The oval glazed dome that lights a narrow passage directly behind the dining room in Mount Stewart, County Down. This is one of the clever interventions made to the house when it was enlarged for the third Marquess of Londonderry in the second half of the 1820s by William Vitruvius Morrison.
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.
Granted a royal charter in December 1600 to trade as as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, the East India Company was the first such organisation established in Europe. A joint-stock company its task was to develop closer trade links with Asia, which in practice came to mean the Indian subcontinent and Imperial China. Shares in the business were owned by merchants and wealthy landowners, some of whom became even richer as a result of their association with the company. The British government possessed no shares but exercised indirect control thanks to a series of acts passed during the 18th century as the East India Company expanded. Eventually the company came to be responsible for half the world’s trade, with a focus on certain commodities such as cotton, silk, salt and tea. But the need to secure this dominance led the East India Company into warfare both with the indigenous population and with rival businesses from other European states such as France. As a result, it came to maintain a private army and to seek control over parts of the countries in which it operated, most notably India. Only with the 1858 Government of India Act did the British government assume direct control of the subcontinent; the East India Company itself was wound up sixteen years later. Mention has been made of the principal goods in which the company traded, but there were many secondary ones, luxury items like porcelain, spices, lacquerwork and silk for which demand steadily increased. And then there was what came to be called India paper, even though it was made in China.
The taste for Chinese wallpaper developed in the 18th century and led to the emergence of a specific trade in this item. Initially ships returning from Asia brought other luxury goods like screens, porcelain and pictures intended as gifts for royal residences. The exotic appeal of the work led to increasing consumer demand so that items were no longer brought back as gifts but as tradeable commodities. In his invaluable book on Irish wallpaper published last year, David Skinner notes that such goods seldom appear on cargo lists but instead were treated as ‘private trade’ by ships’ captains: paper had the advantage of being easily rolled up and fitted into available space in the hold. Then once in Europe, it could be sold at auction in the East India Company’s London headquarters. Skinner cites a single vessel belonging to the company in 1776 carrying 2,236 pieces of paper, enough to cover the walls of around one hundred rooms. That figure gives an idea of how keen demand had become for this commodity by the third quarter of the 18th century. In turn it led to increased production in China, aimed at the European market but without pictorially concealing its country of origin, unlike Chinese porcelain which often incorporated western decorative motifs. Wall paper, on the other hand, retained its indigenous imagery and featured birds, insects and plants unfamiliar to Europeans. So too were the costumes of human figures, the buildings they occupied and the landscape through which they moved. The paper’s appeal lay precisely in the depiction of difference, combined with evident technical finesse. Hand painted Chinese paper tended to offer varying scenes, almost like a narrative, so that no part of the run around a room’s walls looked the same. This differed from the repeat pattern of its printed western equivalent.
By the 1750s Chinese wall papers were being offered for sale in Dublin. However, when Emily, Countess of Kildare (later first Duchess of Leinster) undertook the decoration of a small drawing room at Carton, County Kildare she sourced her material in London, presumably because it could offer a wider selection. Her husband was often dispatched on such errands when in England, on one occasion writing to her, ‘As to the India paper you want, there are patterns gone to Chester of every kind in London for you to choose out of; so that you will please yourself.’ The problem was that Lady Kildare had trouble finding a sufficient quantity of the same type of paper. Her scheme for the room was elaborate, since the walls were not simply covered with paper; it formed only one part of the decoration. The design of the imported paper, as described by David Skinner, features ‘a landscape with a river winding towards distant mountains, past villas and gardens whose well-to-do inhabitants engage in leisurely rural pastimes, and villages where rustic figures are at work fishing and farming. As always with Chinese papers, the landscape is evocative rather than strictly topographical, yet is still recognisable as that of southern China in the middle of the Qing period.’ All of this is found set within painted paper borders designed to resemble carved jade, and carved and gilded rococo filets. It is a complex, almost overly rich style of decoration that is difficult for our own era to appreciate.
The Chinese Room at Carton is the earliest extant example of this form of decoration in Ireland. Somewhat later is the room shown here, that on the first floor of Westport House, County Mayo, home to successive generations of the Brownes, Earls of Altamont and later Marquesses of Sligo. The core of the house was designed in the early 1730s by Richard Castle but then enlarged in the 1770s and 1780s following designs by Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt. The paper here was most likely installed after completion of the latter’s work on the property. In many ways the paper hung here is similar to that in Carton, again featuring groups of figures depicted moving among villas and gardens in an imaginary landscape. The paper is uninterrupted by other elements but as a result of the low coved ceiling height, it had to be cut down. So there is no sky, which gives the room a slightly claustrophobic character. Although there no information has been found in the Westport papers, David Skinner believes that while the paper is from the late 18th century, it was only put up here in the 19th century, not least because three earlier patterned papers have been found underneath. At the moment, the room is undergoing a gradual programme of restoration by English conservator Mark Sandiford who has undertaken similar commissions in other buildings, including Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. To see it at the moment, when this process remains incomplete, is especially fascinating since the techniques involved in the paper’s creation and hanging are more apparent than would otherwise be the case.
The ceiling rose in the dining room of Turbotstown, County Westmeath. There is some debate over who was responsible for the design of this early 19th century neo-classical house, with Francis Johnston the most likely candidate since in purity of style it bears similarities with Townley Hall, County Louth with which he was involved (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, June 10th 2013). Here, as at Townley, the plasterwork remains wonderfully crisp and sharp.
A shaft of sunlight falls across the floor of the drawing room in Westport House, County Mayo. The parquet was laid by George, third Marquess of Sligo in 1855, one of a number of changes he made to the building during that decade, which also included a new principal staircase of Sicilian marble. Westport House was originally designed by Richard Castle in the 1730s but was thereafter subject to a variety of alterations and additions incorporating work by amongst others Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt.
More about Westport House in the near future.
Peep around the life-size marble sculpture of Venus newly-emerged from her bath and you can see a view of the central hall at Mount Stewart, County Down. This octagonal space was designed in the 1830s by William Vitruvius Morrison for the third Marquess of Londonderry. In the 19th century it was decorated with suits of armour and lit by coloured glass in the dome above the first-floor gallery. Then in the last century the walls were painted a lusty red, the gallery’s balustrade replaced with ironwork and the original pale stone floor covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern. Mount Stewart reopens to the public this week after several years of restoration undertaken by the National Trust which has now returned the central hall’s walls to their intended cooler tones; plans are afoot also to remove the present floor covering and reveal the stone beneath.
When that chronicle of loss, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland was published in 1988, it did not include Glyde Court, County Louth. There must have seemed no need to feature the place; the last member of the original family to own the estate had only died five years earlier and it would have been presumed another would now take over Glyde Court. Such assumptions proved incorrect and today the house is a skeletal ruin set in the remains of planned parkland. By the time the book’s thirtieth anniversary occurs, Glyde Court will most likely have vanished. The lands on which the remains of the house stand were acquired in the middle of the 18th century by John William Foster. He was a younger brother of Anthony Foster, responsible for building the main family residence elsewhere at Collon in the same county (for more on this house, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). At the time Glyde Court was called Rosy Park and after John William’s death it passed to a nephew, John Thomas Foster, son of the Reverend Thomas Foster, Rector of Dunleer and first cousin of the John Foster who served as last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In 1776, John Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Hervey, youngest daughter of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. (The Earl Bishop’s building exploits have been discussed in It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For there is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014).
Although they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood, the marriage of John Thomas Foster and Lady Elizabeth Hervey was not a success and the couple separated after five years. What followed next is well known. Lady Elizabeth moved to England where in 1782 she met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in Bath. Soon she and the Duchess, the famous Lady Georgiana Spencer, had become close friends. Subsequently Lady Elizabeth became a mistress of the Duke with whom she had two children. Although both born elsewhere in Europe the pair were eventually brought to England and raised with the Devonshires’ own offspring. Lady Elizabeth is also believed to have been the mistress of several other notable figures including the Dukes of Dorset and Richmond, Count Axel von Fersen and the first Earl of Dunraven. In 1809, three years after the death of Georgiana, she married the Duke of Devonshire but within two years he too had died. Eventually she moved to Rome and remained there until her own death in 1824. As mentioned, John Thomas Foster and his wife had two sons, the younger of whom, Augustus John, became a diplomat, a career assisted by his mother’s relationship with the Duke of Devonshire. By 1811 he was Minister Plenipoteniary to the United States, although he returned to Britain the following year after the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. He later became Minister Plenipotentiary successfully to Denmark and Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia before retiring in 1840; in 1831 he had been made a baronet. He died in 1848 after cutting his throat during a delirium caused by poor health. Two of Sir Augustus’ sons succeeded him as baronet, the elder Sir Frederick Foster dying unmarried in 1857 was succeeded by the next brother, Sir Cavendish Hervey Foster who spent over forty years as rector of a parish in Essex. The youngest son, Vere Foster, is remembered as a notable philanthropist beginning when he paid a visit to Ireland in 1847 and was shocked to see the effects of the country’s ongoing famine. As a result, he spent the next half century advocating better conditions for the poor including improved educational opportunities. When he died in Belfast in December 1900, he had effectively spent all his personal funds on helping others.
As for Rosy Park, following the death of John Thomas Foster in 1796 and given that his children were based in England, it appears the property was let for a long period to the Upton family. The original house was of typical late Georgian design with an extended two-storey facade. At some unknown date work began on extending and converting the building in the Jacobean style to the designs of an unknown architect. It may be that this development was initiated by Sir Augustus Foster after his retirement but then came to a stop on his death, or perhaps the Uptons undertook the project themselves. At some point during the lifetime of the third baronet (he died in 1890) the transformation of Rosy Park was completed, so most likely the job was undertaken by his son, Major John Frederick Foster since during the 1870s he was High Sheriff and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Louth. As finished, the now-renamed Glyde Court incorporated the old house into a long slim range accessed by a three-arched porch at the north end. Its design gives an indication of what lay ahead thanks to the arched openings and vaguely Perpendicular-style ceiling. On either side rise blank gables, their curled tops underlining the Jacobean inspiration; the breakfront chimney breasts here carry the Foster coat of arms. The west, garden front has a five-bay centre flanked by deep flat-roofed, two-storey and three-bay bows, with another three bays on either side of these. Curling gables once more climbed above the roofline, several incorporating dormer windows while the east end of this block had an Oriel window with Gothic glazing (that elsewhere was of the standard sash window variety). Cement mouldings give surface interest to this facade, all of which looks in old photographs to have been white-washed. Immediately behind and to the south are red-brick ranges containing stables and other services, at least some of these including a handsome pedimented carriage arch, look to have been part of the original 18th century development. The house’s main reception rooms ran north to south, beginning with an entrance hall the same width as the porch. This leads to a passageway with a series of westerly openings into the former drawing and dining rooms (which featured the two large bow windows), library and so forth. From what remains, it appears the interior decoration was a mixture of 18h century classicism and 19th gothicisation: fragments of fallen plasterwork scattered about the place reveal a mixture of designs.
Major John Frederick Foster died just months before his father, so both the baronetcy and the Glyde Court estate passed to the next generation. Sir Augustus Vere Foster was seventeen when he came into his inheritance and four years later he married Charlotte ffolkes whose father, like his grandfather, was an Anglican clergyman based in Norfolk. In 1907, after thirteen years of marriage, the couple agreed to have their portrait painted by William Orpen, the commission coming via Hugh Lane who had met the Fosters a few years earlier when looking for pictures for an exhibition. He underwrote the portrait to the tune of £100 because the Fosters pleaded poverty: when Lane advised her on how best to redecorate Glyde Court, she warned, ‘Honestly, at most I am sure £40 is the outside of what ought to be spent on our drawing room.’ Lane also took a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Thomas Lawrence, as part-payment for the Orpen picture: the Lawrence is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. The execution of Orpen’s painting seems to have been fraught from the start. The artist went to stay at Glyde Court which was being updated at the time and on the first floor candles were the only form of lighting. Sir Vere was impatient and preferred to go out shooting while his highly-strung wife (‘Vere hates the idea of “sitting” and will only do so as a favour to me’) fussed and fluttered. ‘All seems strange here,’ Orpen wrote to his wife, ‘They seem like two children playing at being married.’ Although several years the junior, he also commented ‘I feel years older than Sir Vere or Lady Foster and find myself giving them advice on how to manage their servants, etc. and children.’ By this date they had two daughters who were also to be included in the picture, together with a donkey (Lady Foster had a passion for the animals). Although summer, the weather was cold and wet, and so sometimes the donkey had to be brought into the drawing room for its sittings. The elder girl Philippa, then aged nine, liked to imagine she was really a boy and insisted on being called John and wearing a knickerbocker suit of brown velvet. In fact, Lady Foster was then pregnant with the couple’s much longed-for son, Anthony who was born the following February but as a result of her condition, she regularly disappeared to bed for days, making Orpen’s task even more difficult. When he finally completed the picture, Lady Foster wrote to Lane complaining that she and the other members of the family had been given the same expressions as the donkey: ‘If you knew of all the idiotic comments that tinkle through to us about the group, you would in a way understand my touchiness on the subject.’
In the aftermath of the first World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War, the Fosters remained on at Glyde Court, although Lady Foster’s propensity for remaining in bed grew more and more pronounced and she was inclined to hibernate throughout the winter months. The couple’s son Anthony appears to have been more lively and in 1931 he revived an annual midsummer festival called the ‘Patrun’ or Pattern in the nearby village of Tallanstown. On the first occasion he initiated proceedings by blowing on a trumpet, while a local band played and a symbolic bough was set up in the centre of the village. Singing and dancing followed, together with humorous sketches and ‘recitations’ and, in the evening, the performance of a play, after which Anthony Foster once more blew on his trumpet. The festival continued to be held even though for much of the time thereafter he was in India, a subaltern in the British army. From there he wrote to his sisters in late 1933, asking them to advise his parents that for Christmas, ‘Let them put thirty shillings aside for my return, when we can have a dance to which the band, the Patrum Committee and all my friends are invited and that will pay for their refreshments. That’s what I’d love most in the world.’ It was not to be. The following September after his regiment had moved to Khartoum, he was found dead in what have been described as ‘tragic and mysterious circumstances’, contemporary newspaper announcements declaring they would be releasing details of what had happened. Lady Foster died four years later but her husband lived on until 1947, when he left Glyde to his younger daughter Dorothy. In 1940 she had married Colonel Arthur May and the couple thereafter lived in her family home. The older sister, still calling herself John and distinguished by her cropped hair and mannish dress, lived in the same county with a cousin, Miss Evelyn ffolkes until her death in 1962. Dorothy May survived another twenty-one years but had no children and with her passing, the Foster link with Glyde Court came to a close. Still, that is less than thirty years ago and one might have thought the house would today still stand. Instead, it is about to disappear, absorbed into the landscape. The nation’s already sparse architectural heritage will be further diminished.