Most Irish castles and stately homes boast panelled entrance halls, elegant if slightly dilapidated reception rooms, lots of heavy, carved furniture and ancestral portraits - the last a homage to the forebears who built the family fortunes which may or may not still exist.
Elizabeth Cope's wonderful, slightly gothic castle, Shankill in Paulstown, Co Kilkenny has the hall, the reception rooms and the furniture, but instead of the usually sombre ancestors, her walls are covered in a riot of colourful paintings. There are nudes, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, portraits, paintings of animals; it's a diverse, eclectic, brilliant, if slightly crazy collection, but what all the paintings have in common is colour - vibrant yellows, reds, oranges, blues, pinks.
There are two reasons for the difference in Elizabeth's wall hangings and those of other stately homes. There are no ancestors, because neither Elizabeth nor her husband, Geoffrey, were born into the castle - they bought it in the early1990s - and Elizabeth is an artist, a prolific and highly creative one at that.
Shankill Castle is a busy enterprise; there's a working farm of 120 acres, with a suckling herd; there are guided tours of the castle and other events; and, opening shortly, a new cafe - which will be run by Elizabeth's son Reuben, who's taken over the farm from Geoffrey; and Reuben's wife, Ellen Christie. Elizabeth and Geoffrey also have two daughters, Phoebe and Sybil, both of whom are married, and live in Scotland and Dublin respectively.
While tours, events, farming and cafe openings are happening all around her, Elizabeth - who's a warm, funny ball of energy, dressed in many layers including several woolly jumpers, and paint-stained cords - paints. "Painting is not a normal activity; it's like having another leg. It's a necessity for me to paint," Elizabeth declares. "I don't always like it. It was the smell of paint that made me a painter, I think I'm a glue sniffer by nature."
Elizabeth came across paints when she was nine, and living on the family farm in Kildare; her older sister Phil came back from a trip to France with a box of oil paints, and Elizabeth was, she says, "seduced by the smell of paint". That phrase is also the title of the lovely book on her work, recently published by Gandon Editions, which includes an extensive interview by the Sunday Independent's Niall MacMonagle, and many examples of her work.
She didn't go to art college immediately on leaving school. Instead, she did a secretarial course, and worked in Dublin while attending evening classes. At 19, she went to London, and studied for two years at the Sir John Cass art school, and then went to Chelsea College of Art for three years. When she came home, she supplemented her income with teaching, which was how she met Geoffrey - he was one of the pupils at an evening class she ran. "I'm taller than Geoffrey, and I went home that night and I said to my sister, Mary, 'There's a lovely little fellow in the class, and he'd suit you down to the ground'," she recalls with a laugh, adding "And do you know what Geoffrey wrote in his diary that night? 'I think she will marry me.' And he put as a joke, 'For my brushes' - I was admiring his sable brushes. I used the cheapest nylon brushes, I still do." She adds that, for her, the important thing is the quality of the paint.
She and Geoffrey have been together for 40 years, and according to Elizabeth, he has a great feeling for painting. "When we go to a gallery together, we almost always like the same thing," she says. "He's very supportive of my work."
While Geoffrey is around the farm most days, he likes to write a diary in his down time. "He stopped when the children were small, but he took it up again 10 years ago," Elizabeth says. "If I want to know what's in his head, I read them. He often asks me to read them, though not all the time," she notes with a laugh.
Geoffrey is a regular subject of Elizabeth's; there are portraits of him throughout the house, as, indeed, there are of the children, their partners, and their exes. Portraiture is one of Elizabeth's talents, and she has also painted many well-known Irish public figures, including actor Cyril Cusack, writer Dervla Murphy, and artists Barrie Cooke and Tony O'Malley. "I enjoy doing portraits, but commissions aren't always good. You can be compromised," she says sagely.
She also loves to etch and paint animals, and the strangest creatures hang on her walls, even rats. "Don't be horrified, we should embrace them," she says. "One chap whom I gave an etching of a rat to as a wedding present, he's an expert on rats, and he told me that there is a town in Sweden where they decided to get rid of the rats, but they had to bring them back; they clean the sewers." She always paints from life, so if the animals aren't handy - she and Geoffrey have cows, sheep, geese, donkeys, a billy goat, and a dog called Monty - she often goes to Dublin or London Zoo, where she would draw the aardvarks, elephants, locusts. Her etching of a reindeer was a huge success at the Royal Academy in London recently.
Elizabeth has also travelled a lot over the years, often on her own; she's just back from a month in Iran, where she did a residency. "Geoffrey came for part of it, then I was alone for two weeks," she says. "I slept on the floor, I ate on the floor. I was on TV twice there; they have no tourists, so I was a curiosity."
She's travelled to Brazil; she's been to Somalia with Trocaire; everywhere she goes, she paints. "To be a foreigner, it's the best state of being, you live by the edge of your seat, particularly if you're alone, which I often am," Elizabeth says, adding, "I can paint anywhere; I can paint from the back of a truck. Time is more important than space. The most important thing is to take yourself with you wherever you go. It's important to have a good outlook."
She also stays put and paints. She did a whole series about menopause, which she calls her "fanny, tit and bum" series, and the works are not short on any of those parts of the body - particularly notable is her 'Woman with Twenty Teats'.
Of course, there's no shortage of subject matter at Shankill Castle. She has painted the extensive grounds with its lime trees, cypress and wellingtonia; the snowdrops in season; the topiary hedges; the apple tree arch; the pond; and the stables. Not to mention the huge variety of objects within the castle walls. "Geoffrey and I are both insane people," she declares with a laugh. "He collects stuff and I paint it; we indulge each other."
The castle is probably their biggest indulgence. They had been living in Knocknagee, when the couple, both originally, from Kildare, decided to buy Shankill, which was owned by the Toler-Alywards. "Nicky Toler-Aylward was a friend, and she told me she was going to sell. Then Geoffrey said, 'I'm going to buy Shankill'. Nicky rang me and asked me if I would look after the castle while they were at the auction; little did she know our plans," Elizabeth explains. "But I thought that was a good omen; she trusted us to look after the place. When we went over to mind it, on the day of the auction, Geoffrey told her that he was sending his solicitor to put a bid in."
The house didn't sell at auction, but the couple were the highest bidders, and got it after the auction. The castle is very old; one part of it is pre-Reformation, while bits were added over the centuries. "The Butlers were getting prosperous, they added the tower house [a branch of the Butler family, the Earls of Ormond, resided in nearby Paulstown Castle]; then there was a Queen Anne addition; another addition in 1820; then, in 1850, Daniel Robertson, who built the Italian Garden at Powerscourt, built a wing and the stable yard," Elizabeth says.
The auction was in 1990 and the couple moved in in 1991. Though it's huge, Elizabeth wasn't daunted. "It's alleged to have 42 rooms - but that includes tiny nooks and crannies, rooms like the brushing room for brushing riding clothes and boots, and a basement, an attic and a wing," Elizabeth says dismissively. "It was the right thing to do, and it's been a wonderful place to work and to bring up the children, with all the space and the animals."
It's been hard work - they are constantly watching the roof, and making sure to keep the gutters and valleys clear. There have been hiccups, like when Elizabeth developed cancer 10 years ago. "We were about to go off to India to celebrate Geoffrey's 60th birthday, but I was feeling very sluggish before we left, so I went to the doctor. It turned out to be a tumour in my womb. I had surgery when I came back. That contained the cancer; there was no need for chemotherapy," she notes, adding that she was frightened at the time. "I even went out and bought my coffin, the cheapest they had. It was €175. I gave him €200 and said, 'Keep the change', it was Celtic Tiger times," she jokes, "I could do with the €25 now."
Elizabeth is in her 60s now and Geoffrey is 70, and while they've loved every minute of it, they want to hand on the property to the children. "We don't want to give them problems, but we're at the stage where we want to have nothing," she says. "Then I want to walk into the sunset with nothing but a rucksack on my back."
And where ever she ends up she'll be painting, and it'll be colourful. "I can't not paint; it's like a piece of glue that's stuck to your face," she says with a laugh.
'Seduced by The Smell of Paint' is published by Gandon Editions.
See elizabethcope.com See shankillcastle.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin