Awaiting Salvation


No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.





Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.





The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…

The Rest is Silence



In October 1958 the Hon. Garech Browne, then aged 19, discussed with his friend Ivor Browne (later a well-known psychiatrist), the problems Irish traditional music faced securing a wider audience than was then the case. At the time both men were students of Dubliner Leo Rowsome who played the uilleann pipes, the bellows-blown bagpipe which evolved from ancient Irish warpipes. Chairman of the Pipers’ Club (from which emerged the traditional music organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann) and the finest performer of his generation, Rowsome could find no record company prepared to issue a long-playing album of his music. It was believed a market did not exist for such material.
Garech had already been thinking about establishing his own music label to record and distribute the music of traditional performers. But in an Ireland anxious to embrace modernisation, musicians like Rowsome were regarded as an anachronism, a roadblock on the way to progress. Following his conversation with Ivor Browne other people were drawn into the project including poet John Montague and genealogist Liam Mac Alasdair. It was discovered that the cost of producing a single LP was in the region of £500, then the average annual salary of a school teacher in Ireland. However the group of friends pluckily pooled their resources and pressed ahead. In the autumn of 1959 they issued an LP containing forty minutes of Leo Rowsome’s playing called Rí na bPíobairí – The King of Pipers.
The company responsible for this and later recordings was given the name Claddagh Records. Today known for the rings symbolising love and friendships but originally a fishing village, Claddagh is a district close to the centre of Galway city where the river Corrib meets Galway Bay. Garech chose the name for his company because ‘it had the symbol and the name, and because we are the Brownes of Galway.’
‘Claddagh Records was launched at Garech’s mews flat in Quinn’s Lane,’ John Montague later recalled, ‘with a firkin of Guinness porter (of course) in the corner, and a party which roared on until dawn, the first of many such sprawling, splendid parties.’ However, since he was still not twenty-one and therefore deemed a minor, it was not legally possible for Garech to become director of a company. Only in 1960 was Claddagh incorporated and Garech could assume the position of company chairman. Thereafter the business, while always remaining small, began to flourish and as the 1960s progressed more and more albums were produced. It is indicative of Garech’s interests that the company’s second recording should have been not of another musician but of a poet. Patrick Kavanagh, like Rowsome the finest exemplar of his craft, was persuaded into a studio where he read almost everything he had written.
The distinctive richness of the Claddagh catalogue is due to its mixture of music and spoken word. Pre-eminent in the former category are early recordings of The Chieftains but a wealth of other names deserves to be noted, among them Tommy Potts, Liam O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, Christy Moore and Ronan Browne. Composer Seán Ó Riada was one of the most influential figures in the revival of interest in Irish traditional music and shortly before his early death in October 1971 Garech, who had become a good friend, persuaded Ó Riada to come to Luggala and record a programme of Irish dance music and song airs on an upright harpsichord made in Dublin in 1764 and still in the house today. The resultant album, Ó Riada’s Farewell, was released posthumously to acclaim. Claddagh also recorded classical music, not least Frederick May’s 1936 String Quartet in C Minor, thirty eight years after its composition, as well as Veronica McSwiney’s interpretation of the nocturnes of John Field (the early 19th century Irish composer credited with creating this piano form) and mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy’s recordings of Brahms and Bach. But the company’s particular strength is its catalogue of traditional Irish music. ‘Our crusade for the preservation of Irish music,’ observes John Montague, ‘could be compared with the influential early recordings of American jazz and blues. The rich, bittersweet voices of Robert Johnson, Big Bill Bronzy, John Lee Hooker and others would have died with them if they had not been recorded, but because they were preserved, they became the foundation on which modern jazz has grown and flourished, as modern Irish music has also, because of those early recordings.’
John Montague’s involvement with Claddagh Records helped to ensure the company’s Spoken Word series features an unprecedented number of outstanding writers, by no means all of them Irish, reading their own work. The list ranges from Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Austin Clarke and Ted Hughes to Robert Graves, Hugh MacDiarmid, Liam O’Flaherty and, of course, John Montague. In 1966 Samuel Beckett oversaw the recording of extracts from his theatre work being read by the actor Jack MacGowran. In the studio, Garech remembers, ‘Jackie sounded so like Sam, I had to look up to see which one of them was speaking.’ The issued album’s musical accompaniment was provided by two of Beckett’s relations and the author striking a gong. One of the other distinctive features of Claddagh Records releases from the start has been the exceptionally high calibre of the sleeve artwork and notes. ‘We always believed that you should get an author who could write to produce the sleeve notes,’ says Garech, ‘and we used artists like Patrick Swift and Louis Le Brocquy and Edward Delaney…We were very fussy about typefaces and overall design. What we tried to do was get the arts to speak together.’
Claddagh’s back catalogue is unrivalled: ‘In troubled times it got us through, and with much style,’ said Ivor Browne’s son Ronan, a noted uilleann piper. ‘Claddagh set the bar very high for everyone who followed.’ Anjelica Huston, who has known the company’s founder all her life agrees. ‘I think Garech in a way was uniquely responsible for world acceptance of Irish music, Irish culture.’





In 1996 Garech undertook a complete refurbishment of Luggala, the fabulous late-18th century house in County Wicklow which his mother had been given by her father almost sixty years earlier and of which he subsequently became the most loyal custodian. As is often the case with enterprises of this sort, much of the work undertaken over the next few years was necessary but invisible. Among the more noticeable structural alterations, however, was the restoration of chimneys and battlements to their original height and scale since parts of both had been altered in the 19th century, as had the windows. The return of the latter to their original Gothic form is the most immediately dramatic modification of the building and the one which demanded the greatest assault on the structure, since sections of the external walls had to be removed. Once that work was completed, the coved ceilings of rooms affected were re-done. The result was even more radical than had been anticipated: the south-facing rooms are now inundated with light as the spectacular landscape beyond almost seems to enter the house.
In addition to the installment of arched windows, a new staircase – in fact an 18th century one salvaged from another house – was installed, as were appropriate chimneypieces in the drawing room and dining room. Internally the house was thoroughly redecorated, albeit in a style that recalled its previous incarnation. For this assignment, Garech called on the services of two friends who knew Luggala well and were sympathetic to its distinctive character: David Mlinaric and Angela Douglas. Their brief was to make the house look much as it had before, ‘the same, only different.’ ‘It was clear that Garech wanted it to feel like the old Luggala,’ David Mlinaric commented. He was by no means a passive client. ‘I was taught to use my eyes by Lucian Freud,’ Garech explains. ‘Lucian took me round the Louvre when I was about fourteen. He didn’t tell me how to use my eyes, but allowed me to use them – and then told me I was right!’ The house’s restoration was very much a collaborative process. ‘What Garech has,’ said film director John Boorman, ‘is exquisite taste in almost everything.’ It is a verdict with which David Mlinaric would concur. Of Luggala’s redecoration he says, ‘Garech really led it because he’s very certain about what he wants and likes. His taste is pretty similar to mine.’
Douglas and Mlinaric looked to source identical successors for much of what had been in the house, such as the Pugin-designed drawing room paper. This was hand printed by London firm Cole & Son using the original blocks made in the 19th century by J C Crace & Son. Other papers for the house were printed by Irish specialist David Skinner. The library curtain fabric was made by Atkinsons in Northern Ireland. They had not produced this beautiful watered poplin for years but agreed to do it for Garech and to match the colour of his grandfather’s robes as a Knight of St Patrick. The red silk velvet for the drawing room curtains came from France, and the silk for the inner curtains was made in England by Humphries Weavers. Every single item in the house is special in some way – nothing was off the peg. Even the carpets were specially dyed. As an instance of the trouble taken over the furnishings, the drawing room settee, originally made for Russborough, is now covered burgundy-coloured velvet. This fabric was gauffraged, or stamped, by a firm in Lyons using surviving 18th century wooden cylinders which broke during the process, meaning this technique can never be repeated.
An entry in the Luggala visitors’ book notes that in August 2000 a ‘christening of the chamber’ took place in the presence of Garech and several old friends like Paddy Moloney and John Hurt. The process of moving back into the house began the following month, but refurbishment work went on for some time longer. ‘Somebody said to me that Luggala could be beautiful also if done very simply,’ David Mlinaric remembered. ‘The answer to which is yes, but not for Garech.’





Is there a better – or more gorgeously – dressed man in Ireland than Garech Browne? It seems unlikely since no one else takes as much care over his appearance or over co-ordinating the colour, texture and fabric of his clothes. For all that, Garech is neither vain nor exhibitionistic. He does not particularly care to have attention drawn to what he is wearing and can seem almost abashed when this occurs. He is far from being a poseur, dislikes the company of those who are merely so and is probably most at ease when least noticed. He can, however, talk eloquently on the history and development of costume and loves to describe each element of his extensive wardrobe.
Garech Browne is a true dandy, not in the rather frivolous sense by which this term is customarily dismissed, but in the more serious fashion that dandyism has always been understood among the French. He would certainly appreciate Balzac’s remark in his Traité de la vie élégante of 1830 that ‘dress consists not so much in the garment as in the way it is worn.’ He would also no doubt agree with Baudelaire’s argument more than 30 years later that dandies ‘all partake of the same character of opposition and revolt…Dandyism is the last splendour of heroism.’ Of all texts published on this subject, the finest is Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Dandyisme of 1845. While admitting that dandyism ‘is almost as difficult a thing to describe as it is to define,’ the author noted one primary characteristic ‘is always to produce the unexpected, that which could not logically be anticipated by those accustomed to the yoke of rules.’ Dandyism, therefore, ‘while still respecting the conventionalities, plays with them.’
This perfectly describes Garech’s own approach to clothing, which is simultaneously individual and yet conformist. Individual in his fondness for mixing unusual tones and materials, he still complies strictly with what could be construed as old-fashioned rules of correct dressing. He insists, for example, on wearing braces – ‘they make your trousers stay up and I find them comfortable, as a matter of fact’ – and also always closes his shirt sleeves with cufflinks. If the colouring of his clothes is original, the cut is not: tradition rules when it comes to tailoring, and he is a stickler for good form in matters of style. But he has no desire to look the same as every other well-dressed man. ‘I don’t want to be a sheep,’ he remarked about his personal mode of dress 20 years ago. ‘Very boring to be a sheep.’ Having found a style he felt suited him, he has remained loyal to it ever since; he has worn the same beard, albeit grown steadily greyer, for more than two decades and his hair is forever worn tied back by a piece of ribbon.
Garech says he has always loved good clothing. He remembers being aged 11 when his first suit – a two-tone corduroy number – was made by a tailor called Scott with premises in Dublin’s Lincoln Place. In adulthood he chose to follow the example of his father and grandfather, and has his coats and suits made by London tailors Lesley Roberts. His shirts are made by Turnbull & Asser, his shoes by Lobb’s. Ties and braces come from a wide variety of sources including Hermes, Charvet and Lanvin. Whenever his clothing is specifically made for him, he provides the raw materials. These come from various sources including silk poplin from Egypt, Thai shot silk and heavy raw silk from India. Then there are the traditional Harris tweeds he has bought from Scotswoman Marian Campbell, as well as Irish tweed from Clifden’s Ronnie Millar and the Foxford Mills, and báinín from Ó Máille’s in Galway. His shoes are made not just from leather but also the skin of sika deer and ostrich and even elephant ears. Buttons, most often of mother-of-pearl, come from The Button Queen in London.
His wardrobe is extensive but consistent; suits tend to be ordered in batches of four or five, and all of them carry the date of manufacture inside a breast pocket. In addition, they are without exception immaculately finished and in many cases interchangeable: a waistcoat from one ensemble, for example, is worn with the jacket and trousers from another. The most striking aspect of Garech’s appearance is his fondness for colour. ‘I love different shades and not having everything strictly the same,’ he remarks by way of explanation for a blue check jacket being thrown over a brilliant yellow waistcoat (‘I like waistcoats and always have’). Taking pleasure in colour is a trait of the dandy. Garech’s approach to dress is epitomized by a complex intermingling of texture and tone. He will wear the finest silk beneath the coarsest tweed, he will allow one pattern to jostle with another for predominance, and is not afraid of striking sartorial notes which on another man might be perceived as discordant. In addition, there is an attention to detail which must usually escape everyone but Browne himself. A late 19th century French dandy, the Prince de Sagan, used to have his black silk top hat lined in green leather, a small luxury likely to be appreciated only by himself. Similarly Garech will use the most brilliantly-hued silks inside his suits where they will be seen by his eyes alone. This is the mark of the true dandy. He explains, ‘You know, in Edo Japan one was not allowed to dress fabulously. Men were completely limited in the colour of their kimonos, so they had brighter shades hidden underneath.
When Balzac wrote, ‘one may become rich, but one is born elegant,’ he might have had Garech in mind. He has enjoyed the income to dress well but this does not explain his interest in clothes. After all, there are plenty of wealthier people who look neither so polished nor as stylish as he. To be original is to invite disapproval. This is why Baudelaire’s vision of the dandy as revolutionary is so perceptive. Dandyism is a form of contained rebellion in which certain rules are broken but others strictly obeyed. It is also often a form of aesthetic self-expression, an opportunity to give public voice to private interests. In Garech Browne’s case there is an obvious correlation between his advocacy of Irish traditional dress and Irish traditional music: he not only wears the clothes and cloths of Connemara but also, more than 30 years ago, founded Claddagh Records which has done so much to revive the fortunes of this country’s original performance arts.


In memory of the Hon. Garech Domnagh Browne (25th June 1939-10th March 2018)
Text extracted from my book Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, with photographs by James Fennell. 

Another Perspective


Inside the walled garden at Powerscourt, County Wicklow: a view of the Bamberg Gate, its upper section of ironwork designed to give the illusion of a lengthy vista beyond. This work of art was originally constructed in Vienna in 1770 and installed in Bamberg Cathedral, Northern Bavaria. Probably in the late 1820s, when all Baroque additions were stripped from the building, the gate was removed and sold: around 1870 Mervyn Wingfield, 7th Viscount Powerscourt bought it from a London dealer and placed it in the present position. On the opposite side of the walled garden is the so-called Chorus Gate, the design supposedly based on a 17th century original (although this has not been found) and likewise purchased in London. Its intricate ironwork features myriad winged seraphim blowing trumpets. Both gates have recently been cleaned and re-gilded.

Another Lost Treasure

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Mention was made here last week to Edward Synge, one-time Bishop of Elphin. His immediate predecessor in that diocese was Robert Howard whose eldest son Ralph in the early 1750s made the customary Grand Tour to Italy. While wintering in Rome in 1750-51 the younger Howard (who in due course became Baron Clonmore and then Viscount Wicklow) had his portrait painted by the city’s most fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni. The picture was brought back to Ireland and hung in the Howard’s seat, Shelton Abbey where its presence is recorded in an inventory of the house’s contents conducted by Bennett’s in July 1914: at that date the work was valued at £210.

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Sadly Ralph Howard’s descendant, the eighth Earl of Wicklow was unable to maintain Shelton Abbey and accordingly in October 1950 a great sale of the house’s contents was held, an event so substantial that it lasted almost a fortnight. Among the lots was number 1740, the Batoni portrait, although by then its sitter seems to have been forgotten, since he is simply listed as a ‘gentleman in crimson with fur-edged coat.’ In addition, the work’s value had significantly decreased since 1914, as it only fetched £90. Today it hangs in the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

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I shall be discussing the Shelton Abbey sale, and several others, next Thursday at 7pm in Lismore Castle, County Waterford during the course of a talk called ‘Art in Historic Irish Houses: Its Collection and Dispersal.’ For further information, see: http://www.lismorecastlearts.ie/events

 

This Little St Cloud

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‘I went on Friday last to receive you remainders of rents in the county of Wicklow and lay at Killruddery two nights…Capt. Ed Brabazon has and will make great improvements there, the park for his colts is long time since finished and he is making also a deer park and decoy. The decoy will be the finest in the kingdom or I believe in the 3 kingdoms. The pond is already made and the reed wall is making, round a out which he will built a wall at so great a distance that the fowl shall not be frightened thereat, the south and north ends of which wall shall without and against the other two…a dry wall. Against the south wall without and against the north wall within he will plant fruit of all sorts and will make a treble ditch without the south wall and quickset the fen to the end that the deer may not get to the fruit and that the park may be completed.’
Letter from Oliver Cheyney, agent to the third Earl of Meath, 1682.

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‘Killruddery…being a large house with four flankers and terraces, and a new summer-house built by the said earl…with pleasure garden, cherry garden, kitchen garden, wilderness, gravel walks, and a bowling green, all walled about and well planted with fruit trees, with several canals or fish-ponds, well stored with carp and trench…’
From a report in The Dublin Intelligence, April 1711.

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‘The demesne of Kilruddery [sic] occupies a narrow valley, which separates the mountain termed the Smaller Sugarloaf from the promontory called Bray Head, and is marked by many circumstances of great natural beauty. The grounds are laid out in a manner peculiarly adapted to the character of the present building, and present nearly a unique instance in this country of the old Dutch style of gardening. From the natural grandeur of the surrounding country, the formality of this mode stands revealed with peculiar distinctness. The enclosing mountains rise boldly and at once, with all their brilliancy of purple and brown colouring, above the long avenues of stately elms, the close cut yew hedges, and regular terraces of this little St Cloud.’
From The Beauties of Ireland by James Norris Brewer, 1825.

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Luggala Redux

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Just over sixty years ago in late January 1956, the occupants of Luggala, County Wicklow woke to find the building on fire, apparently started by faulty electrical wiring. Although three local fire brigades were summoned, deep snow hindered the arrival of their engines which in the course of a descent to the house slithered into a ditch and had to be dug out with shovels. Branches were then laid down to form a carpet over which the wheels could travel but once finally at the house, the firemen discovered no water coming from their hoses: they had forgotten to attach the nozzle to the engine. Even once they got underway, the intense cold hampered proceedings, with ladders becoming treacherous to use as ice formed on the steps. By the time the flames were doused at 10am, the greater part of the building had been gutted.  Fortunately Luggala’s then owner, Oonagh, Lady Oranmore and Browne immediately embarked on a restoration programme and by March of the following year she was back in the house which today remains in the care of her son, the Hon Garech Browne.
I shall be discussing this and other incidents in the wonderful history of Luggala next Wednesday, March 9th during a talk hosted by the Irish Georgian Society at the Somerset Club, 42 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, please see: https://www.igs.ie/events/detail/us-event-the-magical-world-of-luggala-the-story-of-a-guinness-house

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Getting Thoroughly Plastered

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One of the past year’s most fascinating personal discoveries was the dining room at Altidore Castle, County Wicklow. Often described as a Georgian ‘toy fort’ the house was built c.1730 for General Thomas Pearce, uncle of the architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, who may well have been responsible for its design. Much of the interior decoration dates from that period, including the dining room’s panelling. In the last quarter of the 18th century, however, additional ornamentation was added with the introduction of oval and circular plaster medallions featuring female classical deities and graces: this would have been around the period that Altidore was owned by Rev William Blachford, Librarian of Marsh’s Library and father of early Romantic poet Mary Tighe (author of the once-much read Psyche, or the Legend of Love),  and subsequently by her brother. During the same period the interiors of nearby Mount Kennedy – designed by James Wyatt in 1772 but only built under the supervision of Thomas Cooley the following decade – was being decorated by the celebrated stuccadore Michael Stapleton. The medallions are not unlike those seen in Lucan House, County Dublin where Stapleton also worked: might he have had a hand in the plasterwork at Altidore?

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A Landlord Discharging His Duty

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A granite lion head, from the mouth of which water can be discharged into a basin immediately below. This is part of a monument in the centre of Blessington, County Wicklow erected to mark the coming of age in 1865 of Arthur Hill, later fifth Marquis of Downshire, whose family owned a large estate in the immediate area. On another side of the same memorial it is recorded that the water here was ‘supplied at the cost of a kind and generous landlord for the benefit of his attached and loyal tenants.’

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What Became of Them?

IMG_1423An 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

Of Russborough and Its Predicament

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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