'˜If I could hear I would be tempted to gossip all day'
I first met Lindy Guinness, who has the formal title of Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, but is known more commonly as Lady Dufferin, some years ago, around the time Clandeboye Estate launched its eponymously named yoghurt - produced courtesy of the estate's award-winning bovine beauties, a herd of Holstein and Jersey cows.
At that time, I was impressed by her seemingly boundless energy, zest for life and charisma.
Now, at the age of 75, Lady Dufferin hasn’t slowed down, in fact, if anything, she’s even more sprightly, flitting between her home in London and Clandeboye Estate, throwing parties, gardening and indulging her biggest passion of all - painting.
When I arrive for our interview she’s meeting some people from the Mac in Belfast which is hosting an exhibition of the work of British pop art pioneer David Hockney.
Lady Dufferin was painted by Hockney and is a close friend of his.
‘‘I have been a personal friend of David’s since 1962 when my husband, Lord Dufferin, started a gallery called the Kasmin Gallery and the first artist they took on was David, so all through David’s life and all through my life we’ve been very close.
‘‘He’s fascinating. He’s unique, he’s absolutely wonderful as a character. He’s a genius, it doesn’t matter what he does, if he tells a story, if he goes to a party, if he paints a picture, he’s just wonderful,’’ she gushes.
As I wait for Lady Dufferin, the cobbled courtyard at Clandeboye buzzes with activity.
People come and go to the Ava Gallery, a commercial gallery and exhibition space in a converted stable where Lady Dufferin currently has an exhibition, and the beautiful strains of classic music waft through the air as acclaimed pianist Barry Douglas and a cellist and violinist practise in the banqueting hall for the upcoming Clandeboye Festival. It’s magical.
Lady Dufferin immediately dispels the image of the venerable artist shut away in a garret, disengaged from the world. She is exceptionally sociable. When we met all those years ago, she described herself as a ‘‘terrific party girl’’ and, she says, still is - despite being deaf.
‘‘I love parties. I go to hundreds of parties and no one can understand how I can hear, but I lip read so well.
‘‘Everybody else is getting older and deafer, so I’m having a ball and everybody else can’t hear a thing,’’ she smiles.
Lady Dufferin started to lose her hearing in her 40s.
‘‘We think it was a virus. I mean, I’ve been seriously deaf since about 48,’’ she says.
But as is typical of this upbeat character, she is sanguine about her hearing loss.
‘‘It’s changed my life actually being deaf. I’m not unhappy about it, I’ve just had to change it.
‘‘It forces me to go to the studio and I have to paint, I mean I could actually read, but I prefer painting because it’s physically heaven using all these different colours and things, so I paint, I paint and I listen.
‘‘But if you’ve got bad hearing it’s very, very tiring listening to people, so what you do is intensive listening for two hours, then you’ve had it and so what I do is I go to my studio, take my hearing aids out and then paint for two hours, then I’m completely refreshed and go and talk again.
‘‘So it’s a terribly good combination actually. If I could hear perfectly I’d be permanently tempted to gossip.
‘‘I’d much prefer to gossip than sit and paint all day long,’’ she laughs.
Born Serena Belinda Rosemary Guinness, Lady Dufferin has a mass of curly, unruly hair and very blue mischievous eyes, which stare intently as she lip reads.
She says: ‘‘I have to watch you very carefully and concentrate, see how your lips are moving and then I can relate to you, but if I look in the opposite direction, I wouldn’t know anything you are saying - and that’s with the hearing aids in. If I take them out I’m completely gone, completely deaf.’’
And she admits being deaf does mean she can’t do some of the things she loves like ‘‘listening to the wireless for instance , going to a theatre, going to a cinema.’’
‘‘You can do absolutely nothing if you’re as deaf as I am. But, as I say, what is so wonderful about life is that within minutes that gap is filled - I paint, I adore gardening, I adore going to exhibitions, I’m unbelievably happy on my own. The awful truth is I almost prefer to eat on my own.’’
Lady Dufferin is the widow of the fifth and last Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (1938-88)- her fourth cousin.
He owned an art gallery in London and played an active part in the artistic life of the metropolis.
She has traditionally guarded her privacy and never fully opened her home, or herself much, to the press.
Her father and stepmother Gloria Rubio took her to Palm Beach for the winters, where she spent time with Rubio’s close friend Truman Capote. As a girl, she was a passionate artist and studied painting under Oskar Kokoschka.
She won’t be drawn to elaborate much on her early years, saying only: ‘‘I had a very exotic upbringing. I was all over the world.
‘‘It was a complex and thrilling upbringing, but I think we all have complex upbringings in some format.
‘‘We all have very complicated beginnings - mine just happens to be more glamorous so people want to know about it, but actually it’s no different to anybody else’s.
‘‘But if you have famous names attached to a complicated life then of course it’s terribly interesting for other people - but I think people shouldn’t pry into it somehow, I just let it be.’’
Lady Dufferin is currently hosting an exhibition at the Ava Gallery of her own works entitled Cello and Cows - a percentage of the sales will go to the chamber orchestra, Camerata Ireland.
One gallery is devoted to music and paintings of the cello given to her about four years ago by the famous cellist Andres Diaz.
‘‘I thought he was giving me a handkerchief ,’’ she says.
‘‘He opened his cello case and he said ‘this is for you’ and I could hardly believe my ears.’’
She admits she ‘‘pathetically tried to learn to play it’’, but failed, so now it’s lent to different students each year.
‘‘It goes all over the world now being played and comes back each festival. And when it’s resting I paint it.’’
The other gallery is devoted to her beloved cows.
‘‘I absolutely love my cows and they have been part of my life at Clandeboye forever and what is very exciting is that they have now also created the Clandeboye Yoghurt.’’
Her cow paintings adorn the packaging of the yoghurt, which recently scooped three stars in the coveted Great Taste Awards, and is stocked in leading supermarkets across Ireland and also in the upmarket Fortnum and Masons in London.
She believes the yoghurt helps to keep her young and agile.
‘‘I should have a picture of myself doing yoga on the pot and saying ‘Eat Clandeboye Yoghurt and you never grow stiff’, ‘‘ she laughs.
These days she divides her time between Clandeboye and London.
‘‘I have a wonderful house in London.
‘‘We bought this large broken down house in Holland Park in 1967 in the days when you could buy them - now they’re priceless. And one way or another I’ve just never left.
‘‘Everyone in my row used to be ordinary young married couples and now it’s the King of Jordan and his uncle and three houses belonging to the Saudi family. It’s now become Fort Knox and then there’s me and this wonderful large house and I have a ball in it.
‘‘I entertain a lot there, I have a gallery, I have a wonderful garden which is just the right size for me to manage and I love it.’’
She loves animals and used to have a pet dog at Clandeboye.
‘‘I had a working spaniel dog that I worshipped - but as I was going back to London - the agony of saying goodbye to it just became too much.
‘‘If I ever found that I have to stay put somewhere I’d definitely get one.
‘‘If you take on a dog they are a full time job, but you just plunge in.
‘‘If I had two horses, two children, three dogs, I’d be even happier than I am now. But you can’t have everything, you make what you’ve got wonderful. That’s my theory.’’
Lindy Guinness has had a wonderfully colourful, bohemian life - with painting at its core.
‘‘My painting is really like a meditation - it gives me solace and a way to think.’’
I ask if there is anything she’d like to do with the rest of her life?
‘‘Not really, because as long as each day is wonderful, which it sort of is, it’s just endlessly amazing.
‘‘I feel that my life is still going at such an exciting pace, I’ve hardly begun.’’