There are whistlestop tours and there’s a 30 minute stopover till the Gatwick flight from Terminal 2 Dublin Airport departs to check out a centuries old castle complete with famous gates, a gatelodge, even more famous stables, cottages, a walled garden, an orchard, a ruinous church and graveyard. Oh, and did we mention squeeze in a coffee in the kitchen with the owners, an artist and historian, their film director son and dogs? Welcome to Shankill Castle, 45 minutes from the airport. If the heel is very firmly to the steel up the M9, that is.
The house is full of surprises. A playful Gothic exterior gives way to a wintry panelled entrance hall. “The 17th century chimneypiece without a mantelpiece is of an unusual design,” says Elizabeth Cope, the bold and brilliant artist in permanent residence. “There’s a similar chimneypiece in the National Trust house Dyrham Park just outside Bristol. This one’s made of Kilkenny marble. Did you know Kilkenny marble is actually polished limestone? Look at how tall and slim the Queen Anne doorcases are. They’re so elegant.” The hall, like all the rooms, is a wonderfully eclectic mix of period details, antiques and of course Elizabeth’s vivid paintings, bursting with life – and in some cases death. In the middle of the hall is a drum rent table with several dummy drawers for security and symmetry.
Beyond the entrance hall lies the dining room with a great boxy bay window overlooking the geometrically shaped lake at the back of the house. Dozens of wine glasses are laid out on the dining table. “It’s my son Reuben’s 30th birthday on Friday. The theme is The Great Gatsby. You must come! I love throwing parties. I always think no one will come and then at the last minute everyone turns up. This house is made for parties. There’ll be dancing through the night.” The drawing room is a gloriously summery space with wide windows opening onto the driveway and side garden reflected in 16 foot tall mirrors. Faded Edwardian wallpaper is the perfect backdrop to several of Elizabeth’s life size nudes. They’re as colourful and vivacious as the artist herself.
Through the former billiard room and ante room, now an interconnecting study cum office cum art store, to the bow ended staircase hall. “Look at the walls,” points Elizabeth. “They were lined with Sienna marble in 1894.” We’re heading towards the back of house now, literally and metaphorically. “Keep to the left!” We descend the precariously angled stairs to the basement. Along a veritable rabbit warren of domestic quarters: boot room, lamp room, gun room, scullery, wine cellar with no wine – “We’ve drunk all the wine!” – past a row of numbered servants’ bells we finally arrive at the kitchen, once the servants’ hall. “Different rooms have been used as a kitchen down the years,” explains Elizabeth. “Owners tended to move the kitchen in tandem with whatever room they used as a dining room.” Flagstone floors are gently worn by the passage of time.
The tour continues outside. “The nine sided sundial next to the lake is 36 minutes behind London time. Geoffrey my husband says more like 36 years behind London.” Elizabeth sighs wistfully. “London is the only place. We’ve sold our house in Kennington but I still exhibit in London. I recently had a show at Chris Dyson’s gallery in Spitalfields. Tracey Emin came. She wanted to buy the sofa in the gallery. I should’ve partied more in London when I was younger. What a waste!” she laughs. The Copes bought Shankill Castle in 1991. “It was as if the house was destined to be our home. We know the previous owners, the Toler-Aylwards. In fact they’re my daughter Phoebe’s godparents. Phoebe lives in Scotland – she’s an artist too.”
Time is pressing; we’ve broken into a run. Elizabeth cuts quite a dash. “Come quick and see the stables. They’re by Daniel Robertson.” She strikes a pose. Even though Elizabeth has a studio in a stone outbuilding which would be the envy of any artist, she exclaims, “I paint everywhere, in the garden, on the bus, you name it! I paint through the chaos of everyday life. If I was to wait for a quiet moment I’d never paint. I believe painting should be like dancing. The real ‘work of art’ is not so much the canvas when the paint is dry. Rather it’s the physical rhythm of the process of painting it.”
Beautifully restored estate cottages and the east wing of the castle are available to let. “The things you do to keep a place like this going,” says Elizabeth as we leap through the ruins of the church to the side of the front lawn. ‘Shan-kill’ is derived from the Irish for old church. “We throw a ScareFest every Halloween where I dress up and lie in a coffin to spook visitors. What people don’t know is it’s my real coffin. I was ill a couple of years ago so I thought I better get fitted out for one, just in case.” A full calendar at the castle includes the Midsummer Fair, Murder Mystery, Drawing Marathon, Wand and Quill Making Workshop, artist residencies and a new music festival Light Colour Sound.
It’s time to go, to drive by the haha and the trees planted in the 1820s to frame the view of Blackrock Mountain, leaving behind Shankill Castle, a world of its own.