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.


A piece of the Ber­lin Wall in the gar­dens

Sweet­peas in the herba­ceous bor­ders



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.lis­more­cas­

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