Russborough also displays paintings and furnishings from the Milltown Collection, acquired for the house by Joseph Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown, in the mid - 18th century. This extraordinary country house collection was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland by Lady Geraldine Milltown in 1902.
The Milltown Collection
During the ten-year build of Russborough, Joseph Leeson, later 1st Earl of Milltown, undertook two Grand Tours to Italy. The purpose was to acquire sophistication and taste while also securing a substantial number of artworks for his new residence.
A suitably impressive collection of paintings, sculpture and furnishings was assembled and huge sums of money spent. Works by Nicholas Poussin, Claude-Joseph Vernet, Rosalba Carriera and many others were commissioned or bought. Joseph also sat for a portrait by fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni.
An antique Roman statue of Venus Genetrix dating to the 2nd century AD was purchased, along with copies of classical statues that he had seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Farnese Palace in Rome. Also, from Florence came three scagliola tabletops crafted by the Benedictine monk, Pietro Belloni.
In his West Wicklow Palladian villa, the rooms on the North Front of the house were arranged enfilade and decorated ensuite to showcase the collection. Italian, French, English, Irish, Dutch and Flemish pictures were densely hung, with originals and copies displayed side by side.
On the South Front, the treatment of the display was very different, if no less impressive. The Entrance Hall was used to showcase classical statues and busts. In the Dining Room, a set of Kentian stucco frames were created to hold a set of landscapes commissioned from Irish artist George Barret. The Drawing Room, again adorned with stucco frames, was dominated by four oval marine scenes by Vernet, together with a 17th century copy of Guercino’s Triumph of David, bought by Leeson at the Palazzo Colonna in Rome.
No expense was spared on the interiors, fittings and furniture. Superb plaster work by the Lafranchini brothers and other continental artisans was matched in excellence by richly carved mahogany doorcases and marble fireplaces. A series of flamboyantly carved giltwood mirrors, picture frames, and table bases by an unknown Irish artist, along with the best of English and Irish silver and glassware. These elements combined to create a truly opulent setting for the Earl’s Grand Tour collection - widely acclaimed as the best in Ireland.
Future generations of the Milltown family made only modest additions to the collections and changes to the house. Instead, they cared for the legacy of Joseph Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown. This culminated in Lady Geraldine Milltown’s gift of the collection to the National Gallery of Ireland, in memory of her husband Edward Nugent, 6th Earl of Milltown, in 1902. Her unprecedented donation secured the unique survival of a treasure trove from an 18th century, Irish country house.
The Beit Collection – Founders & Custodians
Alfred Beit Sr. (1853-1906)
The uncle of Sir Alfred Beit, Alfred Beit senior was born in Hamburg on February 15, 1853. At the age of twenty-two he moved to the Kimberly diamond field in South Africa, fourteen years later he left as one of the richest men in the world.
By 1889, Alfred had moved to London. Most of his important art acquisitions were made in the following decade, before his death in 1906. Dr. Wilhelm von Bode, director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, played a central role in shaping the Beit Collection.
The collection of old master paintings that resulted from Beit’s enormous buying power and Bode’s advice comprised mainly seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish landscapes and genre paintings by leading artists such as Jan Vermeer, Jacob van Rusidael, Adriaan van Ostade, and Gabriel Metsu. Works by leading British painters such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough also featured.
In addition to paintings, Alfred Beit senior assembled one of the greatest private collections of 15th century Italian Renaissance bronze statuettes in Europe, featuring works by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. and Andrea Briosco. Fine collections of 16th century Italian majolica pottery and 18th century French and English furniture also adorned his Park Lane home.
Alfred Beit, did not buy art in large quantities, preferring to limit his attentions to true masterpieces. Ultimately, it was this period of collecting, his taste and approach, that defined the development of the Beit Collection.
Alfred Beit, having never married, died at his country house Tewin Water on July 16, 1906. In his will, his charitable legacies amounted to more than £2 million. His art collection, along with the residue of his vast fortune, passed to his brother Otto.
Sir Otto Beit (1865-1930)
Otto Beit moved his brother’s collection to his Belgrave Square home in 1907. He made some significant additions, again with the advice of Wilhelm von Bode. Two outstanding Spanish paintings: Goya’s Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate (ca.1805), and Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1617) by Diego Velázquez. While Thomas Gainsborough’s celebrated Cottage Girl (1785) and George Raeburn’s romantic masterpiece Portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik (1791) were acquired to complete the collection of English masters.
Otto Beit was knighted in 1920 and awarded a baronetcy in 1924, in recognition of his substantial contribution to charities in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Arts organizations including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Johannesburg Art Gallery also benefitted substantially from Otto’s generosity through object and monetary donations. Sir Otto Beit died on December 7, 1930 and his son, Alfred was his heir.
Sir Alfred Beit (1903-1994) & Lady Clementine Beit (1915-2005)
On the death of his father in 1930 Alfred inherited the baronetcy, the family fortune, and the family collection. He married Clementine Mabell Kitty Freeman-Mitford in 1939, their marital home at 15 Kensington Palace Gardens was redesigned and redecorated to display the extraordinary collection.
The Beits moved to South Africa in 1945, where they loaned most of the collection to the National Gallery of South Africa. By 1952, they had returned to London to search for a new home for the collection. Their search took an unexpected turn when Russborough was advertised for sale.
Built in Alfred’s admired eighteenth-century Palladian style, with lavish interiors to showcase the collection of the 1st Earl of Milltown, Russborough was to provide the perfect foil for their magnificent artworks.
Sir Alfred also made significant acquisitions: Lajoue’s Cabinet de Physique and Bibliothéque de Bonnier de La Mosson (1734); the set of marine landscapes by Claude Joseph Vernet, commissioned for Russborough by the 1st Earl of Milltown; and the impressive Indian Blackbuck with Two Pointers (1745) by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.
Works by Vermeer, Metsu, Hobbema, and van Ruisdeal adorned the Saloon. The Velázquez painting was in the Tapestry Room, the Raeburn in the Music Room, while Goya’s Doña Antonia Zárate and Hals’s Lute Player (c.1630) graced the Drawing Room.
Throughout his life Sir Alfred was also a keen collector of 18th and 19th century objet’s d’arte of diverse forms. His prized collections of fine furniture, tapestries, porcelain, clocks, and ornaments can be seen at Russborough today.
Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine established the Alfred Beit Foundation in 1976 to safeguard the house and collections for future generations. In 1987, they gifted seventeen of their finest paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland.
The Beit’s legacy to the Irish people at Russborough and the NGI has been profound. Their contribution to the nation was recognized when they were conferred with honorary Irish citizenship in 1993.