ALFRED BEIT's tremendous generosity to Ireland was ill requited. Twice Russborough, his house in County Wicklow, was burgled and ransacked. The first time, in 1974, the raiders mishandled both husband and wife. His stolen pictures were, however, immediately recovered. The second time, in 1986, they were not. Of the 18 pictures taken then, six were found only last year, and three are still missing. Beit felt the blow of the burglary severely.
I had met Alfred Beit occasionally in the Thirties at luncheon and dinner parties, where he shone. But it was not until he was billeted in Sir John and Lady Dashwood's West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire for a year or more during the Second World War that I got to know him. He was working nearby as a Squadron Leader in the RAF. He had recently married Clementine Mitford, a first cousin of Nancy Mitford and her sisters.
Until he was 36 Beit had enjoyed a golden bachelorhood. Fair, good-looking, tall and eligible, he was much sought after. On his father Sir Otto Beit's death in 1930 he succeeded to a baronetcy and a fortune. He greatly appealed to women, who found his origins romantic. These were German and Jewish, while his mother was a Carter from New Orleans. There were diamond mines in the background, as well as Eton and Christ Church.
Beit was very intelligent. He was Unionist MP for South-East St Pancras (1931-45). Yet he never enjoyed office beyond becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Oliver Stanley. When the war was over he retired from politics, in which he had no ambitions for promotion.
He inherited many South African interests and duties. His first name was that of his celebrated uncle Alfred Beit, Sir Otto's elder brother, the intimate friend of Cecil Rhodes and his collaborator in the founding of De Beers Consolidated Mines in the 1880s. Beit senior was a keen imperialist, whose pounds 2m legacy for South African charities and culture called for the nephew's ultimate administration. The younger Alfred was devoted to South Africa and until his death kept a small house there. Far from being imperialistic, his outlook was definitely liberal. He was fiercely anti-
apartheid and after the Dominion's break with the Commonwealth his sympathies were with the blacks.
Beit's abiding loves however were music and the arts. He played the piano and was a lavish patron of musicians. He was a founder of the Wexford Operatic Festival and an assiduous opera-goer. Architecture too meant a great deal to him and with his wife he travelled all over the world in pursuit of it. His memory was prodigious. He inherited and augmented one of the greatest collections of pictures, including the only Vermeer, apart from the Queen's, in private ownership. Soon after the war he bought Russborough at Blessington, south- west of Dublin, one of Ireland's largest and most splendid Georgian country houses, filling it with his paintings and works of art.
Since the Beits, to their distress, had no children, the devoted couple founded the Beit Trust for the permanent endowment of the fabulous house and its contents. When a republican gang burgled the house in 1974, 19 pictures were taken, but they turned up again a week afterwards. When it was burgled again 12 years later, 18 pictures went, including Vermeer's The Letter Writer.
Seven pictures were found discarded in a ditch the next day, and since then all but three of the remainder have been recovered by police: Gabriel Metsu's A Woman Reading a Letter was found in Istanbul in 1990, and Gainsborough's Madame Bacelli in London in 1992; in March last year The Music Party, by Palamedez, was found in a locker at Euston station, and a portrait of a monk by Rubens in a house in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. Last September Goya's Dona Antonia Zarate, the Vermeer and two other pictures were found in Antwerp.
After the raid Beit could not at first bring himself to enter the museum part of the house again. He and Clementine continued to live in one of the wings, and in 1987 they donated 17 paintings - including the Vermeer and Goya, then still missing, and pictures by Velazquez, van Ruisdael, Frans Hals, Gainsborough and Murillo - to the National Gallery of Ireland.
Alfred Beit was cultivated and wise; informative, forthright and fun to be with. He was insatiably curious, ever seeking knowledge. Yet serious conversation with him usually ended in peals of laughter, especially when the jokes were turned against himself. Over the years his Mitford wife's teasing dispelled any Teutonic earnestness lingering from his bachelor days. He was a highly civilised, very good and most lovable man.
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