An 1826 engraving of the house from "Neale's Views of Seats"
Built / Designed For: 1st Earl of Milltown
House & Family History: Russborough was built for Joseph Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown, a brewer and member of parliament. The house is noted for its lavish and witty plasterwork by the Lafranchini brothers and its extreme length—700 feet, supposedly the longest house in Ireland. In 1952 Russborough was purchased by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, who saw an advertisement for the house in "Country Life" magazine (the Beit fortune came from diamond and gold mining in South Africa). In 1976 Sir Alfred set up the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable art and education trust, which owns the house and estate today. On February 7, 2010 a fire, probably caused by faulty wiring in the roof, severely damaged the west wing and caused part of the roof to collapse. Because that part of the house was being restored at the time, all of the collection had been removed and was unharmed (the wing was completely restored).
Collections: The picture collection formed by Sir Alfred Beit at Russborough was one of the finest private art collections in Europe, with prominent works by Vermeer, Metsu, Ruisdael, Goya, Gainsborough, and Hobbema. The majority of the collection was given to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (some pictures are on regular loan from the National Gallery to Russborough), but important pieces remain in the collection of the Alfred Beit Foundation at Russborough. The house achieved international notoriety on the evening of April 26, 1974, when Bridget Rose Dugdale, the English socialite turned Marxist terrorist, and her accomplices carried off an audacious robbery at Russborough House—the most valuable art theft in history, stealing 19 paintings, including works by Velázquez, Goya, Gainsborough, Rubens, Hals, Guardi, van Ruisdael, and, most famously, Vermeer’s “Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid” (see "Images" section). All of the paintings were soon found in a cottage in Co. Cork and returned to Russborough; however, just 12 years later, in May of 1986, a gang of Dublin criminals stole many of the same paintings again. This time 18 paintings from Russborough House were stolen, including Gainsborough’s portrait of Madame Bacelli, the portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate by Goya, Gabriel Metsu's “Young Man Writing a Letter,” and, of course, Vermeer’s “Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid.” It took until 1993 to recover all but three of the paintings—still missing are a head of a man by Rubens and a pair of Venetian scenes by Guardi (the twice-stolen Vermeer is today in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland). On February 23, 1974 Vermeer's "The Guitar Player" was stolen from Kenwood House in London, just two months before the infamous Russborough theft. Though the canvas was recovered on May 7, 1974, many experts believe that it was Rose Dugdale who stole the painting, possibly even as a rehearsal for the Russborough job. All of these stories are detailed in Anthony Amore’s 2020 book, “The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist.” Amore is the director of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, an institution whose own Vermeer, “The Concert,” was stolen on March 18, 1990 as part of the most valuable art heist of all time (the 13 pieces of artwork remain missing today). In April 2015 Christie's announced that, on July 9, 2015, it was to sell a group of Old Master paintings from Russborough that were to include Peter Paul Rubens's "Head of a Bearded Man" (estimate: £2-3 million) and "Venus and Jupiter" (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million), a Kermesse scene by David Teniers the Younger (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million), and a rare religious work by Adriaen van Ostade, "Adoration of the Shepherds" (estimate: £600,000-800,000). The works were to be sold by the foundation to set up an endowment fund to safeguard the long-term future of Russborough. The sale of these paintings was very controversial in Ireland; after considerable public pressure, Christie's announced, on June 25, 2015, that it had withdrawn from its July 9 sale the seven pictures owned by the Alfred Beit Foundation. The auction house said the decision "followed the Foundation's request to postpone the sale of these works in order to explore philanthropic alternatives before October 2015." Russborough also contains important Louis XVI chairs covered in Gobelins tapestries.
Comments: Russborough is frequently called the most beautiful house in Ireland.
John Preston (J.P.) Neale, published under the title of Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, among other titles: 2.S. Vol. III, 1826.
Country Life: LXXXI, 94, 120, 1937. CXXXIV, 1464, 1623, 1686, 1963.
Title: Classical Architecture in Britain: The Heroic Age
Author: Worsley, Giles
Year Published: 1995
Reference: pg. 169
Publisher: New Haven: Yale University Press (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)
Book Type: Hardback
House Listed: Unknown
Park Listed: Unknown
Past Seat / Home of: Joseph Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown, 1750-83; Joseph Leeson, 2nd Earl of Milltown, 1783-1801; Brice Leeson, 3rd Earl of Milltown, 1801-07; Joseph Leeson, 4th Earl of Milltown, 1807-66; Joseph Henry Leeson, 5th Earl of Milltown, 1866-71; Edward Nugent Leeson, 6th Earl of Milltown, 1871-90. Edmund Turton, 1914-29. Captain Denis Bowes Daly, 1931-52. Sir Alfred Beit, 1952-94; Lady Beit, 1994-2005.
Current Ownership Type: Charity / Nonprofit
Primary Current Ownership Use: Visitor Attraction
Ownership Details: Owned by The Alfred Beit Foundation.