George Barret was the most celebrated and successful Irish landscape painter of the latter half of the 18th century. These exceptionally well preserved landscapes formed part of one of the largest and most important commissions that Barret received in the early phase of his career. Joseph Leeson (1701-83), who commissioned them, was the scion of a Dublin brewing family and a considerable connoisseur. A politician who served for many years as Member of Parliament for Rathcormic, and was eventually appointed a Privy Councillor, he was created Baron Russborough, of County Wicklow (1756), Viscount Russborough of Russeltown (1760), and ultimately Earl of Milltown in 1763. Leeson had begun work on the construction of a magnificent country house, Russborough, near Blessington, in County Wicklow, in 1741, which, like Powerscourt House, was designed by the German born architect Richard Cassel (Castle), and work was eventually completed some seven years later. Leeson set about acquiring works of art for his new house while it was still under construction; and while on the first of two Grand Tours, he sat to Batoni in 1744 (the earliest recorded portrait of either an Irish or English sitter; Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland), and acquired four Capricci by Panini, among other works. These purchases were to be complemented by others made on a second Grand Tour with his son, Joseph Leeson, later 2nd Earl of Milltown, and his nephew, Joseph Henry, Earl of Straffan. The present paintings, which are thought likely to have been executed in the early 1750s, are part of a commission of twenty decorative landscapes that Leeson gave to George Barret, sixteen of which are now in the National Gallery of Ireland. Leeson had precise positions in the house in mind for these landscapes; the majority were destined for the Library (now the Dining Room) on the entrance front. The remainder were intended for the Saloon. The present horizontal landscapes are one of two pairs of overdoors that were originally in the Saloon. They hung over the pedimented bookcases leading to the Small Dining Room and Music Room, and a corner of one of them is visible in a photograph of the Saloon published in 1937 (see Country Life, op. cit.). The lower parts of each frame show how these rested on the apex of the doorframes. For further information on this commission and illustrations of the sixteen works from the series in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, see N. Figgis & B. Rooney, Irish Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 2001, pp. 47-57.
We are grateful to Aidan O'Boyle, whose article reconstructing the arrangement of the Milltown collection at Russborough will be published in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies next year.