Empress of Austria found in Meath kennel


LONG FEARED lost, an important painting of Empress Elisabeth of Austria - on horseback in Ireland - has been found behind a wardrobe in kennels in Co Meath.

The oil painting, in a frame decorated with scrolling shamrock, depicts Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I, seated on a bay mare called Domino while hunting in Co Meath.

It was commissioned by the empress and sent as a thank you gift to the Ward Union Hunt following her visits to Ireland in 1879 and 1880.

But the painting was lost decades ago and only rediscovered last year stored behind a wardrobe at the hunt's kennels headquarters in Co Meath.

It had apparently been stashed away for safe-keeping and then forgotten.

Now the oil painting, by Wilhelm Richter - a well-known 19th century Austrian portrait painter - is being donated by the Ward Union Hunt to the Royal Dublin Society on "indefinite loan".

RDS spokesman Gerard Whelan said the painting had apparently been stashed away for safe keeping behind a wardrobe at the kennels and then forgotten. It was found, by chance, last year.

Austria's ambassador to Ireland, Dr Walter Hagg, will attend a private ceremony next week when the painting will be presented to Fonsie Mealy, president of the RDS by Christopher Reynolds, chairman of the Ward Union Hunt.

The portrait, titled Domino, will hang in the private members' area of the RDS in Ballsbridge but may be put on public display during the Dublin Horse Show later this year.

Known as Sisi to her family and friends, the empress - who was also queen of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia - was an accomplished horsewoman who loved to escape the confines of the court in Vienna.

During her extended visits to Ireland she stayed at Lord Langford's Summerhill House in Co Meath and participated in various hunts. The empress apparently found Ireland refreshingly free of protocol and in one letter home wrote: "The great charm of Ireland is that there are no Royal Highnesses."

She was presented with the horse, Domino, by the Ward Union Hunt and famously rode into the seminary at Maynooth while chasing a stag.

Sisi brought Domino back to Vienna and, when the horse died, asked a taxidermist to remove and mount the hooves in silver. The whereabouts of this ghoulish trophy is unknown.

One of 19th-century Europe's most glamorous royals, Sisi was renowned for her looks and style. She weighed, on average, 7 stone 8lbs (50kg) and maintained a waist measurement of just 19 inches.

Her thoroughly modern beauty regime involved "facials" of crushed strawberries and the application of specially prepared creams made of ground slugs, lard, marshmallow roots and crushed frankincense.

She wore star-shaped diamond and pearl encrusted jewels in her long, chestnut-coloured hair which she reputedly washed with a shampoo made by mixing cognac and egg yolk. But she wasn't all perfect and used a fan (seen in the painting) to hide her bad teeth.

She died in 1898 aged 60 - assassinated by a deranged anarchist in Geneva who fatally stabbed her outside the Hôtel Beau Rivage as she waited to board a steamship to Montreux. The Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire was later dissolved in the aftermath of the first World War.

The painting is not the first piece of Sisi memorabilia to surface in Ireland. In 2010, a riding whip decorated with a silver band bearing the imperial Habsburg crest, which she had presented to Capt Robert Fowler, master of the Meath Hunt in 1879, was found in the attic of Rahinstown House, Co Meath by his great, great, grand-nephew Charles Fowler. It was sent for sale to Adam's and sold for €37,000 to a collector in the Channel Islands who outbid a museum devoted to the empress in Austria.