Downton Abbey Double

I like Downton Abbey as much as the next person (woman), but I must admit that I tune in as much (or more) for the setting and costumes, the general ambiance, as I do for the plot and the acting.  The real star of the show for me, so impressive that it even upstages Maggie Smith, is the “abbey”, or Highclere Castle.  Highclere has been the seat of the Herbert Family, the Earls of Carnarvon, from the eighteenth century.  In the 1830s, the third Earl, Henry Herbert, commissioned Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, to dramatically enlarge and remodel an existing Georgian house into the grand Elizabethan Revival castle that it is today.  It seems to me that the Herberts were a bit nouveau riche; their peerage was of relatively recent vintage and so was their house, so they hired the  neo-Gothic architect to build them a ne0-Elizabethan house.  It’s a very Victorian story.

Highclere Castle circa 1850s-70s by photographer Francis Frith. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sir Charles Barry’s 1842 Study for a Highclere tower from the Christies archives; Highclere Castle today.

Apparently Downton Abbey saved Highclere Castle.  In a 2009 Daily Mail article entitled “Can Highclere Castle be Saved? Historic Home is Verging on Ruin as Lord Carnarvon Reveals £12 million Repair Bill”, the 8th Earl reveals not only the imposing estimates for the repair of his ancestral home but the dilapidated (and moldy) rooms upstairs, which contrast sharply with the ground-floor state rooms that we see on Downton.  There was even talk of subdividing the Capability Brown-designed grounds (perhaps this is still on the table). Shortly after the article was published, Andrew Lloyd Webber offered to buy the castle to house his art collection but was rebuffed by the Earl and Countess.  Then the producers of Downton came in to save the day.

Highclere upstairs bedroom, downstairs saloon and library.

From an interesting “country life” publication entitled The Field, we can see Highclere’s silk-wrapped drawing room in Downton’s time, and contrast it with a photograph from the present. Like Downton, Highclere was used as a rehabilitation hospital during the First World War and here is Downton’s Lady Sybil in the same drawing room.  After the war, the Castle underwent a “modern” redecoration, but not too modern, apparently, if this “Highclere” Liberty fabric is any indication.

"Highclere" fabric by Liberty & Co., 1931. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I particularly like the dining-room scenes on Downton Abbey, as we can get a glance at the 1633 equestrian portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck behind Lord Grantham’s head.  Below is the dining room as set, with the Van Dyck in the background, from the Highclere Castle website.  Finally, the weathered front doors of Highclere, which are really getting a workout these days, I should think.


11 responses to “Downton Abbey Double

  • julia fogg

    Like the post Donna – hate the programme! A parody of itself?? Here we assume that it’s just made for the US market but hey, we enjoy you make for us! The castle is stunning as it sits in its surroundings – they got the way the grounds would have been managed at that time wrong though. Film companies always more confident on interiors. Oh well!

  • daseger

    Now that would be an interesting post, Julia–they don’t really seem to be dealing with the grounds at all, except for the occasional stroll by the Earl. I’m not at the hate stage myself with the program(me), but it is definitely more soap opera than drama.

  • geekybrit

    I wonder if there’s anyone in residence when they’re filming? I know they shut it off to the public then. I’m surprised there wasn’t much interest after it was used for Gosford Park, but I guess TV is a better medium to get something to grow on you. The show does remind me of some of the old miniseries (esp. literary adaptations) that were on the telly when I was little.

  • downeastdilettante

    I confess that I too like the house best—with Maggie Smith as a close second. In fact, after 35 years of period English Country House/Upstairs-Downstairs type programming on Public Television, I may be suffering from overdose. I have been amusing mightily by following each episode of Downton with an episode of Shameless—the un-Downton, a raw show about an extended English family living on a fictional council estate in Manchester, called with intended irony, Chatsworth. It’s rather like taking a bicarb after a much too rich meal.

    Have I mentioned again lately that you are just the.best.picture.sourcer?

  • daseger

    That sounds like a perfect evening’s entertainment! And thanks for the compliment, again, but this one wasn’t too tough: a lot of other people are on this trail!

  • Bernadette

    Well I love Downton Abbey!. Like you I do tune in as much to see the magnificent house, as anything else. And of course who couldn’t adore Maggie Smith!

  • ceciliag

    I have never seen the TV programme, actually i never watch TV, but i love this mansion and am so grateful that it has been saved. Hopefully people are still able to live in it.. c

  • thedailydish

    I’m not ashamed to say I love Downton Abbey and every minute of its weekly drama!

    PS: I hadn’t realized Gosford Park was also filmed at Highclere. Thanks for the tidbit, Geekybrit!

  • Adele Maestranzi

    I visited Highclere last spring, and enjoyed the lovely gardens there. You don’t get to see them in the show. You are not allowed to photograph in the house, but I got some wonderful shots around the grounds. Glad that they finally used the classical garden folly for a couple of scenes in last week’s episode.

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