The decision to sell Russborough House’s precious treasures is artless

AN irreplaceable part of Ireland’s patrimony is to be auctioned off in London, though last Saturday President Michael D Higgins presided at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Heritage Council, writes Gerard Howlin.

The decision to sell Russborough House’s precious treasures is artless

As the first arts minister at the cabinet table, Higgins put the Heritage Council on a statutory footing. In a disconcerting coincidence, the sale of treasures from Russborough House is scheduled for July 9. The importance of Russborough is not just its grandeur, it is its contents. Desmond FitzGerald, the late Knight of Glin, put it well a decade ago in The Irish Arts Review: “Only Newbridge remains relatively intact, but it was never quite as grand as Russborough.” Newbridge House, in Donabate, County Dublin, is home to the Cobbe family, who are still in residence, and it is open to the public. I hope the Cobbes won’t mind my writing that in a once hierarchical society, the Leesons, earls of Milltown at Russborough, were socially a step above. Russborough — a truly palatial Palladian house — benefitted from the arrival of the plutocratic Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, in 1952.

Unusually in that day, an old house found new money. It was newish money, complete with an astonishing art collection. The importance of contents, and the accretion of history and taste, are critical context for any house. Interestingly, this year marks the publication of The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities, An Anglo-Irish Country House Museum, a lavish appraisal of the mostly intact collection of an Irish family. Russborough, alas, may not be so lucky. Its curiosities, at least the ones still in the house, are — like a scene in a Seán O’Casey play — being ‘pawned’, sold one by one.

Opprobrium has been visited on the board of Russborough for agreeing to the sale. While they made a wrong decision, they deserve some sympathy. It sounds very grand, being on the board of the Beit Foundation, and swanning around Russborough House has its attractions, but it is thankless. These great houses invariably broke the families who built them. It is a sad irony that Glin Castle, home of the last knight of that ilk, is now for sale. As a long-time representative in Ireland of Christies, who will auction the Russborough paintings, the irony would not have been lost on Desmond FitzGerald. The Beit Foundation, at Russborough, is endowed with more magnificence that it can maintain. In selling off, they are doing a logical, but wrong thing. They could have forced a crisis on the Government, and put it up to them. Instead, they backed off. That was their mistake. The people who built those houses were not universally known for their manners. Unfortunately, the people minding them have fundamentally misunderstood the essential characteristic every family fortune is founded on, which is bloody-mindedness. The patina of respectability only came later, if at all.

What is for sale is not dross. Far from it. It is irreplaceable. It includes works by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, with estimates of £2–3m and £1.2-1.8m; as well as works by David Teniers the younger, Adriaen van Ostade, Francesco Guardi and Francois Boucher. Relative to Ireland’s slim baroque holdings, these are incredibly important and will be an irretrievable loss.

Missing-in-action in all of this is the Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys. As the Beit Foundation is not a State entity, she has plausible deniability. But that does not diminish her responsibility. She has an overarching policy mandate and, given the items for sale, this is an issue of national importance. There is also the fact, as was reported yesterday, that the relevant section in the National Cultural Institutions Act, 1997, has not been commenced to allow refusal of an export licence. So there you are. As President Michael D Higgins celebrated 20 years of the Heritage Act, 1995, critical parts of the National Cultural Institutions Act, which he wrote 17 years ago, remain in abeyance.

Successive governments bear responsibility. But there is a sharp irony in relation to the National Cultural Institutions Act and this administration. Far from being forgotten, the act has been the means of an untoward power-grab by the department, the minister, or at least the minister’s predecessor, Jimmy Deenihan. Plans were advanced to merge the National Gallery with the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). These have now apparently been abandoned. Still ostensibly planned, however, is a fundamental reorientation of the governance of the National Museum and the National Library towards a more subservient relationship with the same department. The first legislative initiative from Humphreys was to draft heads of bill to put the National Concert Hall on a legislative footing, and effectively emasculate its independence as a national cultural institution. The legislative means by which the responsible policy-maker could have intervened politically on the Russborough House sale remains uncommenced. But that same legislation was pored over incessantly, in recent years, by her department, all the better to extend its own effective control. But for what purpose, or with what vision for the arts?

Celebrating last weekend, the Heritage Council produced a modest account of its doings, complete with a photograph of the splendid Russborough House. The State, led by our minister for arts and heritage, prepares for a great commemoration next year of our Republic’s proclamation and origin. Yet what exactly are our values? What is our vision? What are the things we truly signify? Russborough is already separated from much of its contents. The Milltown bequest is long the property of the National Gallery. Marauding visits from the IRA and The General sadly require that the Beit’s most important paintings be permanently exhibited there. Now, more is to go, and even less will be left.

Seeing things in situ puts them in context. Museums — the great projects of Victorian self-improvement — have an important, but limited, purpose. Everything in every museum came from somewhere else. Its context is lost. It’s like Tesco for heritage. Ideally, at least some of the paintings, and certainly some of the incomparably splendid furniture originally from Russborough, but now in the National Gallery, should be reunited with that great house. But that would take vision, and purpose. It would require someone to take charge and take responsibility. It would take a minister who has the ear of her colleagues, a sense of ambition for her department that goes beyond an agenda for control, and who is animated by the greater sense of what individual objects mean together.

Tugging the forelock is a famous Irish fault. For some recently rarified arrivistes in the arts, that translates as hand-kissing. In selling, the Beit Foundation are doing the sensible thing. They should have taken a stand, however. This sale, which is a disgrace, is essentially an Irish story of hand-kissing.

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