Lismore Castle, perched high on a cliff above the River Blackwater in County Waterford, Ireland, has seen its share of transformations. A multiturreted fortress built in 1185 on the ruins of a monastery that date from 633, it later functioned as a bishop’s palace; from 1589 until 1602, it was the estate of Sir Walter Raleigh. For the past 250 years, the castle has served as a very stately extra home for the Cavendish family, heirs to the illustrious dukedom of Devonshire. What, one wonders, would the property’s former occupants make of the neon signs spelling out slang expressions for female genitalia, currently installed in the castle’s west wing?
These items (by the late Jason Rhoades) and other artworks are bringing a long-derelict portion of the castle to life as a summer exhibition space called Lismore Castle Arts. The gallery is the brainchild of the estate’s overseer of the past few years, William Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington. A boyishly handsome 40-year-old, he has worked as a professional photographer and prefers to be known as William Burlington. Nonetheless, it is difficult for him to escape his birthright. The son and heir of the present Duke of Devonshire, he will one day inherit Chatsworth, one of England’s most palatial, treasure-stocked residences.
Strolling through a Lismore courtyard on a rainy day in April, Burlington displays a mixture of pride and amusement about his lineage. Pointing out the family coat of arms carved in the ancient stone above an entry, he notes its Latin motto, Cavendo Tutus. “It’s not a very impressive one,” he says, almost apologetically. “It means ‘Survive by Caution,’ which is hardly likely to strike fear into the hearts of one’s enemies. As a child, I used to wish it were something more like ‘Death or Glory.’ But it seems to have worked for us.”
That’s an understatement: His father, who became the 12th Duke of Devonshire, in 2004, is Britain’s 88th-richest person, with a $790 million fortune, according to the London Times. (Burlington’s grandmother, Deborah, the last of the six fabled Mitford sisters, still crackles with wit at 89.) In addition to the 75,000-acre Chatsworth and the 8,000-acre Lismore, the Duke owns several other significant properties, including Bolton Abbey, a 12th-century priory in Yorkshire.
Still, the family’s real-estate holdings aren’t quite as extensive as they were in the days of Burlington’s ancestor the Sixth Duke, who came to Lismore for the first time around 1810 with the intention of selling it to cover the huge gambling debts racked up by his recently deceased mother, the profligate Georgiana (subject of last year’s costume drama The Duchess). Instead, enchanted by the castle’s romantic charms, he decided to restore and enlarge it, an undertaking into which he poured a good deal of his fortune and energy. Working closely with Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace, and A.W. Pugin, who helped rebuild the Palace of Westminster, he transformed the place into a sumptuous 19th-century fantasy of a Gothic castle.