J’accuse: Rubens & other old masters to be sold off & lost forever.

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.


Uncover the meaning of paintingsabove: 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.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens – Portrait of a Bearded ManSir Peter Paul Rubens – Portrait of a Bearded Man, part of the Beit collection now to be auctioned off.

David Teniers the Younger  – A village inn with peasants dancing and merry making to the music of a hurdy-gurdy

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.

Francesco Guardi View of San MarcoFrancesco Guardi View of San Marco-   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…

25 thoughts on “J’accuse: Rubens & other old masters to be sold off & lost forever.

  1. The Barnes collection, in Philadelphia recently constructed a new building, following on a long legal battle over the arrangement of rooms to display the art. Somebody at the Alfred Beit Foundation has been seriously irresponsible, Russborough should be a listed building with a conservation schedule, same as for the artwork.


    1. Yes, certainly agree about seeming negligence about the upkeep of house.
      Assigning “blame” may be a more difficult issue. Funding for heritage has never been our strong suit. Especially this sort : 18th century Georgian is/was often perceived as Anglo-Irish here.

      As for the role of the Russborough board/ Alfred Beit foundation, and their possible negligence, it bears on your other, very perceptive point. It’s interesting as you say the Barnes board had to face a long legal battle to re-arrange rooms and display of art.
      My partner, a lawyer, pointed out today, in regard to my piece/this issue, that the terms of trusteeship can often be so restrictive that the trustees/board are operating with one hand tied behind their back.
      I’d love to know more about the terms of the trusteeship, (if indeed that is the correct term for the arrangement here)
      I don’t know if that is privileged or confidential, but I intend to write anyway and inquire this week.
      It’s only fair also to give the Russborough board/ Alfred Beit foundation the invitation and right of reply as well, if they wish, or deign to do so.

      many thanks for your comment. -Arran.


      1. Errata: have you read “The Goldfinch”? some interesting perspectives on the role of art as collateral in drug dealing. And, are you familiar with the Bantry Bay Gig that is purportedly exhibited at Collins Barracks (it had been at Dunlaoghrie, but has been moved)?


        1. Hi, no I haven’t read that book but understand it’s entirely true that art is used by criminals both as a vehicle for investment, and for laundering purposes. But while perhaps germane to the old raids at House, that doesn’t have bearing on the present situation, or the current proposed sale, so I’d like, and had better, stay on topic here! The boat at Collins Barracks is the Asgard, btw.


  2. Have you noticed how as soon as an individual turns into a politician, he/she almost invariably forgets everything that made them a human being? Ireland maybe has no more than its fair share of awful politicians, but it possibly also has fewer pressure groups to defend the arts and its history. The horse traders always seem to get their way.


    1. Hi Jane, lovely to hear from you. Its only fair to point out again that the house, nor these paintings are in the possession or direct responsibility of the state. They have no legal obligation. Having said that, it’s very sad that the state, having accepted such an amazing gift from the Beits back in 1987, did not feel any moral obligation to fund the upkeep of the house.
      I even think in time, given the right marketing and promotion, the hosue could have been put on a sound commercial footing and that it could have been made self-financing over time. Hence my point aboutr Powerscout in the piece above. However, also see my point in reply to Micheal Langford above…
      “My partner, a lawyer, pointed out today, in regard to my piece/this issue, that the terms of trusteeship can often be so restrictive that the trustees/board are operating with one hand tied behind their back.”
      “I’d love to know more about the terms of the trusteeship, (if indeed that is the correct term for the arrangement here)”

      thanks very much as always Jane, for your interest and support.


  3. Quite shocked reading this. Hasn’t attracted much media attention. The sorry saga of the state’s negligence or apathy when it comes to our heritage becomes once again all too apparent. Can’t see this happening if it was a National Trust property.


    1. Yes, agreed. What is very disappointing, quite shocking really, is that it does not seem to have figured in the media or public domain at all until now. Until it’s too late, in other words.


      1. We see huge media coverage of even a mention of selling off semi states, or the like of aer lingus but not a whisper of this which is so much more significant. Beggars belief. What’s the timeframe?


  4. Sickening to hear of this, but not surprising. It’s most common in every sense of the word. I love Ireland, but the country has, as you noted, a verifiable track record of squandering her treasures, artistic or otherwise. Next, we’ll be selling off the Rock of Cashel for paving stones. Thank you for the piece and apologies for ranting but it was a bit of a shock. Keep fighting the good fight.


    1. Many thanks. And I don’t know all the details of this case yet, certainly not the inside information and about share of responsibility.
      But if it’s about our sorry record of looking after our heritage generally, then you are perfectly entitled to rant. Only human response sometimes.
      I always do.


  5. A sad case Arran, well done for highlighting it. The Trustees seem to have a case to answer – let’s see if they do so.

    Generally I was under the impression that the State have done a good job on the whole in preserving and restoring much of Ireland’s historic property and treasures. (Aren’t DCC responsible for the north inner city debacle?) Unfortunately the treasures bequeathed to them don’t translate into funds needed for renovation and upkeep.

    On a side point, did I read somewhere that a stock take of art treasures in Dublin’s government buildings show a serious amount of items ‘missing’? Maybe I dreamt it.


    1. Many thanks Roy, always like to get your support. In truth I’ve been thinking of little else since I learned of this disgraceful plan. I even took some legal advice today, vis a vis a possible challenge. Anyway, shouldn’t speak of that here.
      Right, as to your first point, the state had an abominable record, and reputation, certainly. There has been some improvements in recent years. There have been good news stories certainly. and i like to give credit where its due. But some here might feel your assessment is overly generous. Let’s just say a “mixed record” is the best way to describe it.
      As for DCC, and the story in Dublin: yes the state of many old and historic properties in Dublin, especially in the poor North Georgian quarter, is diabolical. Some are on their knees and will soon be gone (Aldborough House is a particularly bad and painful example, heartbreaking really, a total disgrace)
      Admittedly a scheme (for financial assistance to renovations) was announced recently, that seemed to signal real and overdue improvement. I just don’t know enough about the details or technicalities yet. But some agencies and experts here are now, (already) saying it is unworkable and will not achieve the desired results urgently needed. I shall learn more in time, and and we shall see in time.
      Thanks again

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Arran this is a fantastic blog post, a real call to arms, with info that I hadn’t heard elsewhere. Will share and share. Will you keep us updated if you can. Thanks and best wishes.


    1. Many, many thanks Rose Anne, great to get that kind of support. I’m juggling a good few things here, medieval tours, Georgian tours, and what seems to be a one-man campaign on these paintings, 🙂 but yes, I certainly hope to follow up on this. Took some legal advice on it yesterday, and wrote to newspapers today. Trying to work out what to do next. Not easy.
      Had better get back to tour work, it’s all crazy busy, btw do come along if you’re free, either 17th or 31st this month. Will post blog, on the medieval tour this weekend, hope you enjoy.
      Thanks very much again,
      and my very best regards


      1. Arran did you see Robert’s blog post on the subject which was published today? http://theirishaesthete.com/2015/05/11/of-russborough-and-its-predicament/ There is extra info there. It is great to see some transparency on all sides. The solution is still not clear of course. I don’t expect Heather Humphreys to save the day in this case.

        Thanks so much for the invite, I would love to come along sometime. I am working on a site in Kerry at the moment so am not in Dublin. Very best wishes, Rose Anne.


  7. […] Then in 1976, the estate was transferred to the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable and educational trust which was established with the object of keeping the house and art collection intact and open to the public. Other artworks which were not included in the gift of 17 remained at Russborough House and under the care of the foundation. But then earlier this year, believe it or not, the foundation decided to sell off the paintings to fund the upkeep of the property. (Our present government has a terrible record when it comes to protecting and supporting our cultural heritage).  You can read more about this story on Arran Henderson’s excellent website at https://arranqhenderson.com/2015/05/05/jacuse-rubens-other-old-masters-to-be-sold-off-lost-forever/ […]


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