The Blunden sisters: Last of the great adventurers

Castle Blunden: Jane and Caroline Blunden at their former family home, in Co Kilkenny, some of whose contents are being auctioned on June 25th. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
THE BLUNDEN TWINS HAVE TRAVELLED THE WORLD THROUGH ART AND CULTURE. NOW THEY ARE BACK FOR A FINAL SALE OF CONTENTS AT CASTLE BLUNDEN, IN CO KILKENNY

When it comes to art and adventure, the Blunden sisters, Caroline and Jane, have led extraordinary lives so far. Born into a family of six girls, the twins were born in Malta just six minutes apart, and raised by a Maltese nanny who was reputed to have 23 children of her own.

They then returned to the family estate at Castle Blunden in Co Kilkenny where they enjoyed what they describe as an idyllic childhood on their 340-acre farm. “We used to skate on the lake every winter, though at times we were really skating on thin ice,” says Jane with a grin.

Being identical twins, we got away with quite a lot. If one of us was out the night before, she slept in the storeroom while the other was out front serving customers

Their father, Sir William Blunden, a British naval officer and farmer, established Rionore, a bespoke jewellery business in Kilkenny along with Sir Basil Goulding, which was then taken over by the distinguished jewellery designer Rudolf Heltzel and still operates today.

At the time Kilkenny was a hive of creative activity, as the then government had funded the Kilkenny Design Workshops as a centre of excellence for craft and design.

From here, the girls worked for Kilkenny Design and, when they turned 18, both jumped at the opportunity to run the Kilkenny Design shop in New York. “It was so much fun, and, being identical twins, we got away with quite a lot. If one of us was out the night before, she slept in the storeroom while the other was out front serving customers,” laughs Caroline.

But art runs deep in these women’s blood. Their great grand aunt was the eminent artist Sarah Purser – known for her stained glass and portraits. Purser once joked of her portraiture that she “went through the British aristocracy like the measles”.

She was the first female member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and also helped with the establishment of the Hugh Lane Gallery, by persuading the Irish government to hand over Charlemont House to house the gallery.

Purser lived at Mespil House – which has since been replaced by Mespil Flats – where she hosted her legendary “First Tuesdays” at her salon, where writers, politicians and artists would gather to discuss the affairs of the day.

Purser was also related to the painter Sir Frederick William Burton, linking these formidable twins to Ireland’s favourite painting The Meeting on The Turret Stairs.

After their post in New York, the twins caught the bug for adventure, deciding to explore Southern and Central America: “but we decided to go by land, and travelled the whole way down to Argentina and then over through Africa. After this it was Indonesia and eventually Australia.”

Castle Blunden: Jane and Caroline Blunden at their former family home. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Castle Blunden: Jane and Caroline Blunden at their former family home. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

While swimming in Bali a Russian man rescued Jane from turbulent seas “with his togs tied around his neck as the sea kept dragging them off him”. Years later, after Caroline had studied fine art, and following a scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, a chance encounter led to the same Russian man introducing her to interior designer Christopher Gibbs, for whom Jane went on to work.

Known as the King of Chelsea, Christopher Gibbs, the cultured aesthete and dandy, introduced distressed bohemian style to interior design, and was a central figure in 1960s hedonist London.

Mick Jagger is quoted as saying after meeting Gibbs: “I’m here to learn how to be a gentleman,” and Gibbs also persuaded John Paul Getty Jr to donate £40 million to the National Gallery in London.

Caroline, through her work with Gibbs and her education in China, became an expert on Chinese art and artefacts. Her book, A Cultural Atlas of China, which she co-wrote with Mark Elvin, has been translated into nine languages.

Pierre Salinger really trusted me. The list of people in my telephone book was incredible. Some days it was, ‘Get me Kissinger on the phone’

For the past three decades Caroline has curated contemporary Chinese painting exhibitions and currently sits on the Vetting Committee for Masterpiece, one of the world’s leading international art fairs.

She is involved with Opera Prelude, promoting young singers, and divides her time between her home in London and Blunden Villa, the gate lodge to Castle Blunden in Kilkenny, which she co-owns with Jane.

Former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, whom Jane Blunden worked for. Photograph: Wojtek Laski/Getty
Former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, whom Jane Blunden worked for. Photograph: Wojtek Laski/Getty

Jane’s travels took her to France where she became a journalist, and after joining Caroline for a time in China, she ended up working as China correspondent for The Irish Times, prior to the Irish government having a diplomatic mission there.

“I remember having this crazy satellite phone in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and I had to turn my camel in the direction of the Indian Ocean in order to get a connection,” laughs Jane.

She eventually ended up in Mongolia where she worked on reintroducing wild horses which had become extinct, and while there she too penned a book, Mongolia, which has had three editions.

On returning to France, Jane ended up in the employ of Pierre Salinger, an ABC news correspondent. Salinger, who had been White House press secretary for John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was also campaign manager for Robert Kennedy and was standing 10ft from Kennedy when he was shot in Los Angeles in 1968.

Keeping his promise: “If Bush wins, I’m going to leave the country and move to France,” he moved to France and employed Jane.

“It was an amazing time,” says Jane, “and Pierre really trusted me. Though we knew people in common, the list of people in my telephone book was incredible. Some days it was, ‘Get me Kissinger on the phone’,” she says.

The artistry bug also hit Jane; her main interest today is line drawings and her series on Brexit will shortly be printed in California in numbered editions.  

The twin’s youngest sister Fiona, who is based in Vermont, is a noted gilder having studied art in Paris. Her company, Gilt by Association, repairs and restores gilt frames and mirrors, for museums, private clients and antique dealers.

The Blunden family have been in Kilkenny since the 17th century and their home, Castle Blunden, was constructed in the mid-1800s. “The family integrated and survived through the 18th century by marrying heiresses, and through the 19th century’s turbulent times by being honest and decent – keeping their heads down and playing chess,” say the twins.

Castle Blunden, in Co Kilkenny. Some of its contents will be auctioned by Sheppard’s on June 25th. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Castle Blunden, in Co Kilkenny. Some of its contents will be auctioned by Sheppard’s on June 25th and 26th. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The castle and estate have since passed the sisters to the first-born male heir through the primogenitor line.

When their father, Sir William, died in 1985, the estate went to his brother Sir Philip, as the girls had no brother.

Their mother, Lady Pamela Purser Blunden, continued to live at Castle Blunden until her death in 2017, and now the castle, estate and title have passed to the heir apparent, their nephew Patrick.

The handover to a nephew meant we girls of the 20th century were expected to seek our fortunes in other places and our generation was neatly skipped over

“The handover to a nephew meant we girls of the 20th century were expected to seek our fortunes in other places and our generation was neatly skipped over,” say the sisters, who are now scattered all over the globe. Lizzie is in Australia where she and her husband run a holiday letting company, with Fiona in Vermont and Caroline and Jane in London.

The women have inherited the residue of the estate which will go under the hammer at a forthcoming auction: “Of course it is sad to see these things go; we are emotionally attached to them and the place through growing up at Castle Blunden.”

This sale also reflects the thinking and choices of the Blunden family in the objects gathered over three centuries. “We are proud to belong to this pioneering and energetic family including the Pursers – whose artistic influence was absorbed in the culture and lifestyle we led at Castle Blunden.

“The great aunt Pursers, in their blue stockings, would drive in the Austin A40 from Dublin bringing us exotic presents such as Chinese umbrellas. No sweets but lots of lovely books.”

And though the twins (and their sisters) have had to part with their childhood home, their joie de vivre is infectious. Listening to them describe their adventures by the smouldering fire in the gate lodge of Castle Blunden is captivating.

It is also evident that these enterprising sisters, with a combined age of 140 years, have many more adventures ahead and, like their great grand aunt Sarah Purser, they too have made their contribution to the worlds of art, politics and literature.

The residue of the Castle Blunden estate will be auctioned on behalf of the Blunden sisters on June 25th and 26th by Sheppards, in Durrow, Co Laois