The lost grandeur of Iveagh House
In 1939, the biggest and grandest house contents auction ever held in Dublin got under way. Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green, which today is home to the Department of Foreign Affairs, was then a private residence of the Guinness family. But the contents went under the hammer and, as a collection, were lost forever, writes MICHAEL PARSONS
AS DUBLIN’S fine art and antiques salerooms limber up for the autumn season, a fascinating memento of possibly the city’s greatest auction has come to light. A copy of the catalogue for the auction of the contents of No 80, St Stephen’s Green – in September 1939 – has turned up at rare book auctioneers, Mealy’s.
The house was the “town” residence of Anglo-Irish aristocrat and businessman Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, and his wife, Gwendolen. The earl, an old Etonian and renowned oarsman, was then chairman of the family-owned brewing business, chancellor of Trinity College and a generous philanthropist.
In May 1939 he offered the house as a gift to the Irish State and the magnificent building later became the headquarters of the Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs. But as happened with the recent gift to the State of Mount Congreve in Waterford, the contents were not included, and so, Dublin’s biggest and grandest-ever auction was launched.
The mansion had 26 reception rooms (including a ballroom) and 50 bedrooms (including those on the bachelors’ wing).
In July 1939, the earl and countess held a farewell party for staff, where he explained “the house was now about to enter a new period of usefulness in the service of the government and the nation”. Lady Iveagh, in what The Irish Times of the following day described as “her charming address”, spoke of the associations with the old house, and the many brilliant social functions that had been held there.
The Guinness family was not, of course, abandoning Ireland. Although they also lived in England, they retained their other Dublin home at Farmleigh, in the Phoenix Park, which was eventually bought by the State in 1999 and is now a Government guest-house.
The auction of the contents of 80 St Stephen’s Green was announced by advertisement in The Irish Times on September 18th, 1939, by auctioneers Battersby Co of Westmoreland Street, who hinted there would be bargains to be had owing to the “present lamentable state of world affairs”. In fact, the second World War had begun just over a fortnight earlier, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The auctioneer claimed that “the difficult circumstances under which [the sale] will be held must operate to the advantage of all buyers at all likely to be interested”.
Some 2,600 separate lots were offered, including the contents of the ballroom, Adam drawingroom, music room, Sheraton room, grand hall and staircase and some 20 other reception rooms. Also included were the furnishings of some 50 bedrooms – including those on the bachelors’ wing – and the contents of the servants’ quarters. Prospective bidders were warned that payment was “by cash only” and that admittance to the viewing and sale was by catalogue, which cost 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) or by ticket, which cost one shilling.