I’m a voyeur. At least where historic buildings are concerned – don’t worry, I’m not standing in front of your windows… I restrict my historic house lust to buildings actually open to the public. (Or abandoned houses in my native land, but that’s another story.) Combine my penchant for historic architecture with being a recovering English major, a rail pass to jaunt across Britain in search of fabulous houses, and the possibilities for peeking into the life and history of the upper crust are endless! Castle Howard (which, despite its name, is not a castle at all) provides the perfect stage for my voyeuristic tendencies. Located in North Yorkshire, England, Castle Howard has been home to the Howard family for over 300 years.
The saga of the construction of the house could easily become its own riveting mini-series, but its recent history, as the fictional Brideshead, is how it is best known to most people. Both the 1981 television series, based on the book Brideshead Revisited (written by Evelyn Waugh), and the 2008 movie of the same name, were filmed at Castle Howard. Long before Castle Howard purportedly inspired either Evelyn Waugh or legions of fans of Masterpiece Theatre, it titillated the rich and titled of the day. It doesn’t really matter what strata of society you occupy, people still love to outdo the Jones and talk about their competitors.
In 1699, the Third Earl of Carlisle, Charles, after consulting with well-known architects of the day about designs for a new house, decided he didn’t need an architect after all…and hired the playwright John Vanbrugh to design the house. Vanbrugh, well-versed in high drama, didn’t fall flat on his face with this commission. His vision for Castle Howard, though only partly executed, resulted in an elaborate Baroque house, with ornate carvings and sculpture on both the exterior and the interior.
Castle Howard was both a home to the Howard family and a statement of their position and standing within the aristocracy of Britain. Though I don’t know the numbers, a house of this size surely required a small army of staff (possibly comparable to Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey?). Around 110 people work full-time for the estate now, and another 130 people are employed seasonally or part-time. The extravagance of Vanbrugh’s original design is paralled by the intricacies of the interior, including a 160-foot Long Gallery and room after room of incredible paintings, sculpture, furniture and family heirlooms.
The stone house, the first private residence in England to have a masonry dome, appears larger from the exterior than it actually is – the garden front of Castle Howard is almost dizzyingly long – though on the day I was there, I was more distracted by the camera crews hard at work filming “Death Comes to Pemberley.”
Oh, Mr. Darcy…and there is even a huge fountain on that side of the house, but sadly, there was no Colin Firth emerging from the water. There were, however, costumed actors wandering about the gardens, chatting on their cell phones – a violent collision between Jane Austen’s world and our smart phone universe. (“Death Comes to Pemberley,” a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, written by P.D. James, aired in Britain over Christmas 2013, and was shown in the States in 2014.)
The famous dome of Castle Howard, seen below on the interior, was destroyed by fire in 1940. During the next few years, as the men of the Howard family fought in World War II (two of whom lost their lives), much of the house was a gutted shell, open to the sky.
In all, 20 rooms were destroyed. There is a wonderful exhibit in some of those rooms, still not completely restored, about the effect of WWII, the fire, and about the two Brideshead movies. The dome was reconstructed, and the painted ceiling, originally decorated by Venetian Artist Antonio Pellegrini, was also recreated. Castle Howard, which began taking shape in 1700, was still incomplete by the time Vanbrugh died in 1726. The third Earl’s son-in-law, Sir Thomas Robinson, finally finished construction on the house (in 1756), adding a Palladian-favored wing to the exuberant flourishes of Vanbrugh’s original house. The interior, however, remained unfinished until 1811. (Which makes me feel so much better about the unfinished projects around my own tiny house!)
Part of the delay in finishing the house can be blamed on the third Earl devoting his attentions (and money) to landscaping – you can’t have a fabulous house and a mediocre, manipulated environment, after all! The gardens, water features, sculptures and follies definitely enhance a visit and are well worth their own day of exploring. I can’t promise a BBC film crew will be on site, or that you will experience the trauma of missing your bus and contemplating spending the night curled up under a bush on the estate (again, that’s another story) but leisurely strolling through the house (the interior is a “pace yourself” sort of tour – the guides are super nice and full of fun tidbits) is a wonderful way to spend the day.
You might not call yourself a voyeur, but I am convinced that we all harbor a desire to peek into another person’s life, or catch a glimpse of a lifestyle far beyond the imagining of our everyday routines. Add the word “castle,” an illustrious backstory, the modern glamour of the movies, and Castle Howard far exceeds the most grandiose of expectations.