Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Sale of Pictures by the Beit Foundation

The group of paintings that are being sold by the Beit Foundation, to create an endowment fund designed to keep Russborough House open and in good working order, have nothing whatsoever to do with the generous bequest made by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit. They are owned by the Foundation. They are significant individual works of art and their sale is important and should be supported by the very organisations that are now trying to stop that sale.

Notable among these are An Taisce, the Irish Georgian Society and The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland. All are misrepresenting the facts.

The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland maintain that the paintings “form part of the bequest of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit”. They do not. That bequest is safely and proudly held in the National Gallery. It is no longer safe for it to be housed at Russborough. This second, more recent group of works were not “gifted for public benefit” other than as decided by the Beit Foundation. The State has no responsibility in the matter.

The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland has an honourable place in gifting works and it is a pity to see it embroiled inappropriately in necessary housekeeping approved by those who knew the Beits and by the Apollo Foundation (set up by the Beits) which has generously providing funds for capital work at Russborough. It supports and endorses what is being done.

The involvement of An Taisce, attempting a totally inappropriate legal challenge to the sale, has less justification for its actions than the Friends. Its self-declared function in Irish life is to protect our built heritage and our environment. It is not equipped to engage in the legal challenge on which it has embarked, against Christie’s, or involving? the Director of the National Gallery, who carried out correctly his function in signing the export licences for the works of art.

An Taisce is wrong in working on the principle that the Minister for the Arts is the appropriate and only person responsible for the granting of licences. There is a fixed and time-honoured system for doing this and it has been followed. By its own terms of reference An Taisce is engaging in matters for which it has no remit and no known expertise in judging the ownership and quality of the works of art. Its motives have to be questioned.

An Taisce has claimed, correctly, that its nominee on the Board voted for the sale. Incorrectly, it has gone on to refer to the nominee not seeking “An Taisce's mandate in advance of the vote.” This would have been inappropriate. It is not the way such boards work. One does not serve on a board of this kind in order to promote the views of one’s organisation or to report back and take instructions on how to vote.

The sensible management of board membership was followed scrupulously by Robert O’Byrne. He was the nominee for the Irish Georgian Society. For his pains he was removed by the society in a foolish and mistaken response to the controversy and the public outcry, and he is being replaced.

The Irish Georgian Society, which has given valuable service to Irish culture for a number of decades, was entirely out of its depth over the Beit Foundation and the paintings. Its function is to raise awareness of our architectural heritage and to protect, where possible, the decorative arts. It has no role whatever in the quite different field of the fine arts, notably of painting and sculpture.

The only role possible for all three organisations, and indeed for people who care about what the Beits did for Ireland, is to support and help Russborough in its funding dilemma, since it has become clearly evident that the Government will do nothing to help Russborough.

Moreover, as part of the long process of working out the creation of a robust endowment fund, which is what this greatest of all Irish houses needs as a matter of urgency, it would have been more appropriate, for these otherwise distinguished organisations, to understand better the facts and respond to them. Responding to the hysteria and augmenting it has been wrongly and dishonestly engendered, putting at risk the necessary sale of a small group of paintings. Without any fault or betrayal of artistic trust and understanding this has been done to help this great house continue to delight its many visitors.

Floundering over the pictures is a modest side-issue. The real issue concerns the survival of a great house within the arguments of an indifferent and mean-minded public who fail to see that great possessions need deep pockets to preserve them.

The Beit Foundation has, over a long period of intelligent investigation of alternatives, discovered, what other institutions discover to their cost, that both public and private generosity is limited in this country in the preservation of our heritage.

The members of the Foundation have acted correctly, their interest in common with that of Russborough. One of them, a nominee of the Beits, faced aggressive demands from another organisation to which this person belongs demanding resignation. Quite properly this person refused and asked for the reasons. They have not been furnished.

We have witnessed a disgraceful exercising of misinterpretation of purpose, completely wrong claims about the ownership of the paintings, misleading views on their connection with the hugely important gift of truly great works by the Beits to the State, the State’s indifference – of no surprise to me – in the face of appeals by the Foundation, and a degree of public hysteria that is shameful and ignorant to the point of idiocy.