In 1902, Lady Geraldine Dowager Countess of Milltown gifted to the National Gallery of Ireland
the contents of Russborough, Co. Wicklow, in memory of her husband, Edward Nugent, 6th Earl of Milltown (1835-1890). The gift was so extensive and varied - it included paintings, furniture, sculpture, mirrors, silver and objets d'art - that it was necessary to construct a new building (The Milltown Wing) to accommodate the collection.
Included in the Milltown Gift were 3 eighteenth-century scagliola console table-tops, the largest of which is currently on loan to Russborough, and now in need of conservation. To this end the National Gallery of Ireland has commissioned two conservators, Chiara Martinelli and Francesca Toso of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, who have the specialist expertise in the restoration of this medium.
Scagliola is an artificial ornamental marble. Used as a substitute for real marble it is created by way of a complex process which uses pulverized selenite, mixed with glue and pigments. The technique was refined in the mid-eighteenth century by Enrico Hugford, Abbot of the Vallombrosan Monastery of Santa Reparata, near Florence.
The large scagliola table top at Russborough is one of 3 commissioned from Hugford's pupil at the monastery, Don Pietro Belloni, for Russborough, by Joseph Leeson 1st Earl of Milltown during his Grand Tour to Italy in 1744. The design of the table is intricate and highly colourful with a rich pattern of decorations framing pastoral scenes in each corner and a large landscape in the centre.
Given the size (107 x 211.5 x 6cm) and fragility of the piece, conservation on the table top is being carried out in situ at Russborough until end January 2010. It is also being reunited with the recently recovered gilded Rococo console base that Joseph Leeson had made for it when it first arrived in Russborough. The scagliola table-top and its original base will return to public view when the house reopens in the spring.