Selling off the family Silver. Another failure: another breech of trust.
Many enlightened and generous philanthropists have gifted precious property, artworks and other priceless assets to Ireland. Such gifts include works by Manet, Degas and other Impressionists from Sir Hugh Lane; endless beautiful works in the National Gallery of Ireland purchased with funds left by famous playwright George Bernard Shaw; priceless eastern manuscripts, illuminated medieval bibles, Psalters and Russian icons from the unrivaled collection of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty; and a wealth of fine furniture, sculpture, silver and Italian and English oil paintings left to the National Gallery by the Countess of Milltown.
Amid this list of extraordinary people and artifacts, amongst the most generous gifts of all came from Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, who lived at Russborough House in County Wicklow from 1952.
Sir Alfred (1903-1994) was the son of a South African mining millionaire, inheriting his title, a vast fortune and a priceless art collection. He himself was a businessman and sometimes politician, a conservative MP 1931-45, as well as serving in Bomber Command during the war. After losing his seat immediately after, in the 1945 Labour landslide, he moved back to South Africa, but was so sickened by the racist Apartheid political system there he promptly left and returned to London.
Soon after, in 1952, on the advice of an Irish friend, he bought and moved to Russborough House in Wicklow, along with his wife Clementine. She was both a cousin of the celebrated/notorious Mitford sisters and of, another cousin (also called Clementine (née Hozier), who had married Winston Churchill in 1908.
Oddly enough, Russborough House, one of the great Palladian houses of Ireland, built by famed 18th century architect Richard Cassels (sometimes spelt “Castles”) for the Leeson family, earls of Milltown, was the former home of home of the Countess of Milltown and as such was also the source of one of the other great art gifts to Ireland, made over 100 years ago, the Milltown gift (mentioned above) to the National Gallery back in 1901.
Through the mid and late 20th century the Beits for their part, were the very best sort of philanthropists. Despite their long and happy marriage they were not blessed with children. Perhaps mindful of that they funded dozens of schools, libraries and clinics, across Africa in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Botswana. In London they also supported education, while in Ireland they gave lavishly to the arts, supporting the Wexford Opera festival and the National Gallery of Ireland amongst other causes.
They also moved their extraordinary picture collection from England to Russborough House. With touching Irish gratitude, the house was then burgled no less than four times. These break-ins targeting the paintings of course, included one art theft in 1974 by an IRA gang led by Rose Dugdale. The gang, who hoped to barter the paintings for the release of political prisoners, “pistol-whipped” the elderly Beits and threw them down a flight of stone stairs. They, the IRA gang, then stole a Goya, a Vermeer and a Gainsborough, all subsequently recovered I’m glad to say, in County Cork.
The house was then broken into and robbed again twelve years later, in 1986, this time by the infamous Dublin criminal Martin “the general” Cahill. Cahill one of the last people to be killed before the IRA ceasefire in 1994, has since been portrayed on screen in two separate films by Kevin Spacey and by Brendan Gleeson, both in rather romanticized way as a sort “Robin-Hood-style” anti-hero. He tried to sell or did sell the artworks to the UVF, a violent loyalist paramilitary organization in Northern Ireland (which is why the IRA eventually killed him). Whatever his personal delusions were, I don’t regard Cahill, who once blew up and disabled a state pathologist, put 100 people out of work when he forced the closure of a jewellery business, or who also kidnapped a family with small children, as any sort of hero. On the contrary, it must have been a terrifying experience for the Beits, elderly and alone in a big house in remote countryside late at night, to be burgled by armed thugs.
Despite these endless insults and injuries, the Beits, far from fleeing back to London, over to California or the South of France, instead stayed in Ireland and Russborough. In 1976, to ensure the maintenance of the house after the death of Sir Alfred, they set up the Alfred Beit Foundation, of which more in a moment.
In 1987 with remarkable forbearance and generosity of spirit, the Beits also made an astonishing bequest to their adopted home country, gifting 17 priceless masterpieces to the National Gallery of Ireland. These works, all of superlative quality, include a Goya, a Vermeer, a Velazquez, a brilliant van Ruisdale landscape, and (my own, personal favorite works in the NGI) two stunning, iridescent companion works (paintings intended to be seen togther) by Gabrile Metsu, a 17th century Dutch master, whose genius is even today still perhaps not yet fully appreciated.
above: two discreet details from two works (closely related companion pieces) by Gabriele Metsu. Part of the priceless Beit gift to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987. Mercifully now safely and permanently in the ownership of the NGI. Not so the paintings below alas.
This gift of 17 masterworks was in total was a bequest obviously impossible to put an accurate value on, but certainly worth something in the region of 100M, and acknowledged by the NGI themselves at the time as “among the greatest single gift to any Gallery in the world in that generation”
Other artworks which were not included in the NGI gift of 17 meanwhile remained at Russborough and therefore in the care and trusteeship of the above noted Alfred Beit foundation.
These remaining paintings by the way, include two fabulous oils by Peter Paul Rubens and other works by David Teniers (1610-1690) a 17th century Flemish master, and in-law of the Brueghals, and two views by Francesco Guardi, a celebrated contemporary of Canaletto, like him a painter of vedute, (scenic landscape views) and also incidentally, the brother in-law of Tiepolo.
above, by David Teniers the Younger – A scene with the charming if ungainly title “A village inn with peasants dancing and merry making to the music of a hurdy-gurdy” – part of the Beit collection now to be auctioned off.
There seems little doubt that Sir Alfred hoped all these remaining paintings would be on display at the house after his death. Perhaps he even vainly envisaged they would used to help attract visitors to the house, and this fund its upkeep. But there were further break-ins after Sir Alfred’s death in 1994- in 2001 and 2002. Each time, all or nearly all the paintings were recovered. Obviously however, the risk of permanent loss was great and the paintings could damaged each time. (Art thieves generally cut paintings out of the frames) So in the end the state moved all the artworks (those not already given to the NGI I mean) to Dublin, for safekeeping.
Most have been hidden away in storage ever since. Until now.
Russborough House itself in the meanwhile was, as I say, has been in the ownership and trust of the Alfred Beit Foundation, a non-profit making body dedicated to educational access via opening the house (presumably originally intended to include the remaining paintings) to the public.
But it appears that inadequate money has been spent on the upkeep of the house, one of the finest 18th century Palladian houses in Ireland. Why or How could this be the case? I’ll return to this vexed question in a moment.
But it gets worse. It is now calmly announced by the Alfred Beit foundation that the state of the house is so poor, restoration work so urgently required and as (reading between the lines) no other funding is available, that they are now about to auction off several priceless artworks left by Sir Alfred. They have entrusted this sale to the famous auction house Christie’s of London, who will show them in London, New York and Hong Kong before the auction in London July this year, scarcely two months from the time of writing. Here is the press release or statement by Christie’s.
“The group of paintings that will be auctioned is led by two magnificent works on panel by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a bearded man (estimate: £2-3 million) and Venus and Jupiter (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million). The group also includes one of the most celebrated Kermesse scenes by David Teniers the Younger (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million), a rare religious work by Adriaen van Ostade, Adoration of the Shepherds (estimate: £600,000-800,000), and a pair of Venetian views by Francesco Guardi (estimate: £300,000-500,000). A selection of highlights from the group will go on view in pre-sale exhibitions at Christie’s in New York from 2 May to 12 May, followed by London (28 May to 1 June), Hong Kong (28 May to 1 June) and London in June and July.”
I’m no expert, and will be glad to receive any correction or clarification, but as far as I can gather the Alfred Beit foundation which looks after Russborough (if that is the correct term) is a separate Trust, not a state agency of any sort, but not a private one in the sense that they aren’t a private company or certainly not a profit-making one. I’ve been trying to work out the exact structure of ownership, or trusteeship or (most importantly of all) the terms of that trusteeship, from their (the Foundation’s) various brief and opaque utterances (on their website etc). It is not easy. In any case board members include Trinity College, the Irish Georgian Society, An Taisce, and so on. All needless to say highly reputable, not to say august institutions, all with a sterling record in preserving and promoting historic architecture. Exactly the sort of people one would want to maintain and protect one of Ireland’s most important houses and art collections. One would think.
So why then, have they failed so abjectly in this instance to look after and fully maintain the house that this drastic action (the selling of irreplaceable paintings) is now deemed necessary?
The board members will of course immediately quote a lack of state support and investment. It is entirely true the Irish state has a dismal record in this regard. (Just look at the condition of the North Georgian quarter of Dublin city centre) But is that excuse enough for the foundation, with so much at stake?
The Irish Georgian Society today put out a statement “deploring” the imminent sale of the artworks. But this is hand-wringing after the horse has bolted. The sale of the art now looks unstoppable. It “unlikely” to put it politely, that any Irish individual or agency will be willing or able compete with London-based Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires or New York financiers. There is absolutely no doubt these works will be lost to Ireland forever.
So, how did it come to this? Firstly, to state the obvious, there’s seems no doubt that, legally at least, the Foundation have the right to sell off the paintings, to fund vital repairs to the house. They would not do so otherwise, (obviously) They clearly feel they have no choice, such is the sorry condition of he house and the lack of visitor amenity. But do they? Here is an interesting paragraph “The Alfred Beit Foundation was set up on 23 March 1976.
‘… estate transferred in 1976 to the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable and educational trust which was established with the object of keeping the house and art collection intact, making it a centre for the arts and open to the public.’ (Beit, 1978).
So do they have the legal right?
Also, do they have the moral right?
And what about the role, or non-role of the state here? Or, to put it another way, having gladly accepted the gift of the 17 old masters to the NGI in 1987, does the Irish state not then have a moral obligation to fund the upkeep of the house, in order to stop the other paintings being lost to Ireland forever?
The state principally, justly, and predictably, is in the dock here. But how is is that the various members of the Alfed Beit Foundation (not just the IGS, but all of them) failed and have failed to persuade the Irish state to invest in the house? Or did not persuade and not partner up with Wicklow County council say, to make Russborough “another Powerscourt”?
The house and gardens of Powerscourt, one of the best known sites in Ireland, attracts hundreds of thousands of paying visitors every years, generating millions of euros. You can repair a lot of plasterwork with that kind of money. You can afford some security too. You can have decent amenities and repairs, build or improve a cafe, and other amenities, some of which even generate revenue in their own right.
Could Russborough, with its excellent lakeside site, sculptures, paintings and gardens, not have been made into a equally well known and equally-popular visitor attraction? Could a business plan not have been formed and investment sought? Could the investment been used firstly, to install meaningful security at the house to protect the paintings, which could then have been reinstated there? Could the revenue generated then not paid off such the investment, keeping the house and contents (the Beits’ legacy) safe for Ireland, a vital piece of patrimony, and tourism infrastructure?
No. Apparently not. It seems that was too much to ask or expect.
But either way, whatever about the failings of the Foundation, and although I don’t wish to harangue institutions I generally admire, (I work for, and with some of them) they may wish to reflect on their failures, (although without wanting to be rude, I doubt they will)
Nonetheless, the state is clearly most to blame here.
They, we, or the Irish state, on behalf of its people, and future generations, accepted an astonishing gift, about 100 million worth of priceless art, from the Beits in 1987.
On that basis alone, it seems to me we have (had) an obligation, both to keep the house in good condition for the future, AND to keep the paintings in Ireland. Both. Not one or the other. Even if a sense of common decency and good doesn’t dictate that, perhaps enlightened self-interest should have. (See the tourist figures appendix below)
This sale just seems all wrong and horribly, horribly short-sighted to me. But the curse, the sickening pity of it all is, it appears to be too late.
Only in Ireland. Will we ever learn?
PS: Addendum: background information: regarding potential visitor numbers for a site properly funded, managed and promoted. Here firstly, are the Top Free visitor attractions in Ireland: bear in mind that such cultural sites are part of the reason why visitors come to Ireland in the first place, spending millions of euro every year. Firstly, free attractions, those without admission charge: Note the number 1 position is occupied by an art gallery (stuffed with Beit art by the way) and note also how both lists are dominated by sites of historic, architectural or cultural significance.
1. National Gallery – 624,412 visitors
2. National Botanic Gardens – 501,000 visitors
3. National Museum of Archaeology – 402,582 visitors
4. Irish Museum of Modern Art – 362,000 visitors
5. Farmleigh – 315,464 visitors
6. National Museum of Decorative Arts (Collins Barracks) – 295,488 visitors
7. National Museum of Natural History – 289,172 visitors
8. Chester Beatty Library – 247,729 visitors
9. Science Gallery – 242,833 visitors
10. Holycross Abbey, Thurles – 240,000 visitors
Here are the top paid attractions, according to the same source:
1. Guinness Storehouse – 1,025,677 visitors
2. Dublin Zoo – 1,000,000 visitors
3. National Aquatic Centre, Dublin – 825,049 visitors
4. Cliffs of Moher – 809,474 visitors
5. Book of Kells – 524,119 visitors
6. Fota Wildlife Park – 390,124 visitors
7. St Patrick’s Cathedral – 362,000 visitors
8. Blarney Castle – 325,000 visitors
9. Kilmainham Gaol – 294,095 visitors
10. Bunratty Castle – 275,986 visitors
Powerscourt House by the way, falls just barely outside this top ten with, according to the Powerscourt estates own website, over 250,000 visitors per year. Ticket price for an adult is €8.50. Assuming even half the visitors are adults, 125,000 x 8.50 is still over €1 million. (€1.062,500) and that’s assuming just half, one suspects more, plus additional revenue streams also?
To be continued…