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.
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.
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.