FitzGerald, Desmond John Villiers (1937–2011), Knight of Glin , scholar, conservationist, and fine arts dealer and collector, was born 13 July 1937 in Cambridge Square, London, the only son and youngest of three children of Desmond Wyndham Otho FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, of Glin Castle, Co. Limerick, and his wife Veronica, daughter of Ernest Villiers, an English MP. He was heir to an informal title obscurely conferred during the late medieval period on a gaelicised line of Norman lords based along the Shannon in Co. Limerick. Surviving centuries of turmoil as well as their own waywardness and financial profligacy, the Knights of Glin eventually conformed to protestantism and merged into the Anglo–Irish colonial elite before becoming marooned in an independent Ireland.
Overshadowed by his parents' troubled marriage, Desmond's solitary childhood was divided between various Irish and English preparatory schools, his family's London townhouse, and Glin Castle, where the estate carpenter enraptured him with tales of his colourful ancestors. He was similarly taken by the castle itself, really a homely Georgian mansion eccentrically gothicised in the 1820s by the addition of pasteboard battlements, arrow slits and castellated gate lodges. Although he had the FitzGerald likeness, he lacked their earthy, sports-mad boisterousness, and took after his volatile and imperious English mother. Her refined visual aesthetic informed his interests, but they always had a fraught relationship.
He became the 29th Knight of Glin (give or take) upon his father's death in 1949, inheriting an unprofitable 500-acre estate. The ramshackle castle's sale seemed inevitable until 1954, when his mother married Ray Milner, a Canadian millionaire willing to spend lavishly on its restoration and on installing modern plumbing and central heating. Then boarding miserably at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Desmond was switched by his supportive and judicious stepfather to a school in Ontario, Canada.
Impressing Canadians with his English public school accent and languid manner, he blossomed socially and academically, graduating in 1959 from the University of British Columbia with a BA in English and history. After teaching English literature in the University of Malaya in Singapore on a one-year international exchange scholarship, he studied art history at Harvard University's Fogg Museum, where he was a teaching fellow and received an MA for his thesis on eighteenth-century French drawings. Undertaking a Ph.D. on Palladian architecture in eighteenth-century Ireland, he returned home in 1963 for research purposes.
As he had started renting out Glin Castle to Americans, he leased a cottage behind Leixlip Castle in Co. Kildare from Desmond Guinness (b. 1931), the founder, patron and president of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), dedicated to the preservation of Georgian architecture. A confidant of Guinness and his inspirational wife Mariga (qv), he became the IGS vice-president and prominent within the circle of fashionable academics, wealthy enthusiasts and waning gentry that flocked to the Guinnesses' conservation-oriented soirées. He never completed his Ph.D., and in 1965 moved to London to work as a curator in the furniture department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he enjoyed great freedom in pursuing his burgeoning scholarly interests.
Realising there was almost no historiography on Irish art, architecture and furniture during the gilded age of the protestant ascendancy, he determined on filling this gap, being especially interested in the whimsical variations on European idioms that proliferated in eighteenth-century Ireland. Undaunted by the destruction and dispersal of the great Irish houses' contents, he scoured the archives and country mansions of Britain and Ireland accumulating a comprehensive photographic archive of Irish furniture and paintings as well as snippets sifted from old diaries, correspondence, inventories, auction catalogues, newspapers and bills. His capacity for placing buildings, landscapes and ornaments in a wider context was further enhanced by his assiduous collection and perusal of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish literature.
A witty and erudite speaker, he regularly gave public lectures, and was involved in pioneering art exhibitions of eighteenth-century Irish landscapes (1963) and portraits (1969). He began sporadically publishing narrowly focused and rigorously factual pieces in specialist journals and also general studies in book form, often aimed at casual readers. He disliked the solitary book-writing process, for which he always recruited an academic collaborator.
Participating enthusiastically in London's decadent nightlife, he consorted with musicians and debauched millionaires, dated society beauties, and lured celebrity friends such as Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull to Glin Castle for weekend parties. His constant carousing and mix of conviviality and hauteur led many to dismiss him as a privileged dilettante. In fact, he was shy, and channelled insecurities regarding his scholarly credibility, social status and national identity into the fervent exploration and advocacy of high Anglo–Irish material culture.
In 1966 he married Louise (Loulou) de la Falaise (1948–2011), a French aristocrat and ballet dancer, who proved too young and wild for him. They separated amicably after eighteen months, and she subsequently achieved fame working as a fashion designer with Yves St Laurent. His happy second marriage in 1970 to the Anglo–Dutch tobacco heiress Olda Willes produced three daughters. Olda steadied him in the mid 1970s when he suffered a nervous breakdown triggered by his differences with the Victoria and Albert's new director and his looming financial responsibility for Glin Castle as his step-father neared death. He regulated his moods by taking lithium while remaining prone to sporadic fits of catatonic depression alternating with manic energy.
Quitting the museum in early 1975, he moved back into Glin Castle, where, having already established a gift shop and café in the gate lodge, he revived the estate's dairy herd in partnership with a local farmer, and kept leasing the main section to American guests in the summer. He also put on functions and guided tours of the castle and the Victorian walled garden, which was replanted by his wife. From 1982, tax incentives prompted him to open the castle to the public for certain parts of the year, allowing visitors to marvel at his impeccable refurbishment of the interior into a repository of Irish art and furniture. An avid collector from adolescence, he bought more for historical interest than for artistic merit, and benefited from the cheap availability of Irish antiques.
His finances were also sustained by his appointment in late 1975 as Irish agent for Christie's, the London fine-arts auction house. Recruited mainly for his social connections, he deployed his charm and expertise to land a series of record-breaking house auctions over the next decade, as wealth taxes and a prolonged recession forced the owners of Ireland's stately mansions to sell their art and antiques. Although being a dealer-appraiser complemented his scholarship by helping him to rediscover prestigious works and spot forgeries, the fact that almost all the pieces he sold went abroad conflicted embarrassingly with his prominence as a conservationist, especially amid the ongoing mass exportation of art from Ireland.
Remaining active in the IGS, he accompanied Desmond Guinness to America each year on lecturing and fund-raising tours, and sat on the boards of various conservation foundations and trusts. In 1988–9 he made an impression by organising photographic exhibitions in Dublin, London and New York depicting Ireland's many ruined or destroyed country mansions. Yet his characteristically blunt denunciations of the government for neglecting Ireland's Georgian heritage served neither his cause nor his reputation well, given his countervailing exertions on behalf of Christie's. He shuttled restlessly between Glin and his Dublin townhouse, and sedulously attended and networked at upscale social events. Often mercurial and stand-offish in company, he engaged affably with anyone sharing his obsessions and was generous with his knowledge.
Along with TCD art historian Anne Crookshank (qv), he produced The painters of Ireland, c.1660–1920 (1978), which became the standard reference work. His tempestuous yet affectionate partnership with Crookshank dated to the mid 1960s and yielded a wealth of biographical information on eighteenth-century painters. Their combined knowledge of particular artists' mannerisms helped in attributing unsigned works, albeit sometimes rather speculatively. FitzGerald was conscious of the book's flaws, but foresaw that it would stimulate research, which he and Crookshank took into account by revising to great acclaim as Ireland's painters, 1600–1940 (2002).
A lifetime's work on his main area of expertise culminated in 2007 when he co-wrote Irish furniture, a ground-breaking survey of antique Irish woodwork and furniture that was a little too free in attributing Irish provenance. Certain academics disdained FitzGerald's published output for his biography-driven narratives, interpretative restraint and glorification of a rather pedestrian eighteenth-century Irish art culture. He implied that his critics lacked the requisite connoisseurship and that they preferred airy theorising to placing uncharted subjects on a firm factual basis. Awarded an honorary doctorate by TCD (2002), he was appointed to the board of the NGI (2004), and became a member of the RIA (2008). He donated his painting archive to TCD and his furniture archive to NUI Maynooth.
On becoming IGS president in 1991, he tactfully liberated the society from Guinness's overweening influence by moving the headquarters from Leixlip to Dublin and professionalising its administration. He also ended the resource-consuming policy of buying properties for restoration in favour of spreading around supplementary restoration grants, providing scholarships for architecture students, and publishing a learned decorative arts journal. As urban renewal proceeded across Ireland, he re-oriented the IGS towards towns and cities, hiring a planning officer to monitor and, if need be, thwart property developments.
An unprecedented Irish building boom overwhelmed the IGS from the mid 1990s, and to FitzGerald's distress many historic houses and parklands were insensitively developed into hotels and golf courses. Economic prosperity reversed the art outflow and his sales commissions from Christie's dried up, though he got work advising newly minted plutocrats on stocking their renovated Georgian mansions with repatriated art and antiques. He continued as a consultant with Christie's even after formally retiring in 2003.
In the late 1990s he used money provided by his mother and mother-in-law to overhaul Glin Castle and finish the top floor, which had lacked a ceiling for some 200 years. Appearing as if unaltered for centuries, the castle was then operated as an exclusive hotel by hired management until a world economic crisis in 2008 forced its closure. He raised over €2 million in 2009 by auctioning 161 items from his collection. This larger-than-expected haul vindicated his discernment and guaranteed the castle's immediate future.
With none of his daughters capable of taking on Glin, he had hoped to vest it upon the Irish Heritage Trust (IHT), which was established in 2006 after years of lobbying on his part for a national trust along British lines. But this prospect vanished when the near-bankrupt state withdrew its IHT funding in 2009. He was still IGS president and active on various restoration schemes when he died from cancer in a Limerick hospice on 14 September 2011. He was buried in Glin. The lack of a son meant the title Knight of Glin was generally considered extinct on his death. His daughter Catherine married (2010) the British actor Dominic West.