Historic Homes of England Castle Howard at Christmas
Castle Howard: the house that theatre built
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.