England’s Treasure Houses: Castle Howard

Castle Howard – setting for the 1970s BBC miniseries Brideshead Revisited

© Cheryl Bolen

Author’s Note: The Treasure Houses of England are 10 spectacular estates. I’ll be doing a series here on each of these, seven of which I have been privileged to tour.

Charles Howard (1669-1738), the 3rd Earl of Carlisle began construction of his great baroque mansion near York in 1700. A descendent of the youngest son of Thomas Howard (4th Duke of Norfolk), the 3rd Lord Carlisle chose for his architect John Vanbrugh (who also built Blenheim Palace).

The 4th and 5th earls traveled extensively on the Continent and were great collectors, the 5th Earl having taken the Grand Tour with his lifelong friend Charles James Fox, the great Whig statesman. In addition to holding high public offices, the 5th Earl (1748-1825) added extensively to the castle’s art collection.

After the death of the 9th Earl of Carlisle in 1911 and his countess 10 years later, the estates were divided among their children. His middle-aged heir received Naworth Castle (where he had been raising his family), and the eldest daughter received Castle Howard, but she passed it to her younger brother Geoffrey Howard, Liberal MP. On his death in 1935, Castle Howard went into a family-administered trust.

The Earls of Carlisle now own Naworth Castle, and Geoffrey Howard’s grandson, Simon Howard (born 1956), now lives at Castle Howard with his wife and young twins. He and his brother Nicholas serve as directors of the private company which owns the property.

Castle Howard is one of the most familiar of England’s great country houses because it is the setting of Brideshead Revisited , Britain’s most popular TV miniseries ever–until Downton Abby.

HOUSE

The magnificence of the house, its furnishings and art, and the lavish landscaping have earned Castle Howard status as one of England’s 10 Treasure Houses.

Architect Sir JohnVanbrugh, who also designed Blenheim Palace, was untrained in architecture but was a well-known Restoration playwright and fellow Kit-Cat Club member with Lord Carlise. “Vanbrugh had a genius for bold architectural composition,” according to architectural historian Geoffrey Tyack.  Nowhere is Vanbrough’s splendid baroque boldness more apparent than in the soaring, 70-foot domed great hall of Castle Howard, which centers the house’s main block. The dome rests on pendentives that were painted by Antonio Pellegrini and supported by towering, squared Corinthian columns.

Corinthian columns also facade the south front, with the plainer Doric columns fronting the north. The juxtaposition of columns is just one of the clashes of classical architecture seen at Castle Howard. Because construction of the house (far too modest a word to convey its grandeur) took 117 years to complete and employed several architects, baroque and Palladian architecture blend together in Castle Howard’s exterior.

Visitors begin the tour in the west wing, which features guest rooms and state rooms with impeccably restored furnishings and museum-quality art by the Reynolds, Ruebens, Gainsborough, Holbein, and 17th and 18th century Italian masters. Some of the more memorable rooms on display are the 6th Countess’s bedchamber furnished with the bed given her by her parents, the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his wife Georgiana, and pictures of her 12 children; the turquoise drawing room; the museum room; the music room; the crimson dining room; the long gallery; the collonaded antique passage; and the China landing with its 18th century English and German porcelain.

GROUNDS

Nestled in the Howardian Hill, Castle Howard’s 1,000-acre grounds feature gardens and parkland that are only part of the 6,000-acre agriculture estate surrounding Castle Howard.

Entry points to Castle Howard’s grounds feature tree-lined allees.  During the warmer months, visitors can take free guided tours of Ray Wood, or they can also take a self-guided tour with a trail booklet. Ray Wood is a lusciously planted woodland with a variety of trees and flowering shrubs that can be explored along serpentine paths.

The guided garden tour ends at Vanbrough’s Temple of the Four Winds, a grand summer house that affords sweeping views of the South Lake, Cascade, New River, the ornamental New River Bridge, and the grandest Mausoleum in the Western Hemisphere. The Mausoleum, while built by committee, was originally inspired by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Wren-trained architect who assisted Vanbrugh and took over as Castle Howard architect after Vanbrugh’s death in 1826.

Built for the 3rd Earl who created Castle Howard, the 90-foot tall, domed mausoleum supported on 20 pillars was not completed until six years after the earl’s 1758 death. To this day, family members are buried in the mausoleum, which is not open to the public. Their bodies are carried along New River to their final resting place.

All the waterways at Castle Howard, including the great lake, are manmade. The property’s massive walled garden features three rose gardens planted with over 2,000 varieties. The South Parterre Garden of grass terraces replaces an earlier formal garden, but the parterre’s center Atlas Fountain is original.

Spending an entire day in York at Castle Howard is one of the most memorable days imaginable. In my opinion.–Cheryl Bolen’s most recent book is the latest installment in her popular House of Haverstock series. It’s a novella titled  Ex-Spinster by Christmas. Look for her next release in her Brazen Brides series in May.

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