Breathing life back into a great estate


Until recent times Clandeboye, one of Northern Ireland’s finest surviving estates, was in decline, but regeneration has brought cultural and commercial renewal

IMAGINE ONE OF those annoying treasure hunts in which one is tasked with tracking down an unlikely assortment of items. On the list is a tub of yoghurt, a Christmas tree, a poem by Tennyson, an orchestral concert, a dance class, a round of golf, an art exhibition and a prize-winning cow. But then imagine the delight in discovering that all paths lead to a single destination, within the walls of one of the North’s great historic estates.

Clandeboye’s unobtrusive entrance stands beside the busy commuter route that runs along the shore of Belfast Lough, linking the seaside town of Bangor with central Belfast. Within seconds of your passing its prettily painted gate lodge the roar of the traffic is but a distant memory. A winding driveway leads down through lush meadows and dense green woodland to the Courtyard, the hub of the 800-hectare estate’s commercial activity.

This picturesque setting makes an impressive venue for wedding receptions, business seminars and a variety of private functions. Several years ago the pianist Barry Douglas and his Camerata Ireland Orchestra made a canny decision to stage their annual summer music festival here, with glossy corporate bashes after the closing concert very much part of the occasion.

The old stone buildings framing the Courtyard, which date from the early 18th century, include a dovecote, a magnificent high-ceilinged banqueting hall, a baronial-style gas house, whose great cast-iron bell has recently been restored, a stable block converted into an art gallery and the estate’s private chapel. They are adjoined by a series of intimate walled gardens, beyond which are the woodland gardens, containing vast collections of rhododendrons and other exotic plant species, which flourish in the balmy north Co Down climate.

Clandeboye is one of the few remaining estates still in the ownership of the original family. It has been the home of the marchioness of Dufferin and Ava – the painter Lindy Guinness – since her marriage in 1964 to Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the fifth and last marquess. His mother was the flamboyant Maureen Guinness, one of the three sisters known as the fabulous Guinness girls, so admired by the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton.

Guinness studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London. Her teacher and mentor was the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. In the 1960s she and her husband helped run the fashionable Kasmin Gallery, in Chelsea, one of whose first exhibiting artists was David Hockney, still a close friend.

She took up residence in Clandeboye as a newly-wed. Like many other ascendancy estates, it had become rather run-down by the end of the war. When, in 1968, her mother-in-law handed it over to the young couple they started to fill the house with beautiful furniture, paintings and carpets and set about replanting the extensive gardens.

“We changed it totally,” says Guinness. “I look on this wonderful place as sacred land and consider myself very much its custodian. It is a tremendous privilege to live here.

“The person whose spirit I constantly try to invoke is the first marquess, a really fantastic creature, who was at the apogee of the empire. His wife, the former Hariot Rowan Hamilton of Killylea Castle, was at the forefront of making medical treatment available to women in India and was responsible for building many hospitals there. I am extremely proud to be the keeper of their legacy. I always believed that a great estate must have a connection with the community outside. I am certainly not against commercial enterprise, but my vision for Clandeboye is based on excellence and learning rather than tourism.”

Since her husband’s death, 22 years ago, she and her team have turned Clandeboye’s historical, natural and man-made assets into a thriving commercial and cultural enterprise.

Karen Kane, the Courtyard manager, has worked here for 17 years. She describes Guinness as an inspiration and marvels at the way she manages to paint, travel, keep her London home going, maintain her huge social network and still have her finger firmly on the pulse of Clandeboye life. “When I came here they kept ponies in what is now the car park, and the Ava Gallery was stables and a tractor shed,” she says. “I’ve seen huge changes. There have been about 260 weddings here over the years and I’ve been at every one. It’s important for the Courtyard to make money in order to sustain the estate.”

The current chatelaine’s love of the arts is clearly evident. She is preparing for an exhibition of her own work in Paris (“in the Grand Palais, I hope”). She lends staunch support to Dance United NI, which recently used the Courtyard for an international choreography residency and as the rehearsal space for a dance festival in Germany.

Camerata Ireland’s 2010 festival, running from August 16th to 21st, will, as usual, give performance and educational opportunities to some of the finest young Irish musicians.

Adam’s Fine Art Auctioneers Valuers, in Dublin, has just made the Ava Gallery its Northern base; it will celebrate its opening with a loan exhibition entitled The French Connection(August 16th to September 3rd). “It explores French influences on Irish painters at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century,” says Adam’s director David Britton. “It concentrates on those who studied and worked in France – mainly Brittany – and also on the rediscovery of the Cork-born painter Thomas Hovenden. He was critically acclaimed in America but is virtually unknown in Ireland. This is thought to be the first time his work has gone on public display in his native land.”

Clandeboye was first settled in 1674. The first marquess, guided by the celebrated landscape designer James Frazer, was responsible for laying out its spectacular parklands, which were so extensive that the estate still has the largest area of broad-leaved woodland in the North.

The Dufferin Foundation now acts as a focus for environmental research, and the Courtyard is the base for Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland. The grassy meadows are home to a herd of Holstein and Jersey cows, which produce milk for the prize-winning Clandeboye Estate Yoghurt.

The imposing colonnaded house was constructed in 1801 after being designed by Robert Woodgate, a pupil of the English architect Sir John Soane, who specialised in the neoclassical style. It had to be extended to accommodate the enormous number of artefacts, books and documents acquired by the first marquess, who was viceroy of India, governor general of Canada and a close friend of Queen Victoria. Today its exterior appears much as it did when it was built.

On rising ground on the southern side of the estate stands the iconic Helen’s Tower. It was commissioned as a Famine relief project by Lord Dufferin, named in honour of his mother, Helen Selina Blackwood, and commemorated in the poetry of Tennyson and Robert Browning, among others. It completes the picture of what the fifth marquess once said was “a magical place”.

“Clandeboye is a house which welcomes people,” Guinness writes in the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society’s guide to the estate. “There is no challenge to equal the pleasures and frustrations of owning such a place. It is a house of dreams and enchantment and, as I grow older, the pleasure of being part of it grows greater.”