His­toric Homes of Eng­land Cas­tle Howard at Christ­mas

Cas­tle Howard: the house that theatre built

This England - - Contents - Iso­bel King

As Cas­tle Howard is dec­o­rated for yet an­other spec­tac­u­lar Christ­mas show, Iso­bel King ex­plores its the­atri­cal past . . .

IT is the sheer drama of Cas­tle Howard, ris­ing out of the land­scape, that strikes you first. One stands dwarfed by its mon­u­men­tal stature and stunned by its ar­chi­tec­tural fan­fare of Doric and Corinthian pi­lasters, stat­ues and urns, friezes and coro­nets, and of course, defin­ing ma­sonry dome – the largest to be found on any do­mes­tic prop­erty in Eng­land.

It was a house in­tended for dra­matic ef­fect; the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, famed as the cre­ator of Cas­tle Howard, wanted a house to sup­port his bur­geon­ing so­cial sta­tus, a pala­tial set­ting which even roy­alty would deem wor­thy of a visit.

He re­jected plans from Wil­liam Ta­tum, the lead­ing ar­chi­tect of the day, and in­stead chose a play­wright (who had never ac­tu­ally built a house be­fore in his life) to re­alise his am­bi­tion – Sir John Van­brugh.

“Van­brugh was cer­tainly an un­usual choice for Charles Howard [the 3rd Earl] to make,” says Eleanor Brooke-peat, As­sis­tant Cu­ra­tor at Cas­tle Howard. “They were ac­quain­tances at the Kit Kat Club in Lon­don, which in­cluded peo­ple such as the Duke of Rich­mond and Duke of Grafton – who were both il­le­git­i­mate sons of Charles II – the Duke of Marl­bor­ough, for whom Van­brugh went on to build Blen­heim Palace, and Sir Robert Walpole amongst its mem­bers. Van­brugh was rub­bing shoul­ders in the right cir­cles and that ob­vi­ously played in his favour.”

Clearly what Van­brugh lacked in ex­pe­ri­ence at the time he made up for in the­atri­cal flair.

In 1725, an ide­alised view of the house with two sym­met­ri­cal pro­ject­ing wings and huge crown­ing dome ap­peared in Vitru­vius Bri­tan­ni­cus, a ma­jor fo­lio of en­grav­ings of English build­ings by

prom­i­nent architects of the day.

To a de­gree, the 3rd Earl had al­ready achieved his ini­tial in­ten­tions: the os­ten­ta­tious build­ing project had quickly be­come the talk of fash­ion­able so­ci­ety, though roy­alty would not ar­rive un­til Vic­to­ria and Al­bert’s visit over 100 years later in 1850.

In many ways, the story of the build­ing of Cas­tle Howard is wor­thy of a dra­matic saga in it­self, and was, as Eleanor re­veals, not a straight­for­ward project by any means.

The house was built from east to west, but by 1715, with the East Wing and Cen­tral Block com­plete, the 3rd Earl de­cided that he ac­tu­ally wanted to fo­cus his at­ten­tion on the wider land­scape rather than com­plete the house and build the

West Wing. This de­ci­sion changed the ul­ti­mate ap­pear­ance of Cas­tle Howard for ever, for when the West Wing was added by the next gen­er­a­tion in 1750, the ar­chi­tect, Sir Thomas Robin­son, de­cided to build it in the Pal­la­dian style – highly fash­ion­able at the time, though out of step with Van­brugh’s more playful Baroque cre­ation that made up the rest of the build­ing. Cas­tle Howard, there­fore, while mag­nif­i­cent, is not the sym­met­ri­cal vi­sion it was in­tended to be.

What fo­cus­ing on the land­scape did mean for Van­brugh and Cas­tle Howard, how­ever, was ul­ti­mately an over­all ef­fect that was even more dra­matic.

“The house doesn’t sit in iso­la­tion in

“Re­ally, af­ter the fire, no-one ex­pected Cas­tle Howard to sur­vive” Eleanor Brooke Peat.

the land­scape,” Eleanor ex­plains, “and is quite un­usual in the fact that it is very much a di­a­logue be­tween the house as the cen­tral point and then all these mon­u­ments that sur­round it.”

And what an as­ton­ish­ing ar­ray of mon­u­ments they are. To­gether with ar­chi­tect Ni­cholas Hawksmoor, who also as­sisted Van­brugh on the house, the duo built the Tem­ple of the Four Winds, the Mau­soleum where the Howard fam­ily are buried to this day, the Pyra­mid and the Av­enue, a five-mile ap­proach which of­fers a breath-tak­ing ar­chi­tec­tural panorama, with teas­ing glimpses of the mon­u­ments all the way up to the house. Quite the stage set.

Un­can­nily, theatre has played an im­por­tant role in the main­te­nance of Cas­tle Howard as well as its de­sign and con­struc­tion. In 1940, a fire swept through the house, dev­as­tat­ing the East Wing and Cen­tral Block. The ex­tent of the dam­age was hor­rific, with even the roof of the great dome, so es­sen­tial to the house’s dis­tinc­tive sil­hou­ette, col­laps­ing in the blaze.

“Re­ally, af­ter the fire, no-one ex­pected Cas­tle Howard to sur­vive,” Eleanor says. “It hap­pened dur­ing the war with the three Howard sons away. Trag­i­cally, two of the sons were killed, and it was just as­sumed that Ge­orge, the sur­viv­ing son, was not go­ing to want to take it on. So the trustees who were man­ag­ing the es­tate in the fam­ily’s ab­sence just started sell­ing items off.” Ge­orge, how­ever, sur­prised ev­ery­one. “He felt very strongly that he needed to save the fam­ily home,” Eleanor con­tin­ues. “The sales were stopped, and it was in 1952 that the house was opened as a vis­i­tor at­trac­tion to gen­er­ate some rev­enue for its restora­tion.”

Ge­orge’s bold de­ter­mi­na­tion and be­lief that Cas­tle Howard could be saved paid off, and in­deed in later years the fire re­vealed it­self to have per­haps one im­por­tant virtue – it en­abled the 1981 clas­sic tele­vi­sion se­rial, Brideshead Re­vis­ited, to be filmed, the hol­low shells of the rooms pro­vid­ing a free space for a film set to be con­structed.

“Brideshead was one of the main fac­tors al­low­ing us to re­in­state some of the rooms,” says Eleanor, though restora­tion did oc­cur prior to this, such as in the re­place­ment of the dome in 1960.

One such ex­am­ple is the Gar­den Hall, one of the main spa­ces used in the 1981 tele­vi­sion series and the space where Jeremy Irons’s char­ac­ter, Charles Ry­der, paints his mu­rals into the niches.

This room ac­tu­ally be­came part of an agree­ment out­lin­ing that the pro­duc­tion com­pany would re­store it as ap­pro­pri­ate for its age.

Brideshead also put Cas­tle Howard on the map as a global vis­i­tor des­ti­na­tion, of course, driv­ing rev­enue for years to come.

Such was the suc­cess of the adap­ta­tion, the story re­vis­ited the house again for the 2008 fea­ture film, recre­at­ing the magic of Brideshead at the house for an­other gen­er­a­tion of view­ers – and, in­deed, vis­i­tors.

It is not just ex­ter­nal pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies that can pull off a show at Cas­tle Howard, though. Ev­ery Christ­mas the house be­comes, more so than at any other time of year, its own theatre, adorned with fes­tive in­stal­la­tions and dec­o­ra­tions all aug­mented by

“There’s a sort of warmth that comes from just think­ing about Christ­mas, isn’t there?” Nick Howard.

sound­scapes and light­ing.

“When I was a child it was re­ally just a few glass balls that got hung in the hall, and it was largely just the East Wing (the pri­vate wing where the fam­ily still live) that got dressed,” says the Hon. Nick Howard, Ge­orge’s son and great-grand­son of the 9th Earl of Carlisle, who now man­ages the house and the es­tate with wife Vic­to­ria. “But these days it is the whole house that gets dec­o­rated . . . and it is a mag­i­cal mo­ment.”

For Nick, the cen­tre of it all is the tremen­dous tree in the Great Hall. At 32 feet, it re­quires “a feat of dec­o­ra­tions” to deck it out – thou­sands upon thou­sands of baubles and lights – and is, of course, right at home in such strik­ing sur­round­ings, reach­ing up to the heav­enly ceil­ings and swathed by the Pel­le­grini mu­rals that cover the walls on all sides.

“We’re slightly more themed in our ap­proach to Christ­mas now,” Nick ex­plains. “There’s only so far you can go in one di­rec­tion, so that’s why it’s a good idea of­ten to have a theme.

“In a funny way, Christ­mas is a com­pletely trans­lat­able thing. Peo­ple can re­late to the house more than they can see­ing it at a nor­mal time. There’s a sort of warmth that comes from just think­ing about Christ­mas, isn’t there?”

This year will see the theme of the 12 Days of Christ­mas come to Cas­tle Howard. Cen­tred not only on the carol, the in­stal­la­tions will also fo­cus on the tra­di­tional hol­i­day, which be­gan on Christ­mas Day and ended on Jan­uary 6, the last night be­ing Twelfth Night on the fifth.

Cre­ative Pro­ducer for Christ­mas, Char­lotte Lloyd Web­ber, has brought to­gether a team made up of well-known Cana­dian set and light­ing de­signer Bretta Gerecke (who has worked on block­buster shows such as Cirque du Soleil and more in­ti­mate work such as As You Like It for the RSC), florist Celina Fal­lon and cos­tume de­signer Adrian Lil­lie. Join­ing forces with the per­ma­nent staff at Cas­tle Howard, they are to­gether plan­ning this year’s show.

It comes as no sur­prise that the team hired all have the­atri­cal back­grounds. Char­lotte her­self runs two theatre com­pa­nies, the Ox­ford Shake­speare Com­pany and Lamp­lighter Drama. She even trod the boards her­self as an ac­tress at the be­gin­ning of her ca­reer.

So what can vis­i­tors ex­pect? Char­lotte is nat­u­rally keen not to give all her se­crets away – the un­veil­ing of the dec­o­ra­tions must main­tain an el­e­ment of sur­prise – though tan­ta­lis­ing de­tails are re­vealed.

The ta­ble in the Crim­son Din­ing Room is to be mir­rored over to echo the lake in the Howard grounds, with seven swan sculp­tures care­fully placed upon it as if swim­ming; the gor­geous Turquoise Draw­ing Room is to be fes­tooned with

opened presents and up­turned milk­ing stools, as if eight spir­ited milk­ing maids have just rum­maged through the ladies’ Christ­mas trea­sures; the Long Gallery is to play host to the fi­nale, where all the many char­ac­ters in the carol come to life in ju­bi­lantly hand-painted, ply-wood cut outs, ar­ranged down the hall­way and sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

“As you move through the rooms of the house, the twelve days of Christ­mas re­veal them­selves chrono­log­i­cally,” Char­lotte says ex­cit­edly, “and the carol will also come to life through rep­re­sen­ta­tions of what we call ‘Cas­tle Howard twelves’, in­cor­po­rat­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the num­ber where it is sig­nif­i­cant in the his­tory of the fam­ily and the house.”

Ex­am­ples are in the bed­room of the 6th Count­ess, Lady Ge­or­giana, where a twig tree will be adorned with por­traits of her twelve chil­dren, who hap­pily all sur­vived into adult­hood (very rare for the day).

Or, in the Great Hall, where the 12 signs of the zo­diac rep­re­sented in its mu­rals will in­form a zo­diac cas­cade, with hun­dreds of fine cas­cad­ing lights fall­ing from the bal­cony, hung with mid­night blue and gold balls in con­fig­u­ra­tions to rep­re­sent each of the plan­ets.

There’s even more go­ing on in the High South – the rooms of the house yet to be re­in­stated af­ter the fire, but which pro­vide an ideal op­por­tu­nity for the team, un­re­strained by the need to con­sider pre­cious trea­sures, as they do in the State Rooms.

There will be a fan­tasy Cas­tle Howard 18th-cen­tury kitchen, made out of “found ma­te­ri­als” from across the es­tate, show­ing a twelfth-night cake in the mak­ing, a room dis­play­ing an his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate twelfth-night feast – with Yule-log in the fire – and, in the fi­nal room, a beau­ti­ful lit tree hung with golden and red ap­ples and pears to cel­e­brate the tra­di­tion of was­sail­ing.

Clearly, dec­o­rat­ing the State Rooms is not with­out its chal­lenges. The big spa­ces

take so much dec­o­ra­tion that the sheer vol­ume of para­pher­na­lia re­quired is as­tound­ing, and it’s not just a case of hang­ing or plonk­ing things down.

“Man­tels have to be cov­ered to pro­tect them,” Char­lotte tells me, “and cu­ra­tors need to over­see how to hang dec­o­ra­tions over mir­rors, paint­ings and fur­ni­ture so noth­ing is dam­aged.”

With the house only closed for two weeks to in­stall ev­ery­thing, the pres­sure to per­form is well and truly on.

Clearly the team are adept at not only over­com­ing such prac­ti­cal­i­ties, but also work­ing with what they phys­i­cally find in each space. The team also try to hand­make as much as pos­si­ble.

“What you see at Cas­tle Howard, you can only see at Cas­tle Howard,” Char­lotte adds em­phat­i­cally.

The fi­nal re­sult is a spec­ta­cle which draws nearly 40,000 vis­i­tors to the es­tate each Christ­mas, who, just as in 1952, con­tinue to sup­port the big restora­tion and main­te­nance projects the house re­quires: mu­rals still need to be cleaned from the 1940 fire, there is nat­u­rally a de­sire to re­in­state the rooms in the High South and there are plans afoot to re­paint the Long Gallery.

Like many stately homes, Cas­tle Howard could not sur­vive with­out its vis­i­tors, and the lo­cal com­mu­nity is play­ing an ever more im­por­tant role, too.

Even with the Christ­mas project, Char­lotte aims to en­list the help of lo­cal art stu­dents from Scar­bor­ough and York to give them a pre­cious op­por­tu­nity to gar­ner ex­pe­ri­ence, and to use their own cre­ativ­ity to bring into be­ing var­i­ous

“What you see at Cas­tle Howard, you can only see at Cas­tle Howard” Char­lotte Lloyd Web­ber.

as­pects of the in­stal­la­tions.

“It’s the house that theatre built, and con­tin­ues to build,” says Char­lotte, tri­umphantly – a won­der­ful way of putting it.

De­spite ad­ver­sity, and once be­ing brought to its knees by unas­sail­able catas­tro­phe, the show has al­ways gone on. And, as the Howards em­brace the com­mu­nity around them, Cas­tle Howard looks set to sparkle for gen­er­a­tions to come.

The Mau­soleum in win­ter.

Cas­tle Howard’s Turquoise Draw­ing Room.

Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle.

Cas­tle Howard’s Great Hall.

12 Days of Christ­mas.

Cas­tle Howard Christ­mas.

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