Russborough will close unless action is taken, expert says

Ex-National Gallery board member says sale of Beit Collection is better than alternative

A leading art expert has suggested it would be preferable to sell the entire Beit collection, rather than allow Russborough House to fall into terminal decline.

Ciarán MacGonigal, a former member of the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, has said Russborough will ultimately have to close unless radical action is taken to address its funding problems.

Mr MacGonigal told The Irish Times that his preference would be to dissolve the trust that runs Russborough and hand it over the National Gallery, which could develop the house as a research centre into Palladian/Georgian art.

He said the original contents of Russborough were gifted to the State by then owner Lady Milltown more than a century ago and have since been in the National Gallery.


“The original contents could be brought back and the house turned into a centre for the study of Palladian taste.

“Make it the National Gallery in Wicklow. That is what the British have done with parts of their national collection,” Mr MacGonigal said.

He said Russborough could become a living entity and an archive dealing with 18th century materials, as well as a conservation centre.

“Unless something like this is done it would be as well to sell the entire Beit collection and use the money to fund the study of art because, if the present situation continues, the collection will be sold off bit by bit, so that, in the end, there will be nothing left and Russborough will have no purpose,” he said.


Mr MacGonigal was a member of the Art Export Review Committee 1985-1987, established to examine whether the export of valuable art could be prevented.

The committee was chaired by then president of the High Court Liam Hamilton, who later became chief justice.

Mr MacGonigal recalls that the clear and unequivocal advice of Mr Hamilton was that it would be illegal to prevent the export of works of art, as it would be a clear infringement of the right to private property enshrined in the Constitution.

All that could be done was to have a regulatory framework, but even that could not be too rigorous as it could be adjudged by the courts to amount to confiscation.

Mr MacGonigal has written to the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, suggesting the abolition of the trust and his proposals for making Russborough part of the National Gallery.

Special study

He said the gallery should create, on similar lines to Tate Britain, a country house gallery and restore the entire furnishing of Russborough as gifted to it in 1903.

“Make it an area of special study and conservation of and for Irish works of art or works of art and collections associated with the Georgian/Palladian period and archives associated with the acquisition of great houses and estates from 1903 and the first Land Acts.

“It could be a terrific focus for renewed academic and societal studies of great collections, portions of which are held by the State.”

He said the Milltown bequest contained furniture, a range of items collected by successive earls of Milltown, including the Star of the Order of St Patrick, Napoleon’s travelling dining set, captured in the aftermath of Waterloo, as well as porcelain, glass, and chandeliers.

He said the National Gallery board’s table and chairs were the dining table and chairs of the Milltowns, with their crest.

“With such an institution the OPW would become the responsible overseers of the entire site and I know from long experience of their works how so very skilled they are at such matters.”

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times