Who's that lady? The extraordinary life of the Marchioness of Dufferin

It takes great reserves of chutzpah to live in a place like Clandeboye but Lady Dufferin is not lacking

 Lady Dufferin pictured with some of her artwork at the  gallery on the Clandeboye Estate. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

Lady Dufferin pictured with some of her artwork at the gallery on the Clandeboye Estate. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

 

Perched on a window-sill, her Hunter wellington boots elegantly propped on the back of a chair, Lady Dufferin is telling me all about her amazing yoghurt. Made from the milk of her beloved herd of pedigree Jersey and Holstein cows, Clandeboye Estate’s yoghurt is a tremendous success story. You seem to see it everywhere, these days: in supermarkets, garages, farmers’ markets and independent shops across Ireland and the UK, and it has won numerous awards. Clandeboye, in Co Down, is one of Ireland’s oldest and largest estates, and it’s entirely self-sufficient, free of trusts and foundations – which is why the yoghurt has proved to be such a God-send.

“The money it makes keeps the engine of the estate going from day to day,” says Lady Dufferin, otherwise known as Lindy Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. “We all work as a team, everyone has to be interchangeable, and we’re fantastically proud of our yoghurt, all of us.” She grins. “Though I have to say, I don’t think I could milk a cow.”

The 75-year-old Marchioness is deaf, though you’d never guess: she’s an expert lip-reader, and besides, her playfulness and vivacity – the sheer force of her personality – outweigh everything else.

There aren’t many people like Lady Dufferin around any more. She has had a long, extraordinary life, surrounded by the foremost artists of her time – David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud – many of whom came to Clandeboye for glorious bohemian parties, in the days when Dufferin and her late husband Sheridan were at the very centre of the London art scene. Sheridan, the fifth and final Marquess of Dufferin and Ava – he was named after his ancestor, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan – was a committed patron of the arts, and co-founded the famous Kasmin Gallery in New Bond Street in 1963. He died in 1988, from an Aids-related illness, aged 49.

An artist herself – she paints as Lindy Guinness – Lady Dufferin continues to live at a pitch of intensity that few people achieve. But right now she wants to talk about one of her favourite subjects: those pedigree cows.

“I call them ‘the ladies’,” she says. “Countless champions, the best cows in Ireland.” Cared for by her loyal cow-man and herd manager Mark Logan, who has been at Clandeboye for decades – Dufferin affectionately refers to him as the herd’s “permanent hair-dresser” – they aren’t just the source of milk for the yoghurt, they’re also regular sitters for Dufferin’s art. Sheltering in her painting hut, out on the 2,000 acre estate, she spends hours studying their angular forms. A new series of her abstract cow paintings is currently on show in the Ava Gallery at Clandeboye. In a special publication to accompany one of her London exhibitions, Dufferin reflects on the fascination. “It is a journey I am on,” she writes. “I am searching for the essence, or platonic form of the cow-ishness of cows. They intrigue me . . . Essentially, I love to draw the cows as they are, in my mind, an integral part of Clandeboye – I can’t think of the land without the cows. They are interchangeable in my mind, with the trees, the clouds, the wind patterns – they all seem to echo the cows.”

Cows are far from her only subjects, however. On one occasion, she painted the Rev. Ian Paisley. “It’s in the Ulster Museum, I think, perhaps they are too nervous to show it,” says Dufferin wryly. It’s a characterful, energetic portrait, showing a robed Paisley wearing a florid tie with flags and the word “no” written on it. Dufferin was taught to paint by the great Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, and also by Duncan Grant, of the Bloomsbury group. She has described meeting Grant, when she was 17, as “one of those chance meetings that change the course of one’s life”. She travelled to France and Spain with him, and later he visited Clandeboye. “My whole development as a person and as an artist is entwined with Duncan.”

I’m not surprised to learn that it was Lady Dufferin herself who came up with the idea for making Clandeboye yoghurt: as well as her passion for art and aesthetics, she clearly has a strong entrepreneurial side. “Well, what happens is that I go and get frivolous ideas in London [she has a mansion in Holland Park] and read books and come up with wild ideas,” she says. “Some of them are shot down, but some of them win.”

One of Dufferin’s initiatives is an un-staffed “honesty” shop within the grounds of Clandeboye, where customers can buy milk, yoghurt, eggs, honey and granola – the various products of the estate – and put the money they owe into a box. Just before Christmas, thieves broke into the box and took the cash, but Dufferin remains undeterred. “The point is that it’s been running for eight years now, and it balances out pretty fairly. It’s really good, it gives a nice, ungreedy atmosphere to the estate. I think the people who stole – perhaps they might just have been feeling a bit un-Christmassy?”

Mark Logan and Bryan Boggs, the yoghurt business manager, exchange smiles. “Lady Dufferin has the idea that she would like to open honesty shops all over the country,” says Boggs. “A famous American billionaire told me that I really ought to do it,” insists Dufferin. “He said it wouldn’t matter how many times we were broken into, the publicity [for the yoghurt sales] would be so huge.” Logan and Boggs look sceptical. “Well, these gentlemen will never let me get away with it. When they say no, that’s it.”

“Yes,” says Boggs. “It’s a sort of semi-democracy, but not totally.”

Lady Dufferin is particularly proud that the main supermarkets stock Clandeboye Estate yoghurt. “If you’re dealing with the big boys, Tesco and Aldi, normally it isn’t a sort of homegrown activity. What’s unique about this is that we have actually penetrated the big boys with our product and they are very, very pleased with it. And it hit just at the moment when they were feeling a bit conscious that they needed to support local people.” Eight years ago, Clandeboye started off by making 300 litres of yoghurt a week, and now they produce over 2,000 litres a day. The thick Greek-style yoghurt, which is hand-strained through cheese-cloths in the traditional way, is their most popular variety. Each pot carries a reproduction of one of Lady Dufferin’s paintings. Bryan Boggs thinks they have made in the region of five million reproductions of her paintings now. “That’s how I came to be the most famous disposable artist in the world,” she quips.

“There was a terrible moment when we first sent our yoghurt to Sainsbury’s,” says Dufferin. “I was hanging on the end of the telephone, waiting, waiting, waiting to hear, and everyone went along to look at the shelves and there was no Clandeboye yoghurt. And I got more and more sad, more and more depressed, and finally we found out that the packaging we sent it in wasn’t big enough for their machine, so it had gone round picking up everybody else’s yoghurt and missing ours. Terrible.”

“I’ve been here for 25 years,” says Mark Logan, “and the herd has changed a lot in that time. I turned up very enthusiastic about pedigree cattle and showing. Lady Dufferin was already interested, she saw my enthusiasm and was keen to support it. Lady Dufferin was having dinner with the Rothschilds and they were talking about having cows flown in from Canada, so she arrived back at Clandeboye and came to see me and said – ‘could that work?’ And I said ‘yes’. She said ‘would you like to do that?’. And I said ‘yes!’ Within a year, we brought one over. It wasn’t like ‘here’s a blank cheque, Mark, go and spend it’. But the herd developed from there.”

“Everything has dove-tailed,” says Lady Dufferin. “Because of the fact that Mark’s been hugely successful with championship cows and winning all sorts of prizes, suddenly what appeared to be a kind of hobby became fantastic publicity. What started out as pleasure, or an aspect of excellence, with no ulterior financial gain, suddenly it became this fantastic publicity stunt. So now we have these champion cows producing champion yoghurt on champion land. That’s what’s so wonderful.”

Now, with the recent purchase of a methane digester, which generates electricity from cow waste, Dufferin has high hopes of making Clandeboye completely energy self-sufficient: “the sun makes the grass grow, the cows eat the grass and they produce milk and then the dung, which goes into the digester and it creates electricity to run the factory and then on and on in this great cycle of energy.” For more than 30 years, the Northern Ireland branch of Conservation Volunteers, a cross-community environmental project, has also been based at Clandeboye,

Dufferin has a charming, child-like, entirely unaffected innocence in her manner which can get her into trouble at times. For instance, when she confessed to a reporter that she hadn’t a clue about supermarkets because she had never been inside one, the British press ridiculed her. But little fazes the Marchioness. She ended up having a hilarious conversation about it with her old friend David Hockney, who rang up after he saw her being mocked in the papers. She has previously described the artist as absolutely enchanting, entirely original in his approach: “he takes life by the short and curlies and gives it a shake.” Hockney even came on honeymoon with the Dufferins. She remembers Hockney with his “very round spectacles and very blond hair”, driving around America with them in an open-top Cadillac.

Hockney remains a dear presence in Dufferin’s world, and although they don’t see each other quite so often these days, she recently lent a number of her personal collection of Hockney paintings for the extensive new retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, in London, opening on February 9th.

When Miss Belinda Guinness – as she was then – married her cousin, Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, in October 1964 in Westminster Abbey, it was a spectacular affair. The New York Times described the 22-year-old bride’s dress in detail: “it had a bodice molded to a slightly raised waistline, a narrow roll collar and a princess line skirt flowing to a 15-foot court train held at the shoulders with small tailored bows. The bride’s veil of tulle was attached to the Dufferin and Ava shamrock tiara.” Afterwards, a reception for 1,800 guests was held across three floors of the Café Royal, with a fleet of buses used to transport guests from the Abbey. As a wedding gift, Lindy’s father, the financier Loel Guinness, gave her a wardrobe of 20 dresses by the Parisian designer Antonio Castillo.

“He saw a photograph of me,” says Dufferin, remembering her husband. “He cut out the photograph and he stuck it on his shaving mirror, and he said ‘I’m going to marry that woman’.”

Dufferin had an odd, disconnected and sometimes turbulent upbringing, mostly cared for by nannies. She was born on March 25th, 1941, at a Scottish airport, of all places: her father was group captain of a squadron stationed at Prestwick, and he declared that his heavily pregnant wife, then aged only 18, should have her child there. “He said the birth should take place at the airport to cheer everyone up,” says Dufferin. “New life in the middle of the war, you know.” Later, he taught his little daughter to fly a helicopter, perched on his knee.

In 1951, Loel Guinness divorced Lindy’s mother, Lady Isabel Manners, and married the Mexican-born socialite Gloria Rubio. “She was a complex figure, very beautiful, and famous in the fashion world,” recalls Dufferin. After her father took her out of school at the age of 14, Dufferin spent time with her new stepmother in Palm Beach, where Truman Capote was also a house-guest. “Oh, he was a famous court jester, he had a brilliant mind. He had a slanting approach to life.”

Dufferin also remembers meeting the French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau: “I would have been about seven years old, and I was sitting on a yacht with my father in the south of France, it was the port in Antibes. I heard an odd, gurgling sound in the water, and out came a man with a helmet on his head. My father pulled him on to the boat and they started chatting. I had little baby aqua-lungs and later I went down with Cousteau.”

The Marchioness throws out these vignettes and anecdotes about the people of her life quite casually. Lucian Freud, who was briefly married to Sheridan’s sister, Caroline Blackwood, in the 1950s, is summed up as “very tricky, brilliantly clever”. But you get the impression that she has no desire to dwell on lost friends or years gone by. There’s too much going on in here and now for her to linger, as many older people do, in half-forgotten memories.

For a woman so determinedly rooted in the present, Lady Dufferin lives in a house that is a fantastic, melancholy shrine to the past. And yet she is clearly devoted to it, and takes her responsibilities as custodian very seriously. She has always felt comfortable here, even during the Troubles. “Many of my English friends were deeply concerned about my security but understood I had total confidence about being both a Guinness and a Dufferin and [was] proud of both these cross-Border Irish connections,” she said in an earlier interview.

Clandeboye is a late Georgian country house, dating back to 1801, which was transformed by the first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Sheridan’s great-grandfather. Frederick was close friends with Queen Victoria, and a renowned diplomat who became Governor-General of Canada and Viceroy of India. Above all, he was an avid collector, and Clandeboye holds many of his strange treasures: stuffed baby bears, Indian cut-throat weapons, ornate Burmese day-beds, an Egyptian altar-piece, a tiger-skin rug. At either side of the grand staircase stands a pair of narwhal tusks, glimmering eerily in the semi-darkness.

Yet to Dufferin, Clandeboye is simply home. She kicks off her shoes and dumps her handbag unceremoniously at the bottom of the stairs, under the narwhal tusks. In the dining room, surrounded by portraits of Blackwood ancestors, a single place is set for dinner. It strikes you that it would take great reserves of personal chutzpah to live in a place like Clandeboye. But Lady Dufferin is not lacking in this respect.

She is receiving a cochlear implant soon, which will help her hearing. “Yes, I’m going to be a cyborg,” she says, clearly relishing the novel prospect of being part-human, part-machine. For the irrepressible Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, it’s always about what comes next.

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