A renewed Russborough ... with plans for even more work at the big house
Reporter David Medcalf was one of the first up the drive to Russborough House near Blessington as the stately home re-opened after a winter break when a seven-figure sum was spent on refurbishment work
Russborough House manager and chief executive Eric Blatchford admits that two million euro spent on the Palladian mansion has not much transformed the look of the place.
The money was invested on a host of background improvements which required closing one of Wicklow's premier tourist attractions for much of the past two winters. He is relieved to be open once more to the public, though he reveals that he has a list of further maintenance and repairs projects which could absorb another five million euro - if only he had five million euro at his disposal.
Eric recalls how he was taken aside a few years ago by a representative of Russborough's insurers who cautioned him bluntly that the house was close to becoming uninsurable. The creaking central heating system was teetering on the verge of causing major water damage and, with more than 60 years' service on the clock, the electric wiring was a fire hazard. The building already had a history of expensive fires, so the warning meant that there was no alternative but to re-plumb and re-wire.
The job had to be done without destroying the glorious Big House heritage which brings visitors to Blessington by the coach-load every year, a constraint which added many thousands to the bill for the work. Happily, the not-for-profit Alfred Beit Foundation benefited from the financial support of the Apollo Foundation and the Department of Culture, which split the most recent invoice 55/45.
'This restoration and the improvements, with the reduced risk of fire or water damage encouraged the National Gallery of Ireland to believe paintings hung here are in safe hands,' commented Eric Blatchford. An accountant by profession, the English native confesses that he finds the infinitely ornate plasterwork which covers the ceilings of more interest than the artwork hanging on the walls of many of the rooms. But he is a self-confessed 'heathen' in such matters.
The reality is that one of the big selling points for the guided tours which have allowed a million people access to the interior of the building since the first tour in 1978 is the paintings. The gallery has released a dozen works from its collection in time for this year's re-opening and returned them to Russborough for public exhibition. This is wholly appropriate as this is where they were originally displayed after purchase either by the Leesons' Milltown collection or by the Beits who acquired the property in 1952.
The returnees in their formal frames date from the 17th or 18th centuries, slotting back nicely into their spots in the tapestry room, the music room and the saloon. They range in subject matter from Flemish artist Bosschaert's restful still life with fruit and flowers to the dramatic near life size male nudes of Cain and Abel locked in ferocious mortal combat and created by an unknown Italian hand. Among the list of artists included in the National Gallery selection are Irish landscape painter George Barrett and the famous English portraitist Joshua Reynolds.
They take their places comfortably among the existing exhibition, among which the portrait of Mabell, Countess Airlie - grandmother of Lady Beit - by John Lavery is an undoubted highlight. Freshly hung or long on the books, they are all expertly introduced by tour guides such as Ann Reynolds, whose chuckling and knowledgeable presence has entertained visitors for close to 40 years, giving her audiences their full money's worth.
Meanwhile, Eric Blatchford is contemplating his not so little list of further jobs that could usefully be undertaken to preserve the wonders of Russborough for the current generation. The roof built to shelter the Leeson family when they built their country retreat has lasted around 275 years has been showing its age recently. Two or three 'sticking plaster jobs', as Eric calls the first aid, have been carried out over the past decade but something more substantial will be required - probably sooner rather than later.
The splendid granite blocks which give the building such an air of magnificence will probably last forever but the mortar between them is gradually losing its battle with the Irish weather. Dampness seeps in through the cracks and a re-pointing exercise is needed to rectify the problem.
The chief executive wonders aloud whether it would be possible use Russborough as the base for a stone mason training programme. He certainly has plenty of practical experience to offer any such trainees. Not only are the four kilometres of the demesne wall which surrounds the estate cracking and crumbling for much of their daunting length. The walls of the walled garden are also in a state of slow motion collapse under the weight of the passing centuries. Mention of the garden reminds him that, within those under threat walls, are three old glass-houses all of which could use extensive and expensive repair to bring them back to glory.
Ever the enthusiast, Eric is keen to promote the 'Save an Urn' fundraising campaign. The mansion boasts a total of 72 urns which were installed in a grand gesture of Grecian extravagance by the original owners atop the house walls. Since a recent visit by gaudy yellow crane, the number remaining in place now stands at 59, with 13 urns hoisted down and stored in a shed awaiting professional tender loving care.
The problem is that they are made of sandstone, which is less resilient than granite and more prone to weathering. As a result the tops of some of the urns were wobbling on their eroded narrow-necked bases until the team with the crane came to the rescue. A contribution of €750 is sufficient to save one urn, says the man in charge winningly, a snip compared with the €5,000 for his 'Save a Statue' scheme.
The statues of classical gods, which are such a stunning feature of the façade, are made of imperishable marble but age has discoloured their good looks and some of them too were in danger of toppling out on to members of the general public. Russborough House remains breath-taking to the casual eye but, to those who look closely, these little gaps in its charms are apparent.
'We are not State or Office of Public Works owned but the Irish taxpayer has been very generous,' acknowledges Eric, contrasting his situation with that of Kilkenny Castle or of Castletown House in Celbridge. Boosting turnover is important and he is very aware of the need to win friends in the community beyond those crumbling demesne walls. Every €2 coin paid for entry to the car park, every scone scoffed in the tea rooms, every novelty mug bought in the gift shop is a contribution to the cause.
In 2008, Russborough received 11,000 visitors to the house despite the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and this figure close to doubled last year, climbing to 21,000. Such a rise is impressive enough but the data for visits to the grounds of the estate are even more noteworthy - where there were 9,000 in 2008, there were 110,000 such visits in 2017 - a leap more than tenfold.
Locals and people from further afield alike are lured through the arched main gate and up the driveway by such attractions as craft workshops, sheep dog demos, the birds of prey and the maze. With its fairy trail, walks and playground, this is a destination to draw the family - and then draw them back again.
'Ten years ago the walls were not just a physical barrier but also a psychological barrier,' says Eric harking back to when he was first appointed, when the Palladian palace was perceived as somehow in a different orbit from the rest of Blessington. 'We have broken down the 'you can't go there' attitude.'
This opening up of the estate has been achieved by courting the goodwill of the neighbours, offering them a venue for parish and school fundraiders. Russborough has also become a haven for gardening enthusiasts who love the walled garden and the annual RHSI flower show - this year on July 29. Watch out during the season for under-sevens rugby on the lawn or pack a track-suit and limber up for the weekly park run each Saturday morning.
The management is exploring the links with internationally famous ballerina Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet in London, who was a Blessington girl. A tea dance in her honour is planned but, unfortunately, there will be no dancing in the Russborough hippodrome for the moment since Storm Emma damaged the canopy on the roof. The circular hippodrome - built for the schooling of horses - has hosted Celtic Tenors concerts in the past and it is hoped that the building will be fit for their return in 2019.
Incidentally, to celebrate the fact that Russborough first opened for public tours in April 1978, a 40-year anniversary discount of 40 per cent is being offered on all the guided tours over the period April 14-30. Four tours are laid on each weekday with eight tours each Saturday and Sunday. Call 045 865239 to confirm exact times.