The Architect: Richard Castle
Although no letters, drawings, or accounts, relating to Russborough, by architect Richard Castle or his patron Joseph Leeson have survived, Russborough is confidently attributed to the German born architect’s oeuvre.
Little is known of the young David Riccardio, who later anglicised his name to Richard Castle (sometimes also referred to as Richard Cassels) though he is believed to been an officer in a regiment of engineers and to have studied fortifications and canals in northern Europe. By 1725 he was in England and just three years later in Ireland to build Hume Castle in Co. Fermanagh.
Having worked with leading architect Edward Lovett Pearse on Parliament House, Castle quickly built up a reputation for excellence and a client list to match. His portfolio of stately town and country houses features the country’s finest: Leinster and Carton houses for the Earl of Kildare, Powerscourt for the 1st Viscount Powerscourt, and Summerhill in County Meath for Hercules Langford Rowley, MP.
Castle was the foremost country house architect when the renewed prosperity and confidence of Georgian Ireland prompted a spate of stately home builds. In 1742, he was the natural choice to realise the ambitions of the aspirant Joseph Leeson.
Renowned for neo-Palladian design and commitment to classicism, scale, the best materials and craftspeople, Castle’s buildings are outstanding examples of 18th century Irish architecture. Richard Castle died suddenly at Carton, Co. Kildare, on 19 February 1751. It is thought that works at the near complete Russborough were taken up by his assistant Francis Bindon.
A Palladian Beau Idéal
Russborough is a classical Palladian villa made up of a central block containing the principal rooms and two wings housing the servants and stable blocks to the east and west. The lengthy façade extends to 700 feet, embracing the panoramic landscape, built with local granite that fuses a symbiotic relationship with the Wicklow landscape.
Richard Castle enhanced his core design for Russborough with a wealth of features. The Greek orders are observed in the Doric columns of the colonnades and the Corinthian columns that flank the main entrance, supporting a fused portico enriched with swags of flowers. At the bottom of the flight of granite steps the visitor is greeted by a pair of heraldic lions, bearers of the Leeson arms. Classical urns at the top of the steps and lining the parapets tie the composition together.
The curved passages of the colonnades feature a dozen niches filled with classical marble statues by Italian sculptor Bartolomeo Solari. Commissioned by Joseph Leeson in 1750, they send a clear message that this is the home of man of education and taste, and a great art collector.
Russborough is Castle’s finest country house and Ireland’s finest example of an extended Palladian layout. The synergy of classical design, perfect scale, architectural detail, and ambitious decoration marks Russborough out as exceptional on both the national and international stage.
An Opulent Interior
Hidden behind a somewhat austere exterior are Ireland’s most impressive 18th century interiors. Russborough’s central block contains seven principal rooms on the ground floor with the largest, the Entrance Hall at centre of the south front, and the main reception room, the Saloon placed directly to its north. The other five rooms, originally comprising two Drawing Rooms, two Dining Rooms, and a Music Room complete a symmetrical arrangement.
On the South Front the Dining Room and Drawing Room are either side of the Entrance Hall, each with elaborate stucco ceiling along with a monumental marble fireplace, designed to showcase a particular set of artworks. In the Entrance Hall five niches and four oculi to display Joseph Leeson’s Grand Tour collection of classical statues. In the Dining Room, Kentian stucco frames, since removed, held a set of works commissioned from Irish artist George Barret. The Drawing Room features an exuberant baroque ceiling and stucco cartouches for four oval seascapes by French artist Claude Vernet.
The remaining rooms to the west and north were arranged enfilade as rooms of parade for viewing Leeson’s collection of pictures. Decorated ensuite in crimson velvet (now only surviving in the Saloon), with dado panelling and doorcases in rich mahogany, all have fireplaces by renowned maker Thomas Carter the Elder of London. The Saloon, Music Room and small Dining Room (converted to a library in 1952) all feature ceilings attributed to the Swiss-Italian stuccodores Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini. The mahogany and sandalwood parquet floor in this room is a unique and precious survivor of the occupation of the house by British Forces in 1798.
Russborough’s enclosed main stairhall, houses a richly carved mahogany cantilever staircase almost dwarfed by the truly extraordinary riot of stucco that surrounds it. On the first floor, a lantern landing and nine bedrooms, with exceptional panelled suites at each corner, each completed by a magnificent view.
Lady Beit, Russborough’s last private owner, captured the comfort and luxury of this remarkable home: “Despite its size, the house is surprisingly cosy; let’s just say I have always found it both liveable and loveable.”