While the art on display may seem avant-garde, Burlington is actually following in family tradition. Most of the items in the Devonshire collection—which includes pictures by Holbein, Rembrandt and Veronese—were fresh goods when they were purchased. In his day, for example, the Sixth Duke built a gallery at Chatsworth to display his collection of Antonio Canova sculptures, which were considered daring by contemporary society because of their stark depiction of naked flesh. And Burlington’s grandparents and parents were early collectors of, respectively, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. But Burlington is putting his own touch on the ancestral hobby. “I wanted to do something that was a bit more ephemeral, not so acquisitive,” he says. “We’re just following our passions and hoping that if we do things at a high enough level, people will at least respect that.”
The castle’s 2007 show, “Titled/Untitled,” was a unique collaboration with another family of collectors, Don and Mera Rubell of Miami. Burlington says he was struck by the couple’s passion for collecting when he heard them lecture at the Frieze Art Fair. (“I almost started stalking them afterward,” he confesses.) Following a visit to their Miami exhibition space, Burlington persuaded them to come to Ireland, where he conceived of his idea for the show: The Rubells would select items from the Devonshire collection (including works at Chatsworth), and William and Laura would take their pick from the Rubell trove. The Rubells’ contemporary art, mainly video works by Gregor Schneider, Hernan Bas and others, was displayed in a stable block, while the Devonshire pieces, including portraits by Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough, were hung in the Lismore Castle Arts gallery.
“My family started our collection 45 years ago, and his began 500 years ago,” Mera Rubell says of Burlington. “But I was so impressed by how forward looking he is. He’s a very contemporary person, but at the same time he is determined to understand and appreciate the past.”
For this season’s show, “United Technologies,” the Burlingtons wanted to explore the relationship between beauty and utility. Their guest curator, Belgian-born Philippe Pirotte, director of the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, chose the artists, including Ai Weiwei, Stefan Brüggemann and Rita McBride.
Rather than just “parachuting” their work in, as Burlington terms it, most of the artists arrive at the castle days before the opening to begin installation, or, in the case of Corey McCorkle, to start brewing. After gathering wild dandelions from the castle grounds, McCorkle boiled the flowers in huge vats, then put the liquid in jugs for fermentation. In September the wine will be poured into handcrafted bottles that are already on display in the Paxton-designed glass conservatory in the garden. “Using the most ubiquitous, least desired thing in the garden—weeds—I choose to make something ceremonial,” explains McCorkle, who also applied gold leaf to ornately carved wooden walking sticks, which visitors will be able to sign out for hiking on the grounds. While in residence at Lismore, the Brooklyn-based artist is allowed free rein. “I have the keys to the castle,” he says with a sense of disbelief.