Of Russborough and Its Predicament


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.


22 comments on “Of Russborough and Its Predicament

  1. Brian Harris says:

    Brilliant, Robert.
    Does Minister Humphreys receive your emails?

  2. Patrick O Reilly says:

    sorely lacks an equivalent high-profile champion of our country’s cultural heritage

    ” if this fall into thy hand………”

    No so Robert , who else but you has the passion , profile , expertise, gravitas ,social and political infrastructure necessary to be this champion . While most jackasses love to hover around the candle flame I imagine nobody with intelligence wants to be this champion but sometimes it’s just “thrust upon them”. Otherwise people will continue to run around as headless chickens on reading a half baked letter to the Times, Your faithful and obedient servant , P


  3. Lucinda Hall says:

    Very good piece. The government is a disgrace.

  4. eliza chisholm says:

    Robert, brilliant well argued, informative and balanced account. Will spread the word where I can.

  5. mark donnelly says:

    Good article Robert. Alas I fear a slippery slope. The cost of maintaining such a grand house is never going to be easy. No chance of the National Gallery using it as an extension to their collection and getting some government funding?

  6. Aoife Mac Eoin says:

    Interesting comment in light of the piece in Phoenix last week. Are the Rubens on display in Russborough right now? Would it not generate the kind of public interest necessary to draw in philanthropic support by publicly acknowledging that there is now a count-down to seeing them in Ireland before they slip away forever?

  7. oglach says:

    I have to agree with Mr.O’Reilly’s comment. I also agree with your comments about recrimination and conflict, to an extent, but as you noted, there are parties involved that have the power (albeit it limited) to slow, if not stop, this sort of cultural atrocity. They may need to be publicly and most vocally, shamed into action. If they have any sense of shame, that is.

  8. Rose Anne says:

    It is great to get a more transparent picture of the motivation behind the sales. It doesn’t seem clear where to go from here, beyond continuing to raise awareness and campaign in a general way that all Irish heritage (ie including the 18th century) is valued at the highest representative level.

  9. james fennell says:

    Very well explained Robert !

    On route to Prague – hope to catch up soon,



  10. James Canning says:

    Great piece. I too have worried about Russborough for many years.

  11. David Byrne says:

    While I agree that there is a funding crisis at Russborough, and you are to be commended as the only trustee who has given any extended explanation as to the rationale behind the sale, I must take issue with some of your comments.

    Firstly, I abhor the secrecy around around the way that the Alfred Beit Foundation has conducted itself. Why was the public informed, through a media statement, about the flogging of these art works AFTER exports licences had been granted and the paintings squirrelled out of the country for a promotional tour before being offer for sale in London in July? Surely the only reason can be that the ABF did not want a public debate about the the deaccessioning of the paintings from the collection or about the funding problems at Russborough? I think it is disingenuous of you to bemoan the lack of public outcry when the board, of which you were a member until very recently, has done everything in its power to stifle public discussion. In the UK when important works of art are in danger of being sold abroad, there are announcements well in advance of any sale, export licences are delayed, and there is a general appeal within a limited time frame to raise money from private and governmental resources to keep these works on home soil. Why has this not happened in this instance?

    Secondly, your comparison with Castle Howard is invalid. This is a privately owned home. Russborough belongs to the people of Ireland. This is the crucial difference, which the board of the ABF has chosen to ignore.

  12. Jean Beattie says:

    Thank you for that excellent explanation of the situation. I am inclined to agree with Mark Donnelly’s suggestion about using Russborough in part as an extenion of the National Gallery, both it and its contents are after all national treasures. However I doubt that will suffice, we really need to start thinking outside the box and come up with some intelligent and creative ideas that won’t be vetoed simply because they might be ‘new’ or ‘unfamiliar’.
    I am not proposing volunteering as a solution to the problem, except in a very small way, but I am curious to know if we use volunteers in our Heritage properties here? My daughter volunteered for a summer with the National Trust in the north a few years ago at both Florence Court and Castle Coole. Her efforts I believe were of benefit to both herself and the Trust and in the greater scheme of things volunteering could be one small way to educate, increase awareness and foster a sense of pride and ownership in our national treasures and heritage.

  13. Very well put and well explained Robert, setting out much additional and important detail. I was one of the more critical, early and perhaps intemperate commentators on this tragedy (as we all see it) when i learned of it early last week, albeit armed with very incomplete and very imperfect knowledge. Yet It seemed essential then, both to echo and support the IGS statement and to try to start and generate some additional publicity (there was an article in the Sunday Times that, perhaps, flowed indirectly, I was given to understand) and thus perhaps, maybe, to shame the government into action, although I accept that is a distant pipe dream. (Our ingratitude to the Beits is quite extraordinary)
    Your examples from English and Scottish houses and collections are well taken, and the detailed figures on visitor income from National Trust properties in the UK generally very revealing, and quite chastening. I admit I thought perhaps that the Russborough estate, house and collection might be capable of generating more revenue and perhaps become self-financing in time, even if that meant following a more commercial “Powerscourt model”. That seemed a price worth paying, to avoid the entire collection being gradually dissipated, sold off to cover the very high running costs, and ultimately nothing left in the house.
    It seems I was wrong, (about self-financing potential) and I hope I didn’t cause too much offense. I am just deeply distraught these lovely paintings are leaving Ireland. I would have been almost equally upset about the Italian bronzes too, but this is just something that has left me feeling very upset.
    Thank you for your piece above, and for setting out the situation so clearly.
    My respects as always

  14. Reblogged this on Arran Q Henderson and commented:
    Here is a more detailed, balanced and considered view, from Irish Aesthete and knowledgeable insider Robert O’Byrne, on the forthcoming, heartbreaking sale of the two Rubens works and other paintings from Russborough House. It also functions as a corrective perhaps, to my recent, perhaps intemperate piece “J’accuse..”

    • Ian lumley says:

      The retrospective justification by a former Alfred Beit Foundation trustee in defending the continued asset stripping of the bequest is untenable Any comparison with the privately owned Castle Howard is irrelevant. The current propped sale by Christies must be halted and the integrity of the historic Beit collection maintained I shall no longer read or recommend The Irish Arsthete. Ian Lumley

  15. Sue says:

    Excellent, balanced, informative article… One wonders what happens when all the art collections have gone from such places…will anyone want to visit then?? I see the need for alternative means of making money.

  16. John Burns says:

    Hi Robert, can you clarify your own position vis a vis the foundation? I take it you were present when the decision was taken to sell these paintings. Why have you resigned/been withdrawn since?

  17. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and contribute comments on the above.
    One fallacy needs to be corrected. The Beits did not leave Russborough to the Irish nation: if that were the case, the Alfred Beit Foundation would be legally unable to dispose of so much as a teaspoon from the premises. The trustees of the Foundation are charged with responsibility for the preservation of Russborough to the best of their abilities and as they best believe fit. This may not meet with the approval of others but such are the facts.
    Quod scripsi, scripsi. I shall not be commenting further on this issue.

    • Ian Lumley says:

      Do not consider that the dismembering of the Beit painting collection , and the role of the relevant Trustees has been explained at all.

      There is information in circulation the pair of de Lajoue paintings have been already sold privately, though nobody seems to be willing to admit this on the record.

      If such a private sale occured this becomes a wholly different legal issue. Selling paintings on the open market is one (albeit, in this case, unethical) thing, but a private sale where it is impossible to ascertain if market value was achieved would be malpractice.

      Trustees – like executors – will never, but never, sell off things privately as the suspicion is always there that the highest price was not achieved. This is particularly the case in the utterly completely untransparent art market.

      Another fact is that any art market professional would advise is that major pictures would do best at public auction. If these paintings have been sold they would make an absolute fortune. If market value was not achieved for these paintings, , the Russborough story moves beyond a question of mere ethics to become an international scandal.

      Is is noteworthy that the secret sale of these paintings, contradicts several planks of the ABF’s defence about a carefully selected group of paintings that were not on display.
      The de Lajoue pair were until recently very prominently on display in the Saloon at Russborough They were favourite pictures of the Beits and of the public. They are utterly integral to the Beit collection and to the whole story of Russborough. In the recent book on Russborough (p. 276) one of them is shown hanging in the German rococo Library of Sir Alfred Beit’s London home, the very room for which he copied Russborough’s chimney piece and hence forged the first link with Ireland that would have such happy results.

      The pictures have been much admired:

      ‘a kind of eighteenth-century surrealist picture, very attractive’ James Lees Milne
      ‘exceedingly interesting’ F.J.B. Watson

      If the paintings have been sold the question to be asked to the ABF Trustees involved are

      To whom were the pictures sold?
      Why was this party favoured over others?
      How much was raised by the sale of these paintings?
      Were personal friends or contacts of any trustee involved in the sale process?
      Have the pictures left Ireland?

      Was professional advise sought?
      Was market value achieved? Indeed how was market value determined?
      Were any commissions paid by, or to, the ABF or by, or to, any other party?
      Why did the ABF choose to sell these pictures privately and the others by auction?
      Why was this sale not announced with the others

      Ian Lumley

  18. Finola says:

    Shared on Facebook. So informative – thank you.

  19. Stuart Mckeever says:

    Have to agree with Ian Lumley,
    Not quite sure why this thread has had no further posts.
    The intent was clearly to keep both House and contents together.
    I assume it was hoped that the Trustees could accomplish this.
    Lack of sufficient endowment may well be true.
    The Trustees should acknowledge that they have been unable to keep House and contents together.
    Logically they should then offer the entire contents ( together with if legally possible; All the previously sold contents) to the National Gallery; Indefinitely or until such time as financial matters change; (perhaps State funding/ generous benefactor etc.)
    This would allow the House to be viewed/used and maintained in the normal way.
    Needs to be done now!

  20. Aona Cowley says:

    If the ABF trustees cannot manage to keep Russborough and its contents together as envisaged by the Beits then like Mr O Byrne they , all of them should apologise, resign and allow someone/ others to do it.

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