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.
The Venetian Gothic entrance portico at Turlough Park, County Mayo. Ruskinian in its inspiration, the house was built in 1865 for Charles Lionel FitzGerald whose family had been settled on the estate since the mid-17th century. Designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, it replaced an earlier 18th century residence, the remains of which can still be seen in the grounds. Turlough Park is now a branch of the National Museum of Ireland and contains that institution’s folklife collection.
A portrait of art dealer and philanthropist Sir Hugh Lane. The picture was painted in September 1904 by Roman-born Antonio Mancini when Lane was visiting the artist’s native city. Tomorrow marks the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Cork, and Lane was among the 1,198 persons who died on that occasion.
I shall be giving two talks in the coming weeks on Sir Hugh Lane. On Thursday 14th May, I will be speaking at the Library in Douglas, Cork at 7pm (for more information, see http://www.vernonmountpark.ie/latest-news) and on Thursday 21st May I will be speaking at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane at 6.45 (for more information, see http://www.hughlane.ie/lectures/lectures-past/1320-evening-lecture-the-commercial-world-of-sir-hugh-lane-art-dealer-with-robert-obyrne). The Mancini portrait continues to hang in the gallery founded by Sir Hugh Lane and can be seen there in an exhibition marking the centenary of his death.
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.