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a working group dedicated to the display of art in the private interior, c. 1715-1914

Private Collecting and Public Display: The Case of Russborough House

A drawing room at Russborough House.

A recent call for papers from the Centre for the Study of the Art and Antiques Market at the University of Leeds will be of particular interest for visitors to this site.  The event, scheduled for March 30-31, 2017 in Leeds, aims to investigate “the relationships between ‘private’ collections of art and the changing dynamics of their display in ‘public’ exhibitions and museums.”  The call mentions collections such as the Frick Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but it also brought to mind the situation at Russborough House in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland and the collection of paintings owned by the Alfred Beit Foundation.

Russborough has been in the news recently for their decision to sell works of art from the collection of the Alfred Beit Foundation in order to establish an endowment “to secure the future of Russborough House.”  In fact, the Foundation has a history of selling works from their collection to support Russborough.  They sold Italian bronzes at Christie’s in 2006 to finance repairs to the mansion, designed by Richard Cassels (later Anglicized to Castle) in the Palladian style and constructed between 1741 and 1755 for Joseph Leeson, first Earl of Milltown.  When the Foundation announced the sale of six Old Master paintings at Christie’s London in 2015, the public outcry in Ireland convinced them to postpone the sale in order to explore the possibility that private donors would come forward and buy the works in order to donate them to the State in exchange for a tax break.  In the end, three such “white knight” buyers came forward, and paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, David Teniers, and Adriaen Van Ostade were “saved” for the nation.  A second Rubens, as well as two paintings by Francesco Guardi, were still sold at Christie’s this summer, which marketed the sale as “safeguarding the future of Russborough.”  This sale would seem to be another example of a great house selling works of art from its collection in order to finance repairs and maintenance.  Yet the situation at Russborough is more complex.

The Alfred Beit Foundation manages Russborough House and Estate, created in 1976 to preserve the home and art collection of Sir Alfred Beit, 2nd Baronet (1903-1994).  Beit inherited two substantial art collections while he was still a young man: one from his father, the South African mining magnate Alfred Beit, and the other from his uncle Sir Otto Beit, who also made his wealth in South African mining. In 1952, Beit and his wife Lady Clementine (née Mitford) purchased Russborough and set about “creating a perfect home” for the collections that included works by Rubens, Vermeer, and Murillo.

One of the paintings by Claude-Joseph Vernet depicting the times of day (c. 1750) set within a plaster frames created by the Lafranchini Brothers. Russborough House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Russborough probably seemed like a “perfect home” for these pictures because it had previously housed another important art collection.  Joseph Leeson completed two Grand Tours during the construction of Russborough, and the house was to be a showplace for the his budding interest in art.  For example, he ordered four oval paintings by Claude-Joseph Vernet depicting the times of day (c. 1750) through his agent Robert Wood for plaster frames created by the Lafranchini Brothers in the Drawing Room.  In 1901, Geraldine, Lady Milltown, widow of Edward Nugent Leeson, the 6th Earl of Milltown, gave over 200 paintings from the collection at Russborough to the National Gallery of Ireland.  The gallery required a new wing to display the collection, known as “The Milltown Gift.

Yet the Beit collection never quite seemed at home: the property witnessed four art thefts, most spectacularly, when Rose Dugdale, working with the IRA, stole 19 paintings from the collection, including Vermeer’s Lady Writing with her Maid (c. 1670-1).  The collection was also targeted in 1986 by the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill, who was known as “The General.” After the most recent theft in 2002 of five paintings, the government relocated the targeted art to the National Gallery of Ireland.  Beit had maintained close ties to the gallery, and he donated seventeen paintings to their collection in 1987.  The paintings from Russborough were added to this gift, and the “Beit Collection” includes many of the best known works in the gallery.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Head of a Bearded Man,” oil on oak panel, 20 1/8 x 16 1/4 in. (c) Christie’s Images Ltd. 2015.

Rubens’s “Head of a Bearded Man” was “saved” from the Christie’s sale, probably by Denis O’Brien, who made his fortune in telecommunications.  It was said to have been Beit’s favorite painting, and it was one of those taken by Martin “The General” Cahill and not recovered until 2002.  Intriguingly, one of the ways in which the Foundation justified the sale of these particular works was through the lens of these thefts, with the implication being that a home, even one that is open to the public with up-to-date security systems, is not the safest place for works of art: “following four separate notorious thefts over a period of four decades, in the 1970s, 80s and early 2000s, six of the eight lots being auctioned have not been on view or even in storage at the house for many years due to security concerns.”  They also noted that the Beits themselves sold art to pay for maintenance at Russborough.

So what does the visitor encounter today on the walls of Russborough House? Not all of the paintings for which the decorative scheme was originally intended, nor the art that the Leeson family had acquired for the house.  Nor do they see the “masterpieces” of the Beit collection.  Rather, visitors see, according to the Foundation, “other paintings and objects of art” within the context of the architecture and decoration of the country house, as well as its surrounding landscape.  The paintings, then, are considered elements of decoration, and the visitor is asked to consider the whole as greater than the sum of its parts.  The situation at Russborough is a reminder that collections, and the places where they reside, are contingent and subject to external forces.  And, as William Laffan and Kevin V. Mulligan note in their recent history of Russborough, “the study of a house’s historic collection must embrace pictures that have ceased to hang on its wall.”