The gardens of Lismore Castle
Since the 12th century, Lismore Castle has welcomed authors and artists, princes and presidents, dukes and dancing girls, all of whom have left their traces on this ancestral home. Its current custodians, Lord and Lady Burlington, are cherishing the historic legacy while also bringing it to life with spectacular contemporary art
There are many panoramic views of Lismore Castle, but to see it at its best requires a little extra effort. Thus it is that, shortly after landing at Cork Airport, the Countess of Burlington and I swerve off the road to drive over a bumpy meadow and park on the banks of the fast-flowing Blackwater. There we change into helmets and life jackets, and push off in a couple of canoes. As we speed down the swirling river, the grey crenellated turrets loom into view, protruding above the encroaching trees like Sleeping Beauty’s castle from the forest of thorns… From this vantage point, it looks like a place of haunted bedchambers, echoing dungeons and buried treasure – no wonder it was chosen to play Northanger Abbey in the 2007 film starring Felicity Jones.
The real shock comes after we walk up the walled drive, pass beneath the frowning gatehouse and push open the Gothic front door. There, in place of the anticipated cobwebby suits of armour and panelled walls hung with mediaeval weaponry, I find a bright airy hall adorned with bouquets of wild and garden flowers, a log fire burning in the grate and a sideboard hospitably furnished with different varieties of gin.
Above my head is suspended an enormous chandelier bearing the numerous coats of arms of the Cavendish family – for Lismore is one of the many ancestral properties of the Dukes of Devonshire – but in their midst I also spot the Arsenal crest (Lord Burlington is a committed Gunner) and a pair of crossed gavels to represent Sotheby’s auction house (where the current Duke is deputy chairman). Rather like Austen’s young heroine Catherine Morland, I am simultaneously cheered and slightly disappointed by the realisation that Lismore is a well-loved, well-run home rather than a
The fireplace in the drawing-room
This page: the gardens, with Lismore’s church in the background. Opposite: a portrait of the 6th Duke of Devonshire and a casket reputed to be Pugin’s ‘lunch box’ on the desk in the drawing-room
gloomy ruin, as well as being, like a Tardis in reverse, much smaller on the inside than it appears externally.
When the family are not in residence, Lismore Castle is rented out on an exclusive basis for group stays, sleeping a maximum of 27. It is impeccably run by the butler Denis Niven, who has worked at Lismore for more than 35 years, overseeing a team that includes a suitably excellent head chef whose biscuits are stocked by Fortnum & Mason and who dishes us up exquisite, flower-studded salads to accompany a salmon caught from the river below. This is a house made for parties; the ‘craic’ is embedded into the walls along with the cannonballs, relics from the castle’s sacking during the Cromwellian wars.
After the Burlingtons married in 2007, they held their wedding party at Lismore. ‘When people have to travel for a party, it’s always a good one,’ reminisces Laura Burlington. ‘They tested the cocktails on the DJ, so it was quite fun, everyone stayed up late and then we had an art show in the stables. I love it – I think it’s such a special place. Creative people are drawn here… lots of artists, writers. Just read the guestbook! It’s all in there.’
And indeed, for anyone interested in the doings of high society, or artists, or musicians, or Hollywood stars, or politicians, the visitors’ books of Lismore Castle would make intoxicating reading. Originally built in 1185 by Prince John – subsequently the infamous English King immortalised in the Robin Hood legend – it became a bishop’s palace before being bought by Sir Walter Raleigh. While languishing in the Tower accused of high treason, he was persuaded (‘at sword point’ says Laura) to sell the place along with 42,000 acres of land for the absurdly low price of £1,500. The canny purchaser was Richard Boyle, later first Earl of Cork and the father of Robert Boyle, the pioneering chemist whose Law every schoolchild still learns to parrot. Thereafter the house and lands passed to the Devonshires, after the fourth Duke married Lady Charlotte Boyle, and they sensibly hung on to it. It was the 6th Duke, known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’, who fell in love with Lismore and invested enormous sums to transform it, rebuilding it in Derbyshire stone and engaging both Joseph Paxton (the Crystal Palace’s designer) and Augustus Pugin to transform it inside and out. The castle is said to be home to Europe’s largest collection of Pugin furniture and the mediaeval-style banqueting hall he created, with its ornate Gothic ceiling, stained-glass window and choir stalls, is gasp-inducing.
As well as the usual host of aristocrats, past guests have included Charles Dickens, John F Kennedy, Lucian Freud, Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Pamela Churchill and Anthony Eden. I spot Prince Charles’ signature in the guest book alongside Camilla Parker Bowles’, and flicking through the pages from 1969, find Fred Astaire’s, recording a twoweek stay. Beside it is written: ‘I thought he’d never leave!’
For until 1981, the chatelaine of Lismore was Astaire’s sister and former dance partner Adele, and one suspects it is her shade that has influenced its happy atmosphere. Hers was an enlivening presence. Mary ‘Moucher’ Cavendish, later the Duchess of Devonshire, memorably described an encounter with the vaudeville star in April 1932, shortly before Adele’s wedding to the second son, Lord Charles Cavendish. ‘The heavy doors at the end of the library opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed.
PAST GUESTS HAVE INCLUDED CHARLES DICKENS, JOHN F KENNEDY, LUCIAN FREUD, CECIL BEATON AND JOHN BETJEMAN
A piece of the Berlin Wall in the gardens
Sweetpeas in the herbaceous borders
HARRY CORY WRIGHT
HARRY CORY WRIGHT
We waited for her to approach, but instead of walking towards us, she suddenly began turning cartwheels… Everyone loved it.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the self-styled ‘hoofer from Nebraska’ fell in love with the slow pace of life at Lismore; she ran the house, went on long walks, kept a goat, practised her dancing to the gramophone and devoured romantic novels, which still stand in the bookcases. By the fireplace in the drawing-room you can see rows and rows of tiny little hand-stitched repairs in the damask wallcovering, which are her work. And she had a thoroughly un-english (at the time) belief in the importance of warmth and adequate washing facilities. ‘It’s been said that Prince John built Lismore, but Adele Astaire plumbed it,’ observes Niven. Indeed, the Duke’s bathroom has possibly the best view in the whole place: over the battlements right down to the swirling Blackwater and on to the Knockmealdown Mountains in the distance; another bathroom is a homage to the Jazz Age, with a mirrored bath tub, geometric rug and black and white photographs of dancers (the Astaires themselves?) in full swing.
Anybody who has visited Chatsworth, and particularly the recent, brilliant ‘House Style’ exhibition masterminded by Laura Burlington, will recognise the insouciant Devonshire family approach to interior decor at Lismore. In the centre of the mantelpiece in the great drawing-room, for instance, sits a china ornament of a lion couchant, which I had assumed was some antique treasure but in fact had been won at a coconut shy. Beside it, in a silver frame, stands a photograph of James, the Burlingtons’ son and heir, his angelic little face plastered in chocolate ice-cream. Conversely, when I enter the dining-room (a comparatively small affair, seating 18 at the polished table, as opposed to the dozens that can be accommodated in the Pugin banqueting hall), I am startled to see real candles flickering inches in front of the Van Dycks. At the entrance to many of the bedrooms and bathrooms lie bright rag rugs bearing naive images of animals, birds and flowers that are the work of the renowned botanical artist Emma Tennant, sister to the current Duke and mother of Town & Country’s former cover star Stella Tennant.
‘It’s an intimidating place to decorate because there’s a strange tension between these objects,’ admits Laura, as we sink together into the slumbrous depths of a sofa that she has had expensively recovered to look exactly as it did before. ‘Sometimes I think it looks so awful, we should take all the pictures out and get someone in to rehang them all better. But then I think, actually, no. This is the whole beauty of Lismore. It’s got a particular sort of atmosphere, that’s quite underrated in houses, that has been built up over years and years, and years. You can’t rush in with your Farrow & Ball card and a modernising approach. Where I have redecorated, I’ve tried to use the same patterns as in the rest of the house but maybe in a slightly lighter colourway.’
Fortunately Lismore Castle Arts, the contemporary-art gallery that her husband William Burlington – himself a photographer – established in 2005 in the west wing of the castle, gives the couple ample scope to indulge their penchant for modernism. It has a rolling art programme, and among the scores of notable artists that have exhibited here are Ai Weiwei, Mat Collishaw and Michael Landy. Today, Anthony Mccall’s solo exhibition is on, and the galleries have been darkened and filled with mist, sliced through with moving beams of light so that as you walk in you become integral to the artwork. It is entrancing.
The same inspiring juxtaposition of old and new is carried through into the gardens, which are arranged over seven acres within the 17th-century walls. Down the Yew Tree Walk (which is where Spenser is said to have penned his epic poem) an Antony Gormley statue stands between the ancient trees. A turret is given over to a sound installation; two graffiti-covered slabs of the Berlin Wall loom in a bosky glade; and returning to the castle via the vibrant herbaceous borders and the glasshouses hung with grapes, you are confronted by an extraordinary bubblegum-pink chair sculpture by Franz West, commissioned by the Burlingtons to celebrate their marriage. Yet outside or in, the most glorious achievement is the castle itself, at once imperishably lovely, yet a dynamic, ever-evolving work of art. For more information, visit www.lismorecastle.com.