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Selling the collection to save the house: Russborough and Irish heritage

18 May 2015

Last month it was announced that Glin Castle, County Limerick, home to the FitzGerald family and 29 successive Knights of Glin for seven centuries, was to be offered for sale. A week later, the forthcoming auction of eight Old Master paintings from the collection at Russborough, County Wicklow was similarly announced. The Glin sale elicited widespread sorrow, the Russborough sale proportionate indignation. Yet the reason behind both is identical: the inability of Irish country houses to be self-sustaining.

Dating from the 1740s, Palladian Russborough has the longest façade of any house in Ireland and contains some of Ireland’s finest rococo plasterwork. Built for the Leeson family, its original contents – both pictures and furniture – were given by the last Countess of Milltown to the National Gallery of Ireland at the start of the last century. The property then passed through a couple of owners before being acquired in 1952 by mining heir Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine. They brought with them a superlative number of paintings collected by Sir Alfred’s uncle and father, and these were hung in Russborough’s main rooms. Despite a succession of burglaries, the first conducted in 1974 by members of the IRA, the Beits retained their affection for Ireland and, like Lady Milltown before them, eventually donated 17 of the best pictures, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema and Ruisdael, to the National Gallery of Ireland: in 1993 their generosity was acknowledged with the conferring of honorary Irish citizenship.

Meanwhile, having no heirs to whom Russborough could be bequeathed, the couple established an educational trust with charitable status. The Alfred Beit Foundation is charged with responsibility for the house and estate so that both are preserved for the benefit of the Irish people. Unfortunately at the time of its establishment neither the Beits nor their advisors appear to have realised the necessity of providing the Foundation with an adequate endowment. Thus the trustees have for almost 40 years attempted to run Russborough without the safety net of a fund on which to draw and meet the same shortfalls common to all estates. In 2013 Russborough’s annual operating deficit ran to €564,213; in 2012 it stood at €425,984. Losses on this scale are clearly unsustainable and if continued they must, sooner rather than later, lead to the closure of Russborough. Hence the trustees took the decision to sell eight old master paintings by the likes of Rubens, Teniers and Guardi, six of which have spent the past two decades unseen by the public as they were in storage at the National Gallery of Ireland. The money raised will be used to create a permanent, ring-fenced endowment ensuring Russborough has a long-term future.

The outcry over the proposed sale, which is to be conducted by Christie’s in July, is understandable and laudatory: Ireland needs to be more engaged with and concerned over the ongoing dispersal of its cultural heritage. Much of the anger expressed has been targeted at the Alfred Beit Foundation’s trustees who reached their decision with reluctance and regret (the writer is a former trustee). However, one notable absentee in the debate over this issue is the government minister with direct responsibility for national heritage: at the time of writing there had yet to be any statement from either Minister Heather Humphreys or her department about the proposed sale. Whether she cares one way or the other is unknown.

This is far from being an unusual circumstance: some 30 years ago the late Knight of Glin – whose own family house is now on the market – lamented that in Ireland there were no votes in heritage and accordingly politicians paid it lip service at best. This remains the case today; despite the opposition to the sale, Russborough has received scarcely a mention on Irish social media. No wonder Minister Humphreys feels under no pressure to articulate an opinion.

Ireland’s cultural heritage lobby is smaller and more fragmented than elsewhere. Despite several attempts to establish one there is, for example, no equivalent of Britain’s National Trust, with its large and articulate membership. Whatever state funding had been available to the sector was decimated following the onset of economic recession in 2008 (the Heritage Council announced last week that its funding had been cut by some 90 per cent since 2011), and all country house owners were forced more than ever to seek help from the paying public. Yet visitor numbers remain stubbornly low. Russborough received 24,000 paying visitors last year – up from 11,000 in 2007.

It is increasingly apparent that if any country houses are to survive, they will need to find alternative means of salvation, and that the state will have to provide greater support than has been the case until now. Politicians are unlikely to provide that support until they recognise there are votes in heritage. As a matter of urgency the entire sector needs to band together and engage in a sustained public campaign designed to convince the Irish populace it cannot afford to lose any more of the nation’s cultural patrimony. Otherwise Glin and Russborough will not be the last of the casualties.

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Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 3.0)