Glo­ri­ous GRANDEUR

JANET GLEE­SON ex­plores Cas­tle Howard at Christ­mas, York­shire’s most ex­u­ber­ant and pala­tial pri­vate res­i­dence


‘I have seen gi­gan­tic places be­fore, but never a sub­lime one,’ wrote Ho­race Walpole, still reel­ing from his first, mem­o­rable, visit

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be mes­merised. Some 70 ver­tig­i­nous feet over­head, a huge dome is sus­pended on an ar­chi­tec­tural frame of phe­nom­e­nal scale and com­plex­ity. It’s a riot of mul­ti­lay­ered arches, sprout­ing acan­thus leaves, Ionic scrolls and float­ing clas­si­cal fig­ures. And let’s not for­get the mon­u­men­tal Christ­mas tree and a blaz­ing fire, guarded by a brood­ing Vul­can at his forge.

No, this isn’t a Ro­man palazzo or an opera house, nor is it some fes­tive the­atri­cal set, although that’s an easy mis­take to make. Af­ter all, the house has more than a dash of drama about it and pro­vided the back­drop for both TV and film ver­sions of Brideshead

Re­vis­ited. Yet we are worlds away – in the breath­tak­ing Great Hall that forms the core of Cas­tle Howard, one of Britain’s most spec­tac­u­lar trea­sure houses.

From the mo­ment Cas­tle Howard took shape, in the first decade of the 18th cen­tury, its vi­brant baroque ar­chi­tec­ture, rip­pling with move­ment, light and shade, made ev­ery­one stop and stare. ‘I have seen gi­gan­tic places be­fore, but never a sub­lime one,’ wrote Ho­race Walpole, still reel­ing from his first, mem­o­rable, visit.

The flam­boy­ant de­sign came about thanks to an un­likely ar­chi­tec­tural col­lab­o­ra­tion. The fiercely am­bi­tious Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, wanted a house to re­flect his grand po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions. So he turned to the charis­matic play­wright Sir John Van­brugh, a fel­low mem­ber of the in­flu­en­tial whig group, the Kit- Cat Club, for help. Van­brugh had never built a house be­fore, but drama and sur­prise were tools of his trade, and he used them to max­i­mum e ect. ‘No other pri­vate res­i­dence in Eng­land had a dome at the time. Peo­ple scratch their heads when you say stone moves but it does, you see it here. Where else is the act of go­ing up­stairs so dra­mat­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing?’ asks Dr Christo­pher Ridg­way, the house’s cu­ra­tor. Build­ing be­gan in 1699, and at first progress was rapid. But less than a decade later, the Earl’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer stut­tered, and ev­ery­thing stopped, leav­ing the west wing un­built. The house re­mained un­fin­ished dur­ing the 3rd Earl’s life­time. Not un­til the 1750s did his son, the 4th Earl, add the miss­ing wing. But the de­sign he chose, in a heav­ier Pal­la­dian style, was far re­moved from Van­brugh’s in­ten­tion.

Cas­tle Howard’s spe­cial flavour stems partly from the fact that it has nearly al­ways been a fam­ily home

‘So the two wings don’t match – the ex­te­rior is a hy­brid. Peo­ple in the 18th cen­tury were puz­zled by this and com­plained,’ says Christo­pher, ‘and we know the 4th Earl wasn’t happy with his choice of ar­chi­tect.’

In­side the house, the 4th Earl left a less con­tro­ver­sial mark. His pas­sion for clas­si­cal art and an­tiq­ui­ties is ob­vi­ous when you walk along the An­tique Pas­sage, a 200-foot-long cor­ri­dor, brim­ming with the fruits of his col­lect­ing. ‘The word ‘cor­ri­dor’ was such a nov­elty that Van­brugh had to ex­plain what it meant,’ says Christo­pher. Here, sculp­ture from An­cient Rome is dis­played along­side 18th- cen­tury works, in­clud­ing a pair of Der­byshire fos­sil busts of Ro­man Em­per­ors. Trea­sures are shown on op­u­lent con­sole ta­bles, some with Ital­ian mar­ble or an­tique mo­saic tops, and carved bases in the man­ner of Wil­liam Kent. At Christ­mas, a pro­fu­sion of or­chids, spring bulbs and green­ery adds a fur­ther dec­o­ra­tive note. Visi­tors of ev­ery gen­er­a­tion are in­vari­ably filled with won­der at the sight.

Cas­tle Howard’s spe­cial flavour stems partly from the fact that it has nearly al­ways been a fam­ily home. Rather than be­ing pre­served un­chang­ing, rooms re­flect the taste and needs of each gen­er­a­tion. In Lady Ge­or­giana’s Bed­room and Dress­ing Room, the fur­ni­ture and prints date from the early 19th cen­tury, when the room was used by the 6th Count­ess, daugh­ter of the cel­e­brated Ge­or­giana, Duchess of Devon­shire. Her el­e­gant Re­gency bed is still put to use when guests are stay­ing.

The Li­brary, by con­trast, was dec­o­rated in the 1980s in an un­apolo­get­i­cally

The 4th Earl’s pas­sion for clas­si­cal art and an­tiq­ui­ties is ob­vi­ous when you walk along the An­tique Pas­sage

mod­ern clas­si­cal style. ‘There wasn’t a li­brary as such, and the late George Howard wanted a study. He was pas­sion­ate about con­tem­po­rary de­sign, and wanted to re­flect that,’ ex­plains Christo­pher. ‘Ju­lian Bick­nell was the ar­chi­tect, and his de­sign for the room doesn’t try to repli­cate any­thing that was here be­fore.’

The Turquoise Draw­ing Room was re­fur­bished re­cently us­ing a vivid silk damask, ‘cho­sen af­ter months when swatches were pinned on the walls.’ The gilt­wood fur­ni­ture, up­hol­stered to match, was made by John Lin­nell c1775. Within this vivid sur­round­ing you will find some of Cas­tle Howard’s most fa­mous por­traits. ‘The show-stop­per is Reynolds’ por­trait of the 5th Earl with his favourite dog, Rover,’ says Christo­pher. A por­trait of the Earl’s mother, Is­abella By­ron (great-aunt of the fa­mous poet) by Gains­bor­ough, hangs over a bon­heur du jour in the same room. ‘She was an early do­mes­tic god­dess and wrote a fas­ci­nat­ing book of recipes and house­hold hints,’ Christo­pher re­veals.

The re­dec­o­rated Crim­son Draw­ing Room also re­tains the flavour of the 18th cen­tury, with its Adam-style ta­ble and chairs, Wil­liam Kent-style side ta­ble, and Vene­tian­view paint­ings by Bel­lotto, bought by the ar­tis­ti­cally savvy 4th Earl. Usu­ally the ta­ble is set with a botan­i­cal Derby dessert ser­vice but, at Christ­mas, a sump­tu­ous Wedg­wood ‘ Ulan­der Pow­der Ruby’ ser­vice, spe­cially bor­rowed from Wedg­wood, adds to the rich over­all e ect.

Some of the changes to Cas­tle Howard’s in­te­ri­ors were the re­sult of tragic cir­cum­stance rather than choice. In 1940, a dev­as­tat­ing fire gut­ted 20 rooms and de­mol­ished the dome. Restora­tion is still on­go­ing, and many rooms re­main empty shells. That oth­ers have been re­stored is partly thanks to the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits and fame that came af­ter the two ver­sions of

Brideshead Re­vis­ited were filmed here. In the Gar­den Hall, part of an as­ton­ish­ing 11-room en­filade (half of which sur­vives), de­stroyed paint­ings by Antonio Pel­le­grini were re­placed with capric­cios by Felix Kelly. The views are imag­i­na­tive but in­cor­po­rate rec­og­niz­able ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures by Van­brugh. ‘They don’t try to repli­cate what was here, but they have a sim­i­lar play­ful spirit,’ Christo­pher ex­plains. The the­atri­cal, fun-lov­ing Van­brugh would love them.

ABOVE Thomas Gains­bor­ough’s por­trait of Is­abella By­ron, the un­con­ven­tional mother of the 5th Earl, and great-aunt of the poet, Lord By­ron LEFT A vast ma­hogany china cab­i­net was in­stalled and en­larged on the China Land­ing in the 1880s to dis­play over...

ABOVE Lady Ge­or­giana’s Dress­ing Room piled high with presents. The cab­i­net is an 18th- cen­tury Dutch op­klaptafel: the top opens to re­veal a pewter urn for wa­ter, a wash basin and mir­rors FAC­ING PAGE The am­bi­tious Great Hall is the fo­cal point of...

ABOVE The An­tique Pas­sage was part of Van­brugh’s in­no­va­tive de­sign, although it was only com­pleted at the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury. The cor­ri­dor is lined with sculp­ture and fur­ni­ture, mostly col­lected by the 4th Earl FAC­ING PAGE One of the suite...

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