Major acquisition by OPW and the Castletown Foundation of the portrait of Emily, Duchess of Leinster

23 January 19

The Office of Public Works (OPW) together with the Castletown Foundation, and with the generous support of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, have acquired a portrait of Emily FitzGerald, the Duchess of Leinster which will be unveiled in Castletown House in Kildare on 24th January at 11am.  Lady Emily had a fascinating life, married to James FitzGerald the first Duke of Leinster she was referred to as the "Queen of Ireland" for her role as a political influencer.  Her son Edward, was a major figure in the United Irishmen, and was injured during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and died in prison of his wounds.

Born on 6 October 1731, Lady Emily Lennox, god-daughter of George II was the second of seven surviving children of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond and Lennox and Sarah, daughter of William Cadogan, Earl Cadogan.  Lady Emily married James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare, on 7 February 1747.  After their wedding in London, the couple returned to Fitzgerald's native Ireland and resided in Carton House, Co. Kildare, Frascati House, Blackrock and Leinster House, Dublin.  Their marriage was reportedly a happy one, despite Lord Kildare's infidelities and the couple had nineteen children together (although the paternity of the last child was questioned).  Lord Kildare was created successively Marquess of Kildare and Duke of Leinster in recognition of his contribution to the political life of his country, which many have attributed to the skilful political networking by his wife.  After the Duke’s death Lady Emily caused quite the scandal when she married her Scottish lover William Ogilvie who originally had come to Carton House as a tutor to her children.

The portrait of Emily by Sir Joshua Reynolds was painted in 1774, when she was in London visiting her dying sister, Caroline, Lady Holland.  It shows Emily looking stately in a pink dress and ermine shawl, within a painted oval. She was 43 at the time, and would go on to have a further three children with Ogilvie. The painting originally hung in the Dining room of Carton House, and will now be displayed in Castletown House, home of her sister Lady Louisa Conolly of Castletown House.  The FitzGerald’s and indeed the Conolly’s played a hugely significant role in Irish historical life and Carton House remained  in control of the Fitzgerald’s until the 1920s when the 7th Duke sold his birth right to a money lender in order to pay off gambling debts of £67,500.  Emily and her husband James had arranged a marriage for 14-year-old Louisa to the Right Honourable Thomas Conolly of Castletown.  Nine years her senior, Conolly was a Member of Parliament and had close political ties to Emily's husband James FitzGerald.  Both major landowners the Conollys and FitzGeralds were also hugely important political players in Ireland and this portrait was commissioned when both families were at their zenith of influence in Irish political life.

Commenting on the acquisition, Commissioner of the OPW John McMahon said, "We are delighted to be able to return this wonderful portrait of such an iconic figure in Irish public life back to Ireland and indeed to Castletown House, home of the Duchess’s sister Lady Louisa Conolly". The OPW and the Castletown Foundation are particularly delighted that that this purchase was made possible with the generous assistance of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland (FNCI).

On behalf of the Castletown Foundation, Jeanne Meldon and David Sheehan co-chairs of the Foundation, expressed their delight that it had been possible through a unique partnership arrangement, to acquire this exceptional portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the finest portrait painters of his day, and a painting of such historical significance to Castletown.

Speaking about their support Dr Tom Ryan RHA, President of FNCI, said that it was pleased to have assisted in the acquisition and return to Ireland of this important part of Ireland’s history. "Since its foundation in 1924 our organisation’s role has been to support the national cultural institutions, and the regional and local museums and art galleries, by donating works of art and objects of historical importance to them for the benefit of the public. We have assisted over 50 institutions throughout Ireland – north and south – ­in this way. Fortunately our grant towards the acquisition of the Reynolds portrait was made possible through a recent unexpected and generous bequest."

This joint acquisition of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, will ensure that this important portrait, which was last displayed in Ireland in 1957, can now be appreciated by a wider audience. 


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Note to Editors

Details of the Painting

Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A.

(Plympton 1723-1792 London)

Portrait of Emily Mary, Duchess of Leinster, bust-length, in a pink dress and ermine shawl, within a painted oval

Sold for £81,250 (€90,536) incl. premium at Bonhams London on 4th July 2018