What Now for Russborough House

What Now for Russborough House

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From the IAR Archive:

In 1976, Sir Alfred Beit established the Alfred Beit Foundation as a charitable and educational Trust to secure the future of Russborough House near Blessington, County Wicklow. Following the recent demise of his widow, Lady Clementine Beit, the future of that foundation and of the house itself is now under discussion. Here we republish Sir Alfred’s own very comprehensive description of the House itself and one suggestion for its future development by Desmond FitzGerald, President of the Irish Georgian Society

The seventeenth century in Ireland was a period of unrest and rebellion. A fortified house was a safer place of abode than an elegant mansion. Consequently, the beautiful Elizabethan and Jacobean houses which grace the English, and to a lesser extent the Scottish, countryside are almost non-existent in Ireland.

But after the Battle of the Boyne (1690) there came a period of tranquillity and prosperity – the latter at least for the landed classes – which lasted nearly ninety years and gave birth to a frenzy of building in town and country alike. The new landlords, and some of the old ones, more particularly in the Pale, vied with one another in the construction of more beautiful and more elaborate houses. For the arts of architecture and decoration the period was a happy one, and architects and craftsmen of all kinds were brought from abroad, especially from the continent of Europe.

Eighteenth-century architecture in Ireland and England went through two periods. The first, up to 1760 or a little later (depending on the country), was the period of the Baroque and the Rococo. Russborough, Castletown and Carton, to mention but a few, are outstanding examples of these styles. Later in the century the delicate, somewhat repetitive work of the Adam Brothers brought about a change to light, bas-relief mouldings, mechanically reproduced and no longer requiring the freehand skill of the plasterers of the earlier period. Outstanding examples of their style are the Italian Embassy at Lucan and the Kildare Street and University Club in St Stephen’s Green, which was originally Lord Milltown’s town house.

Joseph Leeson, son of a prosperous Dublin brewer, inherited his father’s considerable fortune about 1740, and decided to build a great house as befitted a rich man and a Member of Parliament in those days. He was MP for Rathcormack (in the old, partially independent Irish Parliament) from 1743 to 1756, which just about covers the period when Russborough was being built. In the latter year he was created Lord Russborough, became a Viscount in 1760, and in 1763 became Earl of Milltown and a member of the Privy Council.

Lord Milltown was three times married, his last wife dying in 1842 at the age of one hundred. His son, the second Earl, who died in 1801, lived through the Rebellion of 1798, when Russborough was first occupied by rebels and later by the English troops for more than four years. Only the latter did any serious damage, pulling down roofs for firewood and leaving offices and out-buildings in ruins.

the Dalys did everything in their power, and with considerable success, to restore Russborough’s former glories and they were fortunate, during their tenure, in being allowed by the National Gallery of Ireland to retain some of the works of art forming the Milltown gift to the nation.

The second Earl was a bachelor and was succeeded by his brother who petitioned the government for redress. Not only was all compensation refused but back taxes demanded for the years when the house was requisitioned.

The Milltown succession lasted until 1890, when the sixth Earl died. His bachelor brother, the seventh Earl, died in Torquay the following year, but this brother neither inherited nor lived at Russborough. At the sixth Earl’s death it went to his widow Geraldine who survived until 1914. By the sixth Earl’s will the house then went to his nephew, Sir Edmund Turton, baronet, of Yorkshire. Because of the First World War and the Irish troubles which followed, the Turtons made little use of it, so it was something of a miracle that Russborough suffered no damage during those perilous times. The Turtons‚’ son was killed in that war and Sir Edmund died in 1928. His widow, by now an old lady, sold the property to Captain Denis Daly in 1931.

After the period of neglect referred to above, the Dalys did everything in their power, and with considerable success, to restore Russborough’s former glories and they were fortunate, during their tenure, in being allowed by the National Gallery of Ireland to retain some of the works of art forming the Milltown gift to the nation. In 1952 Captain Daly sold Russborough to this writer who transferred the estate in 1976 to the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable and educational Trust which he established with the object of keeping the house and art collection intact, making it a centre for the arts and open to the public. Captain Daly died in 1953.

The building of Russborough began about 1741: the architect was the German, Richard Cassells, who later anglicised his name to Castle. He died in 1751 at Carton, which is also by him, while writing a letter to a carpenter employed at Leinster House (now the Dail), another of his works. Russborough was completed by Cassells’s colleague, Francis Bindon, a gentleman amateur, son of a Member of Parliament, and himself a Member later on.

Cassells, whom we may now call Castle, was born in Hesse-Kassel, of a Huguenot family, in the last years of the 17th century. He became a military engineer travelling widely in western Europe and by 1725 was in England. He seems to have become acquainted with Lord Burlington and his circle, which included the great architect William Kent. From these men Castle acquired the Palladian style which he introduced into Ireland after his arrival in 1729. He became associated with Sir Edward Pearce, the great architect of the Irish Houses of Parliament (now the Bank of Ireland, College Green) and when Pearce died at the early age of thirty-four in 1733, Castle virtually took over his practice.

Lord Milltown bought extensive lands, Russellstown and Russells-borough (hence the name Russborough by contraction), from one John Graydon, and by 1741, when he started to build, it was natural that he should choose Richard Castle, for by then not only was the Parliament House completed, but Castle had built Hazlewood, Co Sligo; Summerhill, Co Meath; Powerscourt, Co Wicklow; and Newbridge, Co Dublin, not to mention a number of town houses.

The great Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio, firmly wedded to the principles of the classical past, exercised enormous influence on the British architects of the first half of the Eighteenth century and their followers. These remained faithful to his plan, which for a private house was nearly always a central block with colonnades and wings, and to his internal proportions. But there the resemblance stops. It must be remembered that Palladio was working in the middle of the 16th century and it took well over 150 years for his ideas to be adopted in northern Europe. Palladio’s interiors are decorated, for the most part, with large frescoes by the Venetian masters of the day, the greatest being Veronese, and with thick Renaissance plasterwork. The rooms in that bright climate tend to be rather dark and heavy Renaissance furniture, in dark wood, generally goes with these interiors.

How different are the interiors of the Neo-Palladians! After Palladio’s time the Baroque and Rococo dominated the architectural scene, and the Renaissance was discarded. In place of the heavy frescoes, and thick, one might say lumpy, plasterwork and dark furniture, there emerged a joyful elegance and lightness. Not that this did not sometimes get out of control. A good example of that is the staircase at Russborough with its intense, thick and crowded stucco decoration. Mr Sibthorpe, the decorator, told the late Dr CP Curran, the great expert on Irish plasterwork, that this stucco represented the ravings of a lunatic, and an Irishman at that!

The approach to Russborough is as romantic as it is beautiful. Normally such an approach is based on the axis of the front door; were that the case here the whole façade with the walled side yards of 700 feet would be exposed to view from the first. But this does not happen. A short, tree-lined avenue brings the unsuspecting visitor to what appears to be a manor-house, although roofs and urns can be seen beyond. Proceeding further, the sweep of the great forecourt is suddenly reached and with it the whole splendid plan is revealed, facing an equally splendid panorama of water and mountains.
The selection of the site was masterly. Slightly raised on an embankment, Russborough has behind it a series of man-made terraces, incorporating a large pond which, it has been said, probably inaccurately, cost £30,000 to construct in the 1740s, with labour at one penny per hour. The pond has a small island in the middle, perhaps for an obelisk, the only difficulty being that this island is not axial with the central rear window of the main block. As well as the obelisk, the terraces may well have been designed to accommodate temples, follies and other classical features so beloved of the Palladians.

The house is built of granite from the near-by Golden Hill Quarry, the high mica content of which gives a sparkle of life, especially after rain, when much granite looks sodden and depressing. Additional life has been given to the exterior by the refitting of proper Georgian windows with sash-bars in place of the dull and heavy looking solid plate-glass windows, beloved of the Victorians. Only in the nineteenth century was the science of glass-making sufficiently advanced for the manufacture of large sheets in place of the smaller panes of an earlier period and as the sash-bars or astragals block out ten per cent of the light: the Victorians thought they had made a great improvement. They may have benefited by that extra ten per cent in a dark climate but they seriously damaged the appearance of innumerable facades, especially in Ireland.

The ultimate ideal of the classical architects of the period was to achieve the cube – that is, a room the width, length and height of which is the same. Such an ideal is rarely achieved; Wilton House in England, by Inigo Jones, being one of the few successful examples, going so far, indeed, as to contain the famous double cube saloon. All the ground floor rooms at Russborough are twenty feet in height, although one is only conscious of such considerable height in the entrance hall, which is a rectangle. The other rooms have coved ceilings (or in the case of the Tapestry Room a barrel-vaulted ceiling) which bring the cornice and frieze down by about three feet and soften to some extent the austerity caused by such great height.

Not that austerity is a word which should be applied to any part of Russborough. It is all sweetness and light, even on a gloomy day. It has much of the finest plasterwork in the whole of Ireland, which more than ever causes one bitterly to regret the destruction of the Four Courts during the Civil War, where endless owners of important properties had deposited their archives for ill-rewarded safety. As a result there can be no other country so pitifully lacking in the plans, accounts and other documentation of its great houses, and the names of their architects and artisans.

We can, however, say with a fair degree of certainty that the Francini brothers from Italy, Paul and Philip, were responsible for the stucco ceilings in the Saloon (Fig 4), Library and Music room, three contiguous rooms on the north side. The Saloon ceiling best reflects the Rococo spirit, with its garlands of flowers, swags and amiable, if unclad, putti. The Music room ceiling is simpler with its geometrical coffers but the Library again reflects the ebullience of the period. In contrast with these rooms, it is clear that the stucco of the Tapestry-Room and Drawing-room is by a less experienced and elegant hand, but it difficult to understand why the Entrance Hall, and more especially the Dining-room, should not be attributed to the hand of a master, such as the Francinis (Fig 3).

The Drawing-room is the only room with elaborate stucco on the walls as well as on the ceiling. These plaster ovals were made expressly to receive the four Joseph Vernet marine scenes which hang there now. Lord Milltown sent the archaeologist Robert Wood to Rome in 1749/50 to negotiate with Vernet, who like any good classicist of the time had left his native Avignon to live where all like-minded artists studied and congregated. The pictures could not have been hung until after Castle’s death in 1751 when Francis Bindon was finishing Russborough. Bindon can, therefore, be held responsible for the decoration of this room. These pictures, part of the patrimony of the house, were nevertheless sold by Lady Turton in 1926 and recovered forty-three years later by the writer. They are in their original 18th-century carved giltwood frames.

The riot of plaster on the staircase has already been mentioned. Over the years some of it has broken off but there is still plenty left. Although a curiosity, and most unusual, rather than a thing of beauty, it is probably the best-known and most photographed feature of the house. It seems dedicated to a kind of floral hunt, with masks of hounds carrying garlands of flowers in their mouths, trophies of crossed guns and spears with a book of music open at a tune which the French call ‘Trompes et Fanfares de Vénérie‚’. The tune in question is entitled ‘The Early Horn‚’.

Over the door leading into the Entrance Hall are three panels containing plasterwork. The left-hand one shows the head of a man in a sunflower, or similar, and in the past has been named the ‘Man in the Moon‚’. There can be little doubt, however, that this is a caricature of the first Lord Milltown, as a comparison with Reynolds’s caricatures of Irish gentlemen, entitled The School of Athens, will show. This picture was formerly at Russborough but is now in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Other important features of the house are the mantelpieces, certain floors, particularly that in the Saloon of mahogany with satinwood inlay, and the lavish use of San Domingo mahogany in doors, dados, and staircase. In the Queen Anne period the fashionable wood, especially for furniture, was walnut, but the importation of Caribbean mahogany soon superseded it. The vast amount of worked and moulded mahogany of the finest quality leaves one breathless. The staircase is particularly noteworthy with its handsome mahogany balustrade; the soffit of each step is moulded in the form of a scroll.

The mantel in the Entrance Hall is of black Kilkenny marble (actually polished limestone) but in most of the ground-floor rooms are mantels of mainly Italian marble with panels representing legends such as Leda and the Swan, and Androcles and the Lion, or a scene from Aesop’s Fables, the Dog with the Bone, or most appropriately a head of Bacchus in the Dining-room. These mantelpieces were turned out in great numbers by Thomas Carter of London, who provided copies of one model to different houses. For instance, the mantelpiece representing Androcles and the Lion in the Saloon at Russborough is matched by an identical one at Uppark, Sussex.

Leaving the front façade of the house, a fine flight of steps, with heraldic lions and urns, leads up to the piano nobile, where the sweep of the graceful curved colonnade, crowned on the skyline with Baroque urns, and the well-proportioned, solid flanking wings can be seen. Continuing to the north front, the winds, partly obscured by walls and carried away from the main block by the curved colonnades, have almost faded from sight. We are left with a plain block, resembling many other Irish Georgian houses (except for the continuation of a row of urns at roof-level), whose only ornament is a flight of steps guarded by stone lions leading to the central window of the saloon, enriched with alternated Corinthian columns supporting an entablature. The contrast of these two facades is fascinating.

Again, on the north side and tucked away in a corner to the east, is a riding-school of the period, in rough cast with metal columns joined by fretwork in the interior. In common with virtually all houses of the eighteenth century, no garden is in sight, although there is one some minutes away. The houses of the Victorian and later periods have flowers up to the door and flowerbeds on the lawns. Not so the great classical mansions; fine architecture standing in a green sward was considered enough.

This article first appeared in Russborough, number 16 in The Irish Heritage Series 1978 published by Eason & Son Ltd. Dublin.


Some thoughts on Russborough

by the Knight of Glin

Sergio Beneditti’s catalogue of the exhibition The Milltowns a Family Reunion held at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1997, is an invaluable chronicle of Lady Milltown’s generous gift to the National Gallery of many of the most important contents of Russborough. Recently, Anne Kelly in the Irish Arts Review of autumn 2005 told the turbulent tale of this bequest between 1887 and 1906. What an extraordinary gathering of family portraits, a masterpiece by Reynolds, and some of the Grand Tour Italian paintings bought in Italy by the 1st and 2nd Earls of Milltown. This includes the superb early Batoni portrait of the 2nd Earl in his fur-lined coat. Sculpture, bronzes and furniture are also part of this amazing bequest.

As is well known, Russborough has been the target of a series of disastrous robberies and most of the important paintings bequeathed so generously by Sir Alfred and the late Lady Beit are now safely exhibited in the National Gallery. The Beits bought Russborough in 1951 and what a fortunate day for Ireland this was, as eventually they left their spectacular collection to the National Gallery of Ireland. The Dalys had previously bought the house from the last Earl’s nephew Sir Edmund Turton in 1931. Some remaining furnishings such as the long set of over twenty armchairs remained there to the end of the Dalys‚’ occupancy. A superb scagliola table top by Pietro Belloni of 1750 was found at Russborough by Sir Alfred when he bought the house. It is still there in the hall.

The set of chairs with their claw and ball feet and turned stretchers had upholstered backs in claret-coloured stamped wool velvet which matched the walls of the saloon. The chairs fitted snuggly below the high mahogany dado panelling and they could still be seen insitu when Country Life photographed the house in 1936. Settees and two day beds ensuite survive between the National Gallery and in an Irish collection. Chairs from this very long set turn up from time to time in the sale rooms and with a reduced size humpback sofa have been copied for the Kindel Irish Georgian Society furniture line.

However, the most important original furniture from Russborough are the superb series from rococo mirrors and frames which now grace the old board room of the National Gallery and others hang in the gallery’s house, No. 90 Merrion Square. A pair of oval mirrors are in the drawing room at Áras an Uachtarain. The collection comprises the pair of oval pier glasses in the Áras and a series of rectangular pier glasses, a single one and two over mantle mirrors and two landscape frames. A pair of rectangular pier glasses show the influence of Matthias Locke of 1744 and 1752 by both Locke and Henry Copeland – English designers of the Chippendale period (Fig 6). These dates are exactly the time that Russborough would have been finished for the 1st Earl. The putti heads which appear on the pier glasses and one of the ornamental picture frames harmonise with the coved ceiling by the La Franchini. The grandeur of the Russborough frames with their outspread eagles, their bacchic masks and their Chinese and female heads comprise an astonishing surviving collection. The carving must have been worked in tandem with the stuccadores. This magnificence was in keeping with the splendors of the newly built Palladian house designed by Richard Castle and completed by the artist/architect Francis Bindon, who had important links with Dublin’s finest carver, John Houghton. An attribution for this carved work to Houghton is a very good possibility but the pair of oval mirrors look closer to the work of the Dublin mirror maker John Booker. These craftsmen were all working in Dublin in the 1750s.

A pair of sideboards with elaborately carved aprons decorated with acanthus leaves, flowers and cabochons are a far cry from the sophisticated line of the mirrors. They were made for the dining room and supported the lavish display of plate bought from the London silversmith George Wicks in 1742. These glittering dishes, tureens etc would have harmonised well with the baroque/rococo transitional ceiling with its shelves, urns, acanthus and eagles. The dishes are displayed in the National Gallery’s Milltown rooms.

The Russborough mirrors, furniture and silver are enormously important for understanding the arrangement of mid-18th-century decoration in Ireland. There is a no more complete collection of original furnishings in a major 18th- century house in Ireland. For instance, Castletown only has a few fine remnants of its original contents. Powerscourt was burnt; the Provost’s House has only a few items, Malahide likewise. Only Newbridge remains relatively intact, but it was never quite as grand as Russborough. It would be stimulating to carry out a historical exercise in the form of returning these furnishings to Russborough and placing them in their original setting.

The contents of Russborough, so sadly divorced from their splendid setting cry out to be reunited in Russborough’s interiors and in the absence of so many of the important Beit pictures could not these furnishings and some of the family portraits be hung and displayed there? Some of the mirrors are obviously far too grandiose for the modest salons of No. 90 Merrion Square.

Russborough is one of Ireland’s top three or four houses and it is in the hands of a Trust created by the generous donors now both no longer with us. Surely it is now time to consider the future of this marvelous place? It would be timely to start to take stock of the situation, consider the future for the viewing public and put an imaginative plan forward to revitalise this rather tired old place. Think of Russborough with many of its original furnishings in their proper placings and some of the Leeson art collection hanging in the rooms that were listed by J P Neale in his Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen‚Ķ. of 1826. A close cooperation between the National Gallery and the Russborough Foundation is already in place and what amazing results could be achieved with a little imagination.

The educational aspects of this house would come to the fore and, being not far from Dublin could surely attract the visiting public in larger numbers. Seminars and teaching of the Irish decorative arts in this setting would be so exciting.

The OPW this autumn has put together an imaginative series called Family Connections Heritage Houses and Castles through Historic Irish Family Lives, which breathes life into such houses as Heywood, Rathfarnham Castle, Castletown and Emo to mention a few. We need to invigorate our historic houses and we can see such energy bringing life so recently to Farmleigh with its many events.

At this time of the government’s welcome creation of the Irish Heritage Buildings Trust, and Professor Terence Dooley’s Country House & Estates Course at Maynooth. Both could help to make a major rethink possible about the running and display of our country house heritage and these developments would provide a welcome wake-up call.

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