William himself paid only one visit to the property, at age 10, when his parents brought him and his sisters for a visit from their home in London. No one had lived there full-time since 1944, when Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Ninth Duke, died. (He had moved to Lismore in 1932, with his bride, Adele Astaire, sister of Fred.) In 2004, when Burlington’s parents were renovating Lismore, he pitched to his father his dream of transforming the west wing into a gallery. After receiving an enthusiastic yes, Burlington, an Eton and Cambridge graduate who was working in London as a photographer for newspapers and magazines, oversaw a restoration that turned the cavernous space into a winning minimalist gallery. A group show featuring the works of Matthew Barney, Barry Flanagan, Richard Long and others opened in 2005. The next summer Burlington mounted a solo show with Long, who created site-specific works incorporating materials he gathered from the local landscape.
Around the same time, Burlington found an enthusiastic new friend who shared his interest in art, Laura Montagu. Then an editor at Harper’s Bazaar UK, she had grown up in the art world; her father, Richard Roundell, is vice chairman of Christie’s. After bonding during their frequent visits to London galleries, Burlington and Montagu fell in love and, in 2007, were married. Soon after, the Duke entrusted his son with the responsibility of running the castle in its entirety. “They knew I had a deep love for Lismore and felt that a younger hand on the tiller would be a good thing, especially in light of their increased commitments at Chatsworth after my grandfather’s death,” says Burlington.
Marrying Montagu was something of a bold move for Burlington; it was the first time an heir to the 300-year-old Devonshire title had married a divorcée. (In 2002, after a four-year marriage, she split from Orlando Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich’s youngest son.) Though the English press made much of Burlington’s precedent-breaking choice of bride, his family didn’t blink. “I don’t think it crossed any of our minds. I just feel I am very lucky to have found the love of my life and [that] she agreed to marry me,” he says. His happiness was “trebled,” Burlington adds, with the birth this past March of a daughter, Maud, in London, where the family now lives in a 19th-century town house in Holland Park.
A classic blond English beauty who speaks in soft tones, Laura, 37, fell for Lismore’s charms upon her first visit: “It was like a fairy tale, and I couldn’t believe how verdant everything was.”
Bringing contemporary art to this rather remote corner of Southern Ireland has been an exciting adventure for the pair. While the nonprofit exhibition space’s growing reputation is now drawing sophisticated cultural tourists, in the beginning it was visited primarily by the thousands who come annually to see Lismore’s stupendous gardens. The Burlingtons seem particularly pleased that the local population has been coming in large numbers to see the art, too. “People have been so receptive. Or at least the ones that think it’s rubbish are kind enough not to say it,” says Laura.