Did you know that Leeson Street, Dublin, was once called Suesey Street? Or that it was renamed in the mid-1700s after Joseph Leeson, a powerful scion, brewery owner and property magnate? Leeson, who went on to become the first Earl of Milltown (the Dublin suburb was also named for him for his entrepreneurial activities there) , commissioned the building of Russborough House, Co Wicklow, in the 1740s. And he it was who originally packed the house full of art treasures gathered on his several grand tours of Europe in the late 18th century.
In The Story of Russborough House, Valerie Ryan charts the history of the Palladian mansion that Leeson built which looked out on the Poulaphuca Falls (later to be subsumed by the Blessington Reservoir). But it’s much more than a history of bricks and mortar. Ryan’s book is full of strange facts and odd connections.
Almost everyone associates Russborough with Sir Alfred Beit who took the house over in 1951. His art collection (including masterpieces by Goya, Velasquez and Vermeer) was the target of two high-profile thefts – the first in 1976 by an IRA gang which included Rose Dugdale, and then again by the notorious criminal Martin Cahill (“The General”) in 1986. The Beit collection was eventually bequeathed to the State and now hangs in the National Gallery.
But what I didn’t know was that Joseph Leeson’s original art collection was also handed over to the State in 1904, courtesy of Geraldine, Lady Milltown. So extensive was Leeson’s bequest of paintings, sculptures, furniture, silverware and books that the gallery’s Milltown Wing had to be built specially to accommodate it.
This is the kind of book I love – impeccably researched, packed with quirky detail and for a historical novelist like me, full of magpie facts and narrative openings. . .
In its time, Russborough has attracted its share of celebrities, including Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful. But for more celebrity secrets associated with the house, we’re going to have to wait for Sir Alfred Beit’s diaries due to be opened in 2075, or 21 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whichever comes first.
The Story of Russborough House is available in selected bookshops or from http://www.blessingtonbookstore.ie/