Dowager countess

Lady in Waiting | The Dowager Countess

This formidable grand dame casts a stern eye over all who enter the Library at Russborough, but who was she and what is her story?

Painted by celebrated Irish portrait painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941) this is Mabell, Countess of Airlie, Lady Beit's maternal grandmother. Born Mabell Frances Elizabeth Gore in 1866, she was the daughter of Viscount Sudley and his wife Edith Jocelyn. Tragedy struck early when her mother died and at the age of five she and her sisters went to live with their grandmother, Lady Jocelyn. She befriended a young Princess Mary, who would one day become Queen Mary, wife of George V. Queen Mary later made her childhood friend Lady of the Bedchamber. In 1886 Mabell married David Ogilvy, an army man and the 11th Earl of Airlie and they went on to have six children. Their second child was Lady Helen Alice Wyllington Ogilvy, Lady Beit's mother.

By 1900, Lady Airlie was in mourning following the death of her husband at the Battle of Diamond Hill, during the second Boer War. This meant a move to Cortachy Castle in Scotland and this is when she began to channel her energies into philanthropic work. She presided over the building of the Dundee Sanatorium for Consumptives, which did much to alleviate the suffering of tuberculosis patients, a cure for which was not found until 1949.

The first world war brought more grief into her life with the loss of her youngest son Patrick in 1917 and her daughter Maybell in 1918, she had been exercising horses for the army. Her son-in-law, Lady Beit's father, Clement Freeman Mitford, was another casualty of The Great War. He died in action in 1915. Lady Beit never knew her father.

Throughout the war Lady Airlie worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and also served as president of Queen Alexandra's Army Nursing Board. Her war efforts were recognised in 1920 when she became a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE). After the War, she took to writing and penned several books about her interesting ancestors and also published family letters.

If a movie were to be made of her life today, no-one but the great Maggie Smith could possibly do justice to the role. A strong woman, made of stern stuff, she battled through life's vicissitudes and lived to the grand old age of 90. In this portrait, Sir John Lavery has perfectly captured the fine spirit of this redoubtable matriarch. She is be there waiting and watching over Russborough with a gimlet stare, ready to greet you now the House has reopened.