An exciting new Café and Gift Shop at Russborough House & Park open today, signalling a reimagined visitor experience. We talk to creative director, Amanda Pratt about her vision for this historic property …
When Amanda Pratt was approached in November 2020 to reimagine the visitor experience at stately home, Russborough House in Co Wicklow, she was given the dual mandate of finding new ways to attract the public to visit this wonderful historic property, and to rejuvenate the café experience and improve sales at its gift shop. Pratt doesn’t do standard fare. So when visitors enter Russborough today, they do so via the spectacular colonnade, rather than ducking into a yard at the back of the house. Pratt took an early stance on this: “I felt strongly that visitors should be encouraged to take in the sheer beauty of the house, to feel the scale of the wings and to absorb the atmosphere.”
In the elegant curved corridor, where you check in for the frequent house tours, you find part one of the new Gift Shop with the more familiar art books and cards offering, but it’s the impressive lower ground gallery that sells covetable collections of faux-vintage gardenalia, stationery, deco-style china, classical book ends and edgier homewares. There is everything from milk jugs, chinoiserie-inspired trays and glassware to her pick of pretty kimonos, silk scarves, bags made from recycled plastics, and nightdresses that might have been worn centuries ago. There are floral eiderdowns, cool ceramics and candelabra and decorative interiors objets. The aim is for visitors to find a hidden treasure, much like the experience they get as they tour what is said to be Ireland’s most beautiful Georgian house. Somehow, you walk away with something and it feels like you are taking a tangible memory of the place with you.
The food offering is now seen as central to most cultural visitor attractions, so the focus was on creating the brightest possible interior for the new Russborough Café. It’s a pretty space with built-in benches and signature trouve tables. Outside in the newly-gravelled, boxwood-edged courtyard, a huge Feijoa tree creates a focal point. A heavenly spot for coffee, delicious lunches and afternoon teas, salads, pastries and cakes until indoor dining is permitted.
As former creative director of Avoca, Pratt was largely responsible for Avoca’s unique retail mix, as well as the interiors at many of its locations. Since the Pratt family sold the business, her strength in combining art, architecture and retail has landed her some very interesting work. A recent project, for the family of the Duke of Buccleuch, second biggest landowners in Europe, was to create a shop and restaurant at their Scottish seat, Dalkeith Palace near Edinburgh. Called Restoration Yard after the converted stables that houses it, she commissioned a line of merchandise inspired by the Buccleuch family’s priceless art collection and initiated partnerships with local artisans and makers. This classy buy was a far cry from the souvenir-style items usually found in great house, gallery or museum gift shops.
Pratt’s husband, Tom Kelly has executed an exciting rebrand for Russborough House & Park, giving it a new identity and highlighting its “Hidden Treasures”. He has adopted an ancient statue of Fame that rests on top of a Tuscan column in the Maze as the new emblem.
The challenges in maintaining an architectural gem such as Russborough, once home to Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit, are significant. Having reopened in 2018 after a period of refurbishment, it had to close again over the lockdown. Now there is art and furniture on view that has not been seen for decades. Pratt refers to what she calls our “very complicated relationship with Great Houses. Once seen as symbols of oppression, we now recognise the importance of treasuring them and want to look after the architectural gems that remain. Great architecture brings history to life and allows us to ponder the lives of generations before us.”
Russborough is run by a charitable foundation set up by the Beits to maintain it and ensure public access, so it depends on its own fundraising and commercial activities to survive. This imperative makes the vision for the new Gift Shop and Café all the more vital.
Working closely with Russborough’s Teresa Crowley – she also of The Molesworth Gallery – Pratt’s instinct was to enhance the Russborough House & Park experience, not just to focus on selling things. “Russborough’s treasures and its architecture and history inspired us to find the mix of products in the Gift Shop and the style of the Café. Instead of being an add-on to the experience, we hope it’s a lovely part of it.”
Photographs by Joanna Barry
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