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...