There is more than one reason these days to visit one of Ireland’s finest Palladian houses, Russborough, which, in its magnificent Wicklow parkland setting, boasts the longest facade of any house in Ireland, spectacular 18th century interiors and a famous art collection.
Catching the eye of more recent visits however may be the new cafe and basement shop, which, in the past two years, has been transformed by former Avoca creative director Amanda Pratt.
The changes include an expanded, well-designed new cafe and basement shop, while what was an unprepossessing visitor entrance through a side yard, now opens at the grand colonnade into a bright and inviting reception area.
The cafe is spacious and colourful, the glass-topped tables housing intriguing found objects of all kinds from shells to photos and other memorabilia. Similarly carefully selected and interesting things are on sale in the shop – clothing, gifts, toys, books, garden and kitchen accessories, most of which connect with the house, its interiors and objects in some way. There’s a lot to distract the eye from Indian embroidered brooches and Italian conversation rings, to silk pajamas, candelabras, unusual jigsaws, scarves, spectacles, table top accessories, garden tools and a huge range of gift cards. And more.
“Her eye is very creative,” says shop manager Anne Connolly, who worked in Avoca in Powerscourt for over two decades. Dressed in one of the store’s printed silk kimonos, she explains that both local and overseas visitors to the Russborough shop particularly love its quirky objects. “Amanda buys very intelligently and in relation to what the house is about, the artworks, the furnishings, the objects – she always has that in mind.”
Pratt has form when it comes to retail spaces. After the family business Avoca was sold in 2015 to Aramark, she was contacted by Damian Scott Montagu, brother of the Duke of Buccleuch (one of the largest landowners in Scotland and a descendant of the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II). Having visited Avoca in 2007, he wanted to restore the family’s 300-year-old stables in Dalkeith Palace outside Edinburgh and create an “Avoca-style” cafe and lifestyle store, in what was originally a thriving 18th century yard housing horses and grooms of visiting royals from Mary Queen of Scots to Sir Walter Scott. Pratt rose to the challenge.
“I had a team of four and a rented office in Dublin for this £10 million [€11.5 million] Restoration Yard project,” Pratt recalls. “And it was an interesting experience for an Irish woman going into it with an Irish team and a big part was restoring confidence in myself, but Damian was support and kindness itself.” She also came up with the idea of a Wellbeing Lab in the loft as well as a children’s playground, both of which have become popular destinations. The Yard was completed in 2017 and last year won the Best Independent Shop in UK and Ireland Draper’s Award, a huge source of pride for all involved. (Visit it at www.restorationyard.com)
A graduate in history of art and architecture, Pratt has a great love of 18th century interiors and art. After her success with Restoration Yard, she was approached by Teresa Crowley, business development manager at Russborough, for advice on making more of the house and took on the work, pro bono, for the Alfred Beit foundation, the charitable trust in charge of the estate.
“One of the reasons I accepted to do this was to continue the philanthropy of the families who lived here – the Milltowns and the Beits who gave two of the biggest gifts to the National Gallery. The Milltowns gave 600 pieces of art, furniture and objects and the Beits 17 old masters including a Vermeer. I am interested in Russborough as a celebration of beauty and cultural heritage and telling a story through the shop. We have so few of these [big houses] left, so let’s look after what we have.”
She herself comes from a big house background and connects with the spirit of the place. “My grandmother Stella [Pratt née McVeagh] was born in 1898 at Drewstown House in Athboy, Co. Meath. Her ancestor Major Joseph McVeagh married the daughter of the governor of Madras and bought the house in the 1780s – it remained in the family until the 1950s. “My grandmother was utterly broken hearted when it was sold and I was brought up by her talking endlessly about her life in that house and being brought up there. She told me all these stories.”
As a designer, she is never short of imaginative ideas for the shop “because I come from a background of makers and I am quite strict about what I stock. One of the things I have tried to do is have as little plastic as possible and also I refuse to stock any books about the robbery and crime here [referring to the biggest art theft in the State’s history in 1986)] because this house needs a rebirth – it is about craft, beauty, skills and the elevation of the spirit by the experience of the things in it – something to be loved in its own right.”
She is also aware, she says, of the house being “adult orientated” so is working on a nursery room with items from the Museum of Childhood as well as other donated pieces including a rocking horse, Victorian cradle, toys and clothes.
Her next venture, however, is even more ambitious. Last year she bought the old Avoca head office in Kilmacanogue and is embarking on a major building and business project. “I love project-based work and there is a lot I want to do – and a lot will be making and designing.”