Russborough House, County Wicklow

Irish country houses are generally distinguished by their architecture rather than their contents, but Russborough is a striking exception to this rule. Not only does this magnificent Palladian mansion boast lavish plasterwork, splendid chimney-pieces and superb joinery, but it also contains the world-famous Beit collection of pictures, furniture and objets d'art. It can justifiably be said that Russborough, with its superb landscape setting, is indeed a temple of the arts-a place of rare quality and beauty.

The house was commissioned by Joseph Lesson, later the first Earl of Milltown (1705-83), after inheriting the wealth of his father, an opulent Dublin brewer. Completion of the building which began in 1741 took over ten years so that the designer, Richard Castle (1690-1751) never lived to see the final stages that were carried out by his associate Francis Bindon. The house is built of local silver-grey granite with wonderfully crisp detail and has an entrance front that extends to 700 feet, the longest in Ireland. The centre block of seven bays and two stories over a basement is relatively small, but is extended over via colonnaded quadrant wings to seven-bay, two-storey pavilions. Further out stretch high plain walls, each broken by a centrally placed rustic arch terminating in one-storey pavilions associated with the kitchen and stableyards. Fortune has smiled kindly upon Russborough for it has remained free of subsequent alterations, with most of Castle's original features surviving intact.

Ascending the broad flight of granite steps guarded by a pair of carved lions, the visitor enters the front hall-a well-proportioned room with a floor of polished oak and an ornate but severe compartmental ceiling with Doric frieze quite similar to the one Castle designed for Leinster House. The monumental chimney-piece is of black Kilkenny marble, much favoured by Castle for entrance halls, while above it hangs a striking painting by Oudry of 'Indian Black-buck with Pointers and Still Life', dated 1745. Five doors with magnificently carved architraves of West Indian mahogany lead to the major reception rooms: the saloon, the drawing-room, the dining-room, the tapestry room and the grand staircase.

Undoubtedly the finest room in the house is the saloon, which occupies the three central bays of the north front. It has a coved ceiling with rococo plasterwork incorporating flowers, garlands, swags and putti, which on stylistic grounds can be attributed to the Francini brothers of Italy. The walls are covered with a crimson cut Genoese velvet dating from around 1840 -an ideal background for paintings which include the principal Dutch and Flemish pictures in the Beit collection. The room also has Louis XVI furniture in Gobelins tapestry signed by Pluvinet, a pair of Japanese lacquer cabinets from Harewood House and a chimney-piece identical to one at Uppark in Sussex, which must be the work of Thomas Carter (the younger) of London.

A striking feature of the room is the inlaid sprung mahogany floor with a central star in satinwood. This was covered with a green baize drugget when the house was occupied by rebels during the 1798 rebellion. The potential of the drugget for making four line flags was considered but rejected by the rebels, lest 'their brogues might ruin his lordship's floor'. The rebels, in fact, did virtually no damage to the house during their stay, although the government forces who occupied the building afterwards were considerably less sympathetic. It is said that the troops only left in 1801 after a furious Lord Milltown challenged Lord Tyrawley to a duel 'with underbusses and slugs in a sawpit'.

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