23 August 2015

A tour of Russborough House in the rain
to delight historians of art and architecture

The Library in Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wickow, with one of the three stucco ceilings in the house by the Lafranchini brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

What do you do on a rainy summer afternoon?

I was in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, this morning, presiding at the Sung Eucharist and preaching.

But it had been raining all morning, and when I left at early lunchtime there was no sign of the downpour easing.

A walk on the beach was certainly out of the question, and so instead two of us headed back through Knocklyon, and then out through Bohernabreena and Blessington to spend an afternoon in Russborough House on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

I had been to Russborough earlier last year, on another rainy afternoon, and had a double espresso during that visit, but I had never been on a tour of the house.

Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow, on a wet August afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Russborough is one of Ireland’s truly great houses. It was built in the 1740s by Richard Castle for Joseph Leeson, a wealthy Dublin brewer. As Castle’s masterpiece it represents one of the most architecturally significant neo-Palladian buildings in Ireland.

Leeson, who later became 1st Earl of Milltown, embarked on two extensive Grand Tours to Italy, commissioning and acquiring paintings in Florence, classical statues, and splendid rococo gilt furniture, to adorn the house and to complement its decoration.

Much of the stucco ceiling work in Russborough House may be the work of the Lafranchini brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Much of the plaster work is attributed, without certainly by the great Swiss-Italian stuccodores, the Lafranchini brothers Paolo and Filippo. They were among the earliest and great stucco artists in Ireland, and their work in Russborough includes the ceilings of the library, saloon and music room.

Russborough was home to a curious cast of characters from Joseph Leeson, the idiot 2nd Earl of Milltown, to Joseph Leeson, the dysfunctional 4th earl, who spent almost the entire family fortune at the racetrack, and his formidable wife. Their son eloped with a farm girl.

The coat-of-arms of the Earls of Milltown in frosted glass in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Earls of Milltown remained at Russborough until the early 20th century when the last countess donated its contents to the National Gallery of Ireland. The house passed to a nephew of the 4th Earl of Milltown, Sir Edmund Russborough Turton, whose widow later sold the house and estate to Colonel Denis Daly.

In 1952, Russborough was bought by Sir Alfred Beit, whose family made its fortune in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, and Lady Beit. They brought with them their internationally acclaimed art collection, including works by artists such as Murillo, Vermeer and Velázquez.

Several well publicised robberies in the 1970s and 1990s did not deter the Beits from two public generous bequests to the people of Ireland. They donated major works of art to the National Gallery of Ireland, while the house and its collection were passed to the Alfred Beit Foundation.

Our tour began in the Dining Room, with its Italianate mantelpiece decorated with a mask of Bacchus supported by the vine. The dining table was made in the 1930s and the mirror dates from the reign of George II.

We then moved on the entrance hall. While all the other rooms on view have covered ceilings that bring down the cornice and frieze by two or three feet, the hall is rectangular and gives the impression of greater height than the other rooms. In fact, they are all have a uniform height of 20 ft.

The two niches on either side of the Kilkenny black limestone fireplace contain 18th century French stone busts of an unknown lady and gentleman by Pajou (1730-1809). In the two niches on the north wall are busts of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit. The glass chandelier, which forms a pair with the chandelier in the saloon, is by Perry of London (ca 1820).

There are two paintings by the Genoese artist Alessandro Magnasco (1681-1747), one depicting Saint Augustine and his vision of the Christ Child, and the other Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the fish.

The Drawing Room in Russborough House has fine plaster mouldings made to display Vernet’s marine paintings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Drawing Room was probably completed in the mid-1750s, after the rest of the house was finished and after the death of Richard Castle in 1751 to accommodate four marine scenes by Joseph Vernet. The pictures represent morning, afternoon, evening and night. The fine wall plaster mouldings were made to receive them in their present frames, which are the original ones.

The ceiling is the work of an anonymous stucco artist known as the Saint Petersburg Stuccodore.

But the main focus in the room is a copy of The Triumph of David by Guercino – Leeson may have seen the original in Rome in the Galleria Colonna.

The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the Tapestry Room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Tapestry Room has a barrel vaulted ceiling. It is an unusual choice of room to display a state bed made for Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the Spinning Jenny. The Soho Tapestry, dating from around 1720, represents Mogul characters and fantasies. The mantelpiece shows Aesop’s fable of the dog and the bone: a dog carrying a bone was crossing a stream and saw a much larger bone reflected in the water; to get it, he dropped his bone in the water and of course ended up without either.

Aesop’s greedy dog with a bone in the Tapestry Room )Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This room once displayed The Moorish Kitchen Maid and Christ at Emmaus, both by Velasquez. Today, the main painting in the room is a portrait of an unknown female sitter by the French artist Andre Derain, and few visitors probably notice the signed Picasso in the corner.

Looking out on the rain from the Music Room in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Music Room also has a ceiling by the Lafranchini Brothers, but is very different from the others with a more geometrical form that has the effect of a sounding board. The pianos, one Steinway and one Bluthner, are encased in matching inlaid rosewood.

Androcles and the Lion … the mantelpiece in the Saloon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Saloon is the largest room in the house. It too has a superb plaster ceiling by the Lafranchini brothers, decorated with of putti or angels. The chandelier is a pair to the one in the front hall.

The mantelpiece, probably by Thomas Carter of London, represents the story of Androcles and the Lion, flanked by Homer and Plato. The room also has a portrait of Thomas Conolly of Castletown House by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Library has another of the three stucco ceilings by the Lafranchini brothers. This room, which is probably my favourite room in the house, once displayed Goya’s portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate, a Spanish actress who had the distinction of being painted twice by Goya – the other portrait is in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

The stucco plasterwork in the Staircase Hall appears to be the work of Irish apprentices and pupils (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The plasterwork in the Staircase Hall is probably by Irish apprentices and pupils. Mixed with garlands are the masks of hounds and other trophies of the chase, and in a rectangular plaster frame on the left of the door from the front hall is a caricature of the 1st EarI of Milltown.

The domed oval lantern upstairs in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Upstairs, we saw the domed oval lantern and visited some of the bedrooms, with their spectacular views of the parkland, the Blessington lakes and the Wicklow Mountains. Indeed, these views were one of Leeson’s reasons for choosing this location for building his house.

We visited the basement before finishing our visit with a late lunch in the Tea Rooms – including the requisite doubles espressos. As we were leaving we also visited the Hippodrome, a former riding school restored by the Beits.

The Hippodrome or former riding school was restored by the Beits (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It was a guided tours to excite and inspire historians and lovers of art and architecture, from the beauty of the Lafranchini ceilings to the collection of art, furnishings and ornaments.

There are guided tours of the house every hour, on the hour, from May to September, and on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays in April and October.

The view of the Co Wicklow countryside inspired Joseph Leeson’s choice of site for his new Palladian mansion near Blessington, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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