Russborough House in Blessington, Co Wicklow – one of Ireland's grandest stately homes – has just reopened to the public for the 2018 season. During the winter closure, the first phase of a major refurbishment has been completed. Over €1 million has been spent as part of ongoing conservation and maintenance to ensure the future of the 300-year-old house. Much-needed improvements to security, electrics and building conservation have been carried out but the main attraction for visitors is the new display of major paintings, furniture and silver that previously adorned the house.
Some of the new exhibits are from the Alfred Beit Collection of art and have not been seen for decades; others have been loaned back by the National Gallery of Ireland from the original ‘Milltown Collection’ and have not been seen in Russborough House for 120 years.
One million people have visited Russborough since it first opened to the public 40 years ago. While that sounds impressive, the stately home needs to increase visitor numbers – currently averaging around 2,000 per month – to ensure its long-term survival. Unlike many landmark heritage properties, the house isn't owned by the State and, while it receives some limited public funding, relies mainly on ticket sales and fundraising. The former owners, the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, effectively gifted the house and its contents to the people of Ireland via a charitable trust called the Alfred Beit Foundation. But maintaining a vast 18th century Palladian mansion is an expensive business. The foundation, run by unpaid volunteer trustees who deserve enormous credit for their – often- thankless – task, is chaired by Judith Woodworth who says their "objective is to make Russborough House financially secure, sustainable and kept open and accessible for future generations".
The financial difficulties of Russborough House were a matter of public knowledge for many years but remained unresolved. Despite crying wolf on several occasions, and being ignored, in 2015 matters came to a head when the foundation announced that the house might have to close unless money could be raised quickly to pay for urgent conservation work and that, over the longer term, an endowment fund of €15 million was needed to secure its future. The trustees decided to sell some of the art collection – a move that generated public controversy but which they deemed essential. The sale of various Old Master paintings has generated more than €8 million for the endowment fund and enabled much-needed repairs and conservation work to begin. The first phase – a major €1 million refurbishment – has now been completed.
“Russborough Re-Discovered” is how the Foundation is describing the re-launch and they “want people who’ve been before to come back and see what’s been done” and to also attracting a whole new generation of visitors. For anyone who’s never been, this is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful houses in Ireland – a marvellously-curated time-capsule showcasing three centuries of European culture and an aristocratic lifestyle that, almost incredibly, survived until the late 20th century.
Russborough House was built in the 18th century as the country house for Dublin’s wealthy Leeson family (after which the street is named) who were ennobled with the Earldom of Milltown.
The 6th Earl of Milltown died in 1890 and, a decade later, in 1901 his widow Geraldine, Countess of Milltown donated the contents of Russborough House to the National Gallery of Ireland. The gift included more than 200 paintings as well as sculpture, silver, furniture and books. Many of the items had been acquired during mid-18th century Grand Tours by earlier generations of the family. The donation prompted the gallery to build an extension – the ‘Milltown Wing’ – to display the collection.
The Milltown earldom lapsed and the house changed hands. In the 1950s, Russborough was bought by the English aristocrat, Sir Alfred Beit – heir to both a diamond-mining fortune and one of the world’s greatest private art collections – and he and Lady Beit moved from their palatial London home (in Kensington Palace Gardens) to Co Wicklow.
But their lives were shattered when, in 1974, Russborough House was raided by an IRA gang and many of their Old Master paintings, including a Goya and a Vermeer, were stolen. Although the paintings were later recovered by gardaí, a second major robbery was staged by Dublin criminal Martin "The General" Cahill in 1986. Again, the paintings were recovered but the Beits now bowed to the inevitable and donated the most valuable – including the Vermeer – to the National Gallery of Ireland.
In 1993, the State showed its belated gratitude by granting honorary Irish citizenship to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, the first time Irish citizenship had been awarded to British subjects. It was a just-in-time gesture: Sir Alfred Beit died the following year, aged 91; Lady Beit died in 2005, aged 89. The National Gallery also named a wing in their honour. The Beit donation, incidentally, is the most valuable ever given to Ireland and is believed to be worth at least €100 million.
But the consequence of both donations leads to an inevitable question. If all the Milltown and Beit art is in the National Gallery then what’s left to see in Russborough House itself?
Happily, quite a lot. Not all of the Beit Art Collection was donated to the gallery. Some remained in the house and some in storage. And many other items owned by the Beits are still in place. The house is lavishly and ornately fitted and furnished and is gleaming following the refurbishment – that has ranged from cleaning the chandeliers to restoring the tapestries.
The rooms have been further enhanced with Beit paintings taken out of storage and re-hung including Grand Canal and Palazzo Grimani, Venice by Francesco Guardi (18th century Italian) and Country Road and Cottages by Jan van Goyen (17th Century Dutch).
But there's much more. Also back in the house, after more than a century in the National Gallery, are furniture, silver and art from the original Milltown Collection including paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Barrett. Agostino Masucci, Girolamo Troppa and Jan Baptist Bosschaert. More exhibits will be added in the months ahead.
A new lighting system greatly enhances viewing of the truly jaw-dropping plasterwork ceilings made by the renowned 18th century Swiss stuccodores, the Swiss Lafranchini Brothers. There have also been essential improvements to smoke alarm and other security systems.
The one-hour tours of the house are hosted by excellent, superbly informed guides who'd give the presenters of the new BBC series Civilisations a run for their money. When you've done the house tour there's a whole range of outdoor attractions on the estate to provide entertainment for a great day out including the Bird of Prey Centre, sheepdog demonstrations, art workshops for children, a garden maze and much more. And, yes, there's a good cafe, a giftshop, ample parking and toilet facilities.
If you’re one of the one million who’s already been, go back to Russborough House to see the changes. If you’ve never been, then go. You won’t be disappointed.
How to get there:
Russborough House is one hour by car from Dublin and just outside Blessington, Co Wicklow off the N81. Entry to the guided house tour (open seven days a week from March to December) costs €12 for adults and €6 for children. A family ticket (two adults and up to four children aged under 16) costs €30. For further information about Russborough House and its full range of activities see russborough.ie