hair as we survey the cranberry-colored walls, once a somber brown. Another flash of color comes from the dining-room table, set for our informal lunch with rattan chargers from Asia supporting bright-blue-and-yellow Vista Alegre porcelain from Portugal, also from the Home Collection. Whatever the exuberant Lady Dunsany calls her mood, it certainly isn't Festina Lente.
Maria Alice's architectural leanings, however, take a traditional tack: "I'm stuck in symmetry," she says. "I call my design style modern classic. My father was influenced by Bauhaus style, simple and dramatic—from him I learned a way of thinking." That love of symmetry carries over to her obsession with the perfect embroidery stitch. "Look at the back of the piece, at the tension of the thread," she says, as we sit in her Louis XVI-style drawing room examining a 1950s Porthault beauvais-stitch organza, an example of near perfection, she reminds us. "There should be no deformity in the stitch whatsoever. In poor-quality work the tendency is for the thread to shrink. Nor should the thread be faded in different ways. It's a bad sign."
Precision is not everything, admits Maria Alice. "From my husband I learned about the power of illusion," she says, referring to Edward's paintings, which explore spatial relationships and perception. He has even designed tableware for his wife's Home Collection: His Inner/Outer porcelain dinnerware, painted gold on one side, platinum on the other, plays with notions of proportion and color in an edgy, modern form.
"We can't just live in the past," Lady Dunsany says on our walk through the ruins of the castle's 15th-century abbey. "We need to create new designs that are of the same quality and extraordinary beauty as those that came before them. In this way we're creating heirlooms."
The Dunsany Home Collection
Dunsany Castle, County Meath, is open every day.