An old photograph of the Large Drawing Room at Shelton Abbey, County Wicklow former seat of the Howards, Earls of Wicklow. At mid-height on either side of the double doors to the right can be seen canvases in rococo frames. These were two of a set of four views of Naples painted by Gabriele Ricciardelli who came to Ireland in the 1750s at the request of Ralph Howard. Along with the rest of the contents of the house the pictures were sold during a thirteen-day sale held on the premises in October 1950. I will be discussing the fate of these items, and many others beside, at midday next Friday, September 25th when I speak on A Century of Irish Country House Sales at the 50th Irish Antique Dealers’ Fair in the Royal Dublin Society. Admission is free and more information can be found by consulting www.iada.ie
In December 2006 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of more than sixty 15th and 16th century Italian bronzes at Christie’s for some €3.8 million. There was no public outcry.
In November 2013 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of antique Chinese porcelain at Sotheby’s for €1.2 million. There was no public outcry.
Last month the Alfred Beit Foundation announced its intention to sell eight old master paintings at Christie’s next July. An outcry ensued.
In 1952 Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine moved to Ireland following their purchase of Russborough, County Wicklow. Designed by Richard Castle, the 18th century Palladian house was originally built for the Leesons, subsequently Earls of Milltown. In the 20th century it had passed through two other owners before being acquired by the Beits. The couple had no immediate connection with Ireland, although Lady Beit’s maternal grandmother had been raised in this country and being a Mitford, she was first cousin of the Hon Desmond Guinness’s mother. Sir Alfred had inherited a fortune derived from South African mining and an art collection created by his uncle (likewise called Alfred) and father Otto. This collection was displayed in Russborough and, as is well known, was subjected to a series of robberies, the first taking place in 1974. Despite these outrages, the Beits remained loyal to their adopted country and eventually donated seventeen of the best pictures, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema and Ruisdael, to the National Gallery of Ireland: in 1993 their generosity was acknowledged with the conferring of honorary Irish citizenship.
Many years before, in 1976, having no heirs to whom Russborough could be bequeathed the couple established the Alfred Beit Foundation. This is an educational trust with charitable status, its members charged with responsibility for the house and estate so that both are preserved for the benefit of the Irish people. Unfortunately at the time neither the Beits nor their advisors nor the original trustees appear to have realised the necessity of providing the Foundation with an adequate endowment. If an historic house is to have a long-term, sustainable future it must be partnered with an endowment. In Britain for example, the National Trust will not consider taking on a property unless it conforms to what since 1968 has been known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which calculates the endowment lump sum required to sustain the building(s), taking into account expected levels of maintenance and ongoing repairs, likely revenues, wages and many other factors. The NT has long recognised that even houses which attract large numbers of paying visitors still need additional financial resources if they are to survive. The same is true of Russborough where the trustees of the Beit Foundation must now establish a permanent, ring-fenced endowment to guarantee the future of house and estate.
In March of this year the owners of Castle Howard, Yorkshire announced that in July they intend to dispose of some £10 million of artworks in order to pay for the building’s upkeep and to secure the estate’s future. Internationally famous thanks to its appearance in the 1981 television series of Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard sits on almost 10,000 acres and receives some 250,000 paying visitors a year. Yet still the owners are obliged to sell some of its contents in order to stay open.
Compare this scenario with Russborough, which now stands on some 250 acres – not enough to generate any revenue of substance – and last year attracted 24,000 paying visitors for tours of the house. The figure is barely one tenth of that at Castle Howard but has increased from around 11,000 eight years ago. Likewise the number of overall visitors to the estate during the same period has risen from at best 20,000 to over 100,000. Since 2007 a considerable amount of work has taken place both within the house and throughout the grounds with the aim of improving visitor numbers. The more visible evidence of this includes reordering and redecorating of the main rooms, the basement exhibition devoted to the Beits, artisan workshops and outlets in the courtyards, the ongoing restoration of the walled garden thanks to the participation of the RHSI, and the creation of new paths and walkways around the estate. Less visible but more critical work over the same period covers substantial repair of the roof and main drainage system, the replacement of a fifty-year old boiler and of unsafe waste water treatment plants, the creation of a new coach entrance, road and coach park, as well as the current creation of a new (paying) car park. A lot more remains to be done.
The Foundation’s trustees have sought to improve and upgrade Russborough in order to encourage more visitors and thereby generate additional income. This has covered everything from holding concerts and valuation days to converting the west wing into two self-contained apartments which are now let. Nevertheless, the amount of money raised by such endeavours is, and will remain, finite and does not begin to cover the annual operating deficit which in 2013 ran to €564,213 (in 2012 it stood at €425,984: these figures are taken from the filed financial statements and are in the public domain). Repairs and maintenance, security, light and heat, staff salaries, insurance and professional fees are just some of the costs that result in a shortfall but which are essential to keep Russborough open to the public, in a safe environment, and in order to fulfil the objectives of the Foundation. However the losses are clearly unsustainable and if continued they must, sooner rather than later, lead to the closure of Russborough.
Comparisons have been made in some quarters with Powerscourt, County Wicklow but they do not stand up to scrutiny. According to its website Powerscourt attracts 250,000 visitors annually – the same number as Castle Howard. But Powerscourt permitted a sprawling housing estate to be built immediately inside its main gates. It has two golf courses covering large portions of its once-intact demesne. It has given over additional land to a 200-bedroom hotel. Its main house contains a shopping arcade and food outlets. Every property must seek its own best means of staying open and the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have hitherto preferred not to embark on a range of commercial ventures such as those seen at Powerscourt. Yet the need to create an endowment fund remains.
In April 2007 the Marquess of Bute announced his intention to sell Drumfries, Ayrshire and its contents, the majority of these commissioned for the house when it was first built in the 1750s. Understandably the news caused consternation in many quarters but made no difference to the vendor’s decision. The sale almost went ahead – Christie’s had printed the catalogue for the furniture auction – before a consortium headed by the Prince of Wales stepped in and saved everything for the nation.
Ireland sorely lacks an equivalent high-profile champion of our country’s cultural heritage. Such a person is certainly not to be found in government. In recent years relevant ministers and their departmental officials have been apprised of Russborough’s predicament. No offer of help has been forthcoming from that quarter, despite the outstanding generosity of the Beits to the Irish state. The trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have therefore been obliged to consider other options in order to secure necessary funds. One is to continue with sales such as those held in 2006 and 2013. These occasions generate enough money to keep the house open for another couple of years but not enough to create an adequate, long-term endowment. A fund-raising campaign? To realise donations running to many millions of euro, such a scheme would be costly to establish, slow to gain momentum and offer no guarantee of success. Meanwhile the house would still require money for its upkeep or else begin to slide into deterioration. Another possible recourse is to close down operations and in effect moth-ball the property. But ongoing expenses such as maintenance and repairs, heating, security, insurance and so forth will need to be met even without the benefit of paying visitors.
Eventually and after thorough consideration of options, the Alfred Beit Foundation, of which I am a former trustee, unwillingly came to the conclusion that if a permanent endowment fund was to be created, it would be necessary to dispose of certain assets. The likelihood of such a sale was clearly anticipated by the Beits: the Memorandum and Articles of Association establishing their Foundation state that it may ‘sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation.’ Sir Alfred himself, at the time of the Foundation’s establishment, sold not only a large part of the Russborough land but also a Reynolds portrait that had hitherto hung in the staircase hall.
Even so, the trustees reached their decision neither hastily nor easily, not least because they were aware of the burdensome hand of history. Sales of this kind have been too frequent occurrences in Ireland, as was demonstrated by a not dissimilar announcement of their intent just last autumn by the owners of Bantry House, County Cork. Indeed every autumn various house owners from around the country sell some of their possessions at an auction held in Slane Castle, County Meath. Furthermore other sales take place outside the auction room and with no publicity, and the Irish public never knows that another piece of our history has gone. Bit by bit the nation’s cultural patrimony is being lost and always for the same reasons: because current owners find themselves faced with no other choice, and because the Irish state has shown no interest in its preservation. (Incidentally, tomorrow – Tuesday, May 12th – Adam’s will dispose of what has been described as the finest private collection of printed material relating to early modern Ireland: no one seems yet to have objected to this auction going ahead, despite the break-up of the collection and its potential loss to the nation).
It is right and proper that the recent announcement from the Alfred Beit Foundation should have caused dismay and indignation. The pity is that there have not been more protesting voices, coming from as broad a cross-section of the citizenry as possible. But protest here has to be directed towards the right target. Amid those voices expressing concern over the intended sale one has been notably silent: that of the minister with direct responsibility for heritage. Given her brief, surely Minister Humphreys might have made some comment about the Alfred Beit Foundation’s decision? Her department could have insisted on export licences being withheld. It could have proposed initiating talks with interested parties in an effort to finding an alternative solution to the problem. She could have declared her intention to seek funding from the Department of Finance so that the pictures might stay in Ireland. There has been no word from the Minister or her office.
Some thirty years ago the late Knight of Glin, in the aftermath of another country house sale, deplored the fact that in Ireland there were no votes in heritage and therefore politicians paid it at best lip service. This remains the case today. It will continue to be so unless and until those of us who desperately want to preserve the country’s cultural heritage come together and unite in sustained public discourse. We need to broaden our constituency and rally more people to the cause in which we so passionately believe. At the moment we are few in number and we cannot afford to dissipate our insufficient strength in recrimination and conflict. The circumstances which have led to the intended disposal of old masters from Russborough are no different from those which have led – and will lead – to similar occurrences in many other properties across the country. These circumstances must be better understood and explained. We must all do our utmost to persuade as many people as possible that such sales diminish everyone and impoverish the entire nation. Only when we have achieved that goal will there be votes in heritage. Only then will government be obliged to assume the responsibilities it has for so long shirked.
As a regular visitor to Powerscourt, County Wicklow surely Edmund Burke must have been inspired in his emerging concept of the sublime by the landscape in this part of the country. Certainly aspects of the Powerscourt estate would appeal to many artists, not least the waterfall – the tallest in Ireland – which was painted many times. But the setting of the house, designed in the 1730s by Richard Castle, also proved irresistible, not least to George Barret who was encouraged by Burke to look directly at nature for greater authenticity in his art. On the other hand Barret’s view of Powerscourt, dating from 1760-62 cannot be regarded as altogether authentic: he has exaggerated the height and proportions of the Sugarloaf Mountain in order to provide the work with more drama.
Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.
‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’
‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’
‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’
‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’
‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’
The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’
Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1
This small domed stone temple was originally erected around 1740 by Sir Compton Domville on his estate at Templeogue, Dublin. Later moved to Santry Court, it was lying in pieces on the ground when discovered in the late 1940s by architectural historian Maurice Craig. He encouraged Oonagh Guinness to rescue the monument and re-erect it at Luggala, County Wicklow on the shores of Lough Tay. In recent years her son Garech has further restored the temple and replaced its lost ball finial.
*from Baudelaire’s Correspondences.
One of a pair of 18th century rococo gilt pier glasses that hang in the first-floor back drawing room of 5 Clare Street, Dublin, now used for board meetings by the National Gallery of Ireland. The two have belonged to the NGI since the early 1900s after being included in the Milltown Gift, that is the bequest made to the institution by Geraldine, Countess of Milltown following the death of her husband the seventh Earl. Previously the pier glasses had been part of the decoration of the saloon at Russborough, County Wicklow for which it is believed they were commissioned some time around 1750. We do not know who was responsible for carving them, but the craftsmanship is certainly superb. When the Countess of Kildare visited in 1759, she reported to her husband that ‘the house is really fine and the furniture magnificent.’ Since much of that furniture was of similar calibre, her praise was more than justified.