Bringing a touch of Avoca to Russborough House – The Irish Times
There’s more than one reason these days to visit one of Ireland’s finest Palladian houses, Russborough, which in its beautiful grounds in Wicklow boasts the longest frontage of any house in Ireland, spectacular 18th century interiors and a famous art collection.
However, the new cafe and basement shop, which over the past two years have been transformed by former Avoca creative director Amanda Pratt, attract the attention of more recent visits.
Changes include a new, expanded and well-designed cafe and basement store, while what was an unprepossessing visitor entrance through a side courtyard now opens onto the grand colonnade into a bright and welcoming reception area.
The cafe is spacious and colorful, the glass tables house intriguing found objects of all kinds, from seashells to photos and other keepsakes. Likewise, carefully selected and interesting items are for sale in the shop – clothes, gifts, toys, books, garden and kitchen accessories, most of which relate in one way or another to the home, its interiors and its objects. There’s plenty to distract the eye from embroidered Indian brooches and Italian conversation rings, to silk pajamas, candelabras, unusual puzzles, scarves, glasses, table accessories, garden tools and a wide range of gift cards. And more.
“Her eye is very creative,” says store manager Anne Connolly, who has worked at Avoca in Powerscourt for more than two decades. Dressed in one of the store’s printed silk kimonos, she says local and overseas visitors to the Russborough store particularly love its quirky items. “Amanda buys very smartly and in relation to what the house is, the artwork, the furniture, 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 Scotland’s largest landowners and a descendant of Charles II’s illegitimate eldest son). After visiting Avoca in 2007, he wanted to restore the family’s 300-year-old stables at Dalkeith Palace, outside Edinburgh, and create an ‘Avoca-style’ cafe and lifestyle store, in what was originally a thriving 18th century court housing horses and grooms from 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 that £10million [€11.5 million] Restoration Yard project,” recalls Pratt. “And it was an interesting experience for an Irishwoman to get into it with an Irish team and a big part of it was restoring my confidence, but Damian was the support and the kindness itself.” She also came up with the idea for a wellness lab in the loft as well as a children’s play area, both of which have become popular destinations. The Yard was completed in 2017 and last year won the Best Independent Store in the UK and Ireland Draper’s Award, a huge source of pride for everyone involved. (Visit it at www.restorationyard.com)
A graduate in the history of art and architecture, Pratt has a great love for 18th century interiors and art. Following her success with Restoration Yard, she was approached by Teresa Crowley, Business Development Manager at Russborough, for advice on optimizing the home and accepted work, pro bono, for the Alfred Beit Foundation, the Trust charity in charge of the area.
“One of the reasons I agreed 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 donated 600 works 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 store. We have so few [big houses] left, so let’s take care of 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. His 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 completely heartbroken when she was sold and I was raised by her who kept talking about her life in this house and being raised in. She told me all these stories.
As a designer, she’s never short of imaginative ideas for the store “because I come from a maker background and I’m pretty strict about what I stock. One of the things I have tried to do is to have as little plastic as possible and also I refuse to store books on theft and crime here [referring to the biggest art theft in the State’s history in 1986)] because this house needs a rebirth – it’s all about craftsmanship, beauty, skill and uplifting the spirit through experiencing the things in it – something to love apart whole.
She’s also aware, she says, that the house is ‘adult-oriented’, so she’s working on a baby’s room with items from the Museum of Childhood as well as other donated pieces, including a rocking horse. , a Victorian cradle, toys and clothes.
His next venture, however, is even more ambitious. Last year, it bought the former Avoca headquarters in Kilmacanogue and is embarking on a major property and commercial project. “I love project-based work and there’s a lot I want to do – and a lot will be to do and design.”