Earl's Court

With a summer show of cutting-edge art, Lord and Lady Burlington are waking up Lismore Castle, his family’s ancient Irish estate.

Culture » Earl's Court

Earl's Court
The Earl and Countess of Burlington in the dining room of his family’s Lismore Castle. Behind them are a sideboard designed by A.W. Pugin and paintings by contemporary Scottish artist Stephen Conroy.

Earl's Court

With a summer show of cutting-edge art, Lord and Lady Burlington are waking up Lismore Castle, his family’s ancient Irish estate.

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.

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.

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.

The afternoon of the opening, the castle is a beehive of activity. All 12 bedrooms are occupied by the artists, as well as curators, collectors, dealers and friends who have flown in. After a boisterous cocktail hour in the gallery, which spills out into the garden, dinner is served in the Great Hall, a grand room that resembles a miniature Houses of Parliament.

London gallerist Iwan Wirth, who represents the Jason Rhoades estate, has great admiration for the Burlingtons’ endeavors. “It displays a deep, intimate commitment to art that museums no longer are able to have,” he says of Lismore Castle Arts. Staying overnight at the castle, he adds, made the experience “a gesamtkunstwerk,” or total artwork. “It was fantastic to relax in my bedroom, admiring a 17th-century tapestry and the Pugin wallpaper while paging though a 1942 Vogue that was lying on a shelf and glimpsing out my window to the river below, with fly fishermen wading through it.”

“We are in a very fortunate position,” says Burlington the next day. “We are not bound in the way that institutions and commercial galleries are. Hopefully, we can offer the artists a chance to do something out of their normal cycle.” But the greatest pleasure for him, it seems, has come from doing his part to expand his family’s artistic legacy. “All my life, this part of the castle has been dead and derelict,” he says. “We are very happy to see life going on in there now.”

  • Paintings reproduced by permission of Stephen Conroy; © The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.