High­clere Cas­tle, the silent star of Down­ton Abbey, is more than a sump­tu­ous set. In our exclusive tour, JANET GLEE­SON dis­cov­ers that the an­ces­tral home of Lord and Lady Carnar­von is a liv­ing les­son in the his­tory of the stately home

Homes and Antiques Magazine - - NEWS - PHO­TO­GRAPHS SIMON UP­TON

The set of Down­ton Abbey is packed with trea­sures the cam­eras didn’t cap­ture, such as Napoleon’s desk

‘ There are around 200 to 300 rooms and be­tween 50 to 80 bed­rooms,’ says Fiona, 8th Count­ess of Carnar­von of High­clere Cas­tle, the an­ces­tral home pro­pelled to fame as the lo­ca­tion for Down­ton Abbey in the pop­u­lar TV se­ries. ‘I’m never quite sure why we’re not sure, but I think it’s be­cause we don’t know whether to count dress­ing rooms as bed­rooms.’

High­clere has be­longed to the fam­ily ever since Sir Robert Sawyer, the king’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, bought the es­tate in 1679. ‘He wanted to re­tain prox­im­ity to the king, Charles II, who, rather con­tro­ver­sially, was liv­ing in Winch­ester with his mis­tresses,’ ex­plains Lady Carnar­von, adding that the 1st Earl also paid £150 for his ti­tle.

The house in its present form dates largely from the late 18th and 19th cen­turies. ‘The 3rd Earl de­cided to cre­ate some­thing com­pletely in­spir­ing and ex­u­ber­ant,’ says Lady Carnar­von. Sir Charles Barry, ar­chi­tect of the Houses of Par­lia­ment, up­graded the ear­lier Ge­or­gian man­sion with a Vic­to­rian makeover. In­side, some of the rooms were given an op­u­lent Vic­to­rian treat­ment, while oth­ers, which were al­tered less dra­mat­i­cally, still re­tain an el­e­gant Ge­or­gian am­bi­ence.

Even so, re­straint isn’t a word that springs to mind when you walk around

Eye- catch­ing gilded ma­hogany book­cases, filled with more than 5,000 vol­umes, grace the Li­brary

High­clere. There’s an in­escapable sense of the­atre as you step into the En­trance Hall, de­signed by Ge­orge Gilbert Scott, and presided over by two scaly tailed wyverns (winged drag­ons) crouch­ing be­neath soar­ing col­umns and a vaulted ceil­ing. Eye- catch­ing gilded ma­hogany book­cases, filled with more than 5,000 leather-bound vol­umes, grace the Li­brary next door. The room was of­ten used as a gen­tle­men’s with­draw­ing room, a place where pol­i­tics and mat­ters of state were topics of con­ver­sa­tion. The 4th Earl was a mem­ber of Dis­raeli’s Cab­i­net. ‘How sceni­cal, how sceni­cal!’ Dis­raeli is said to have ex­claimed in de­light as he caught his first glimpse of High­clere in 1866.

A se­cret door lined with faux books leads you on to the Mu­sic Room, where Fran­cis Hay­man is thought to have painted the gods and cherubs ca­vort­ing across the ceil­ing. The walls are lined with ex­quis­ite pan­els of 16th- cen­tury Ital­ian silk em­broi­dery from the Malat­esta Palace in Ri­mini. Now some­times used for fam­ily lunch par­ties, the room has served as a space for ping pong and an ex­hi­bi­tion of Egyp­tian arte­facts. A writ­ing table by Ja­cob Frères (see page 95), be­lieved to have be­longed to Napoleon, has a spe­cial place in Lady Carnar­von’s a ec­tions. ‘It was at­trib­uted to Ge­orge Bul­lock, but I looked un­der­neath and spot­ted the G Ja­cob stamp.

We wanted the house to feel alive. It’s a stately home, and both words are equally im­por­tant. To be a home a house needs to be loved

Af­ter­wards I spent a lot of time ly­ing be­neath other pieces,’ she re­calls.

Un­like the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, Lord and Lady Carnar­von de­cided to use High­clere as their fam­ily home, as well as open it to the pub­lic. ‘ We wanted the house to feel alive. It’s a stately home, and both words are equally im­por­tant. But to be a home a house needs to be loved, by the peo­ple who live in it and the peo­ple who come.’ Em­i­nent guests have never been in short supply. The house has hosted mem­bers of royalty, politi­cians and lead­ing lights from the arts, such as Henry James and Sir Mal­colm Sar­gent. Some of their vis­its are de­tailed in Lady Carnar­von’s book At Home at High­clere.

Since mov­ing in, the Carnar­vons have em­barked on an am­bi­tious pro­gramme of ren­o­va­tion. Di­lap­i­dated rooms, piled high with fur­ni­ture, were re­dec­o­rated with finds from cel­lars and at­tics, and the Gallery hung with framed doc­u­ments from the ar­chives. In 2004, the first Christ­mas af­ter they moved in, Lady Carnar­von asked her five sis­ters to stay. ‘I knew they’d tell me if the beds were un­com­fort­able,’ she says.

Although she is fas­ci­nated by the tra­di­tions of High­clere, Lady Carnar­von has no qualms in re­ar­rang­ing the fur­ni­ture and buy­ing new paint­ings at Lon­don auctions. She also works with in­te­rior de­signer Sarah Mor­ris of McWhirter Mor­ris on new schemes. Yet she is mind­ful of the con­ven­tions of the house. ‘There’s a leg­end that if the por­trait of Mar­garet Sawyer, 8th Count­ess of Pem­broke, is moved from its place in the Din­ing Room, dis­as­ter will strike. So when we re­dec­o­rated, the paint­ing was held out from the wall and we pa­pered be­hind it.’

De­spite im­prove­ments, some things haven’t changed. There is no cen­tral heat­ing at the cas­tle – open fires are sup­ple­mented by stor­age heaters down­stairs and the odd panel ra­di­a­tor in the bed­rooms. ‘Peo­ple man­aged for cen­turies with­out heat­ing and we al­ways close the shut­ters at night,’ she says. ‘ When Down­ton Abbey was be­ing filmed they al­ways took out the stor­age heaters. Some­times the ac­tors were freez­ing and sat around the table in fur boots. But the Christ­mas spe­cial was al­ways filmed in July, and usu­ally on the hottest day of the year!’

The pres­ence of ear­lier countesses is marked in many rooms of the house. The Draw­ing Room walls are cov­ered in green silk that repli­cates a wed­ding gift given to Almina, 5th Count­ess, the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of Al­fred de Roth­schild. The lamps in the Mer­cia Bed­room were made from a pair of brass can­dle­sticks. ‘I found a mass in the at­tic. An ear­lier count­ess must have bought a job lot. I just added pretty shades,’

says Lady Carnar­von. In def­er­ence to her pre­de­ces­sors she has hung the Morn­ing Room walls with por­traits of ear­lier countesses. ‘I think we all work hard and have earned our place,’ she says. Whether she has 200 or 300 rooms to look af­ter, it’s im­pos­si­ble to dis­agree.

* Lady Carnar­von’s new book, At Home at High­clere: En­ter­tain­ing at The Real Down­ton Abbey by The Count­ess of Carnar­von is pub­lished by Pref­ace Pub­lish­ing, £30

ABOVE AND FAC­ING PAGE The 1890s ro­coco re­vival draw­ing room was dec­o­rated by Almina, the 5th Count­ess of Carnar­von. The orig­i­nal silk wall­cov­er­ing was a wed­ding present from her fa­ther, but has since been re­placed with a copy. A pair of early 18th- cen­tury Ital­ian com­modes stand on ei­ther side of the huge French marble re­place that forms a fo­cal point. Hang­ing above it, the fam­ily group por­trait of the 1st Earl of Carnar­von’s chil­dren is one of sev­eral paint­ings by Sir Wil­liam Beechey on dis­play in the room Kent’s de­sign

ABOVE RIGHT On the oak stair­case, gothic- style win­dows il­lu­mi­nate a 17th- cen­tury Brus­sels ta­pes­try and a newly re­stored Reynolds por­trait of Mrs Musters RIGHT AND FAC­ING PAGE The Li­brary at High­clere was tra­di­tion­ally used as a with­draw­ing room for po­lit­i­cal gath­er­ings. It houses over 5,000 books, mainly dat­ing from the 18th and 19th cen­turies. The gilded ceil­ing, ma­hogany book­cases and the columned screen at one end give the room a sump­tu­ous at­mos­phere. The ttings, like the ex­te­rior of the house, were de­signed by the ar­chi­tect Sir Charles Barry. The left- hand sec­tion of the book­case con­tains faux books and hides a se­cret door lead­ing to the Mu­sic Room be­yond

ABOVE RIGHT Rich gothic de­tails, such as linen fold­ing pan­elling and heraldic shields, char­ac­terise the dec­o­ra­tion of the Saloon, which lies at the core of the house. The walls are hung with elab­o­rate 17th- cen­tury em­bossed and gilded leather pan­els from Cor­doba. The por­trait shows Henry, the 3rd Earl of Carnar­von, painted by James Edgell Collins ABOVE LEFT AND FAC­ING PAGE The late 19th- cen­tury triple chime man­tel clock stands on an Ital­ian marble table inset with 17th- cen­tury pietre

dure pan­els de­pict­ing birds and fruit. A large still life by Jan Weenix de­pict­ing game in a park, painted in 1707, forms a cen­tre­piece of the Smok­ing Room

ABOVE In the Mu­sic Room, the em­broi­dered pan­els de­pict­ing rab­bits and lambs, as well as other an­i­mals, are 16th- cen­tury and came from the Malat­esta Palace in Italy. The gilt­wood fau­teuil in the style of Louis XVI, up­hol­stered with Aubus­son pan­els, and an or­molu can­de­labra c1815, with bronze clas­si­cal gure, com­plete the op­u­lent dec­o­ra­tive ef­fect

ABOVE Painted Ital­ianate pan­els, em­broi­deries and a large over- man­tel mir­ror dec­o­rate the sump­tu­ous light- lled Mu­sic Room. To­day, some­times used for in­for­mal fam­ily lunches, the room houses the Ja­cob Frères desk, which is be­lieved to have once be­longed to Napoleon

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