Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lords, Ladies, and Mummies: Highclere Castle

The title of this post of The Devoted Classicist is taken from a series of talks given by the expert of British stately homes, Curt DiCamillo.  In addition to his invaluable on-line data base of historic British properties The DiCamillo Companion, Curt is an excellent speaker and will be returning to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on Saturday, January 26, 2013, in an event sponsored by Decorative Arts Trust to speak on the subject of Highclere Castle.

Highclere as it appeared in the 18th century.
Image from Jane Austen's World blog.
Today, Highclere Castle in Berkshire may be best known in the title role of the television series "Downton Abbey."  But Highclere Castle (also known as Highclere [pronounced HIGH clear] House) has a notable history of its own.  Since 1672 the home of the Herbert family, later the Earls of Carnarvon, it was built on the site of the medieval palace of the Bishops of Winchester who had owned the estate since the 8th century.  The first renovation, in the 18th century, converted it into a classical Georgian mansion.  Capability Brown landscaped the 6,000 acre park from 1774 to 77.
The Ground Floor Plan of Highclere Castle.
via Jane Austen's World blog.
But the current appearance is the result of the second redesign.  The 3rd Earl commissioned Sir Charles Barry, who had just completed the Houses of Parliament, to transform the exterior in the English Renaissance Revival style executed 1839 to 42.  The exterior was faced with Bath stone, brought by oxen from the quarry 82 miles away.
The Second Floor Plan of Highclere Castle.
Image from Jane Austen's World blog.
The 5th Earl, George, was married to Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, one of the richest men in late 19th century England.  Although the 5th Countess arrived with a stupendous dowry, Rothschild made many financial contributions during this time including supporting Almina's conversion of the house into a hospital in 1914 to admit patients coming back from the trenches of the Great War.

Howard Carter and the 5th Earl Carnarvon.
Photo via Jane Austen's World blog.

After the end of the First World War, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon returned to Egypt and his sponsorship of Howard Carter's archaeological studies, again with contributions by Rothschild.  Together the earl and Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.  Although the earl's death in 1923 lead to the belief that there was a curse, that legend has been discredited.  However, most of the Carnarvon Egyptian collection was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to pay death duties.  In 1987, some antiquities were discovered in storage in the house and items that had been lent to British museums were returned to allow a permanent exhibit to be created in the cellars of Highclere.

A replica of the King Tut Death Mask
on exhibit at Highclere Castle.
Photo:  Royal Oak Foundation.
Interviewed for a feature in the January/February 1979 issue of Architectural Digest, the 6th Earl (who died in 1987) said he had sold some land to pay inheritance taxes along with some pictures and jewelry.  He gave some land to his son Lord Porchester and his grandson, but kept 600 acres, the stud farm and the castle, the article stated.
The 8th Earl Carnavon, 2009.
From a DAILY MAIL article.
A 2009 article in the Daily Mail newspapter had George Herbert, who became the 8th Earl Carnarvon in 2001, revealing that years of deferred maintenance led to leaks, failing plaster, and mold.  Seeking permission for development, he was quoted to say that 50 rooms were uninhabitable and that repairs would cost GBP 12 million.  At the time, he was living in a modest cottage on the grounds with his wife and three children, according to the article.

Fiona Herbert, the Countess Carnavon.
Image from DailyMailOnLine.
Another article from January 8, 2011, in the Daily Mail stated that the Countess was insulted that Andrew Lloyd Webber was interested in buying the estate to house his art collection.  Hopefully, the fees paid by the filming of "Downton Abbey" combined with increased tourist attendance has helped.  In addition, some rooms in Highclere may be rented for private functions, such as wedding receptions, and there is a program for shooting game as well.

The Hall, also known as the Saloon, 2009,
from Rex Features via Daily Mail.
The Library as photographed by Derry Moore
for Architectural Digest, 1979.

The Dining Room as photographed by
Derry Moore for the January/February, 1979,
issue of Architectural Digest.

The Drawing Room during filming.
Image from Downton Abbey publicity.
The Music Room.
Rex Features via Daily Mail, 2009.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess
Image from LA TIMES.
Devoted Readers who enjoy priviledged visits to Stately Homes will be interested in Curt DiCamillo's personally escorted tours, surely the finest of their kind, to study Britain's history, architecture, and art.  For both past and upcoming tours, visit Curt's Curiosities.


  1. Oooohhh... Another wonderful option to see wonderful British treasures that I didn't know about. Thanks so much!

    I have always wondered why they have not used the Music Room in the 'Downton' series? It's so beautiful. Perhaps it's too small.

    1. Patsy Ann, we are thinking alike. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I guess the risk of damaging the painted walls is just too great, the room isn't big enough for all the lights etc. I enjoyed seeing that photo of filming in the drawing room, although I always find the lighting in there too glaring and bright ...
    The best features of the house are that central Hall and the exterior, which is stunning. Let's hope the proceeds can help keep it all going. It certainly helped Castle Howard to have Brideshead all those years ago and Alnwick Castle is not allowing any visitor to forget its appearance in Harry Potter !

    1. I think you are correct, David, on all counts. Although I am told that the expenses are so great that admission revenues seldom provide more than a minimal boost in income, building the fame and name recognition of the house is quite valuable. I appreciate your comments.

  3. I just love all the attention to this long gone world. Thanks for the floor them.

  4. I am late to the Downton Abbey party, but have now finished the first two seasons and am hooked. My favorite part of the show is the house! I just can't get enough.
    Thanks for all of the info.

    1. Helen, the Carnarvons insisted that some of the furnishings remain in place, according to reports. So the interiors of the principle rooms are very much recognizable to those visiting Highclere. (The downstairs service rooms and the bedrooms are sets in Ealing). Thanks for your comments.

  5. Interesting that the bedrooms are sets in the Ealing studios – they look completely right. The downstairs rooms always appear fake but why not?

    As much as I'd like to visit Highclere it looks as if the next house might be Windsor Castle. A bit of a comedown but one learns to cope.

    1. I have never visited Windsor, so I would enjoy that as well. Thanks for commenting, Blue.

  6. fascinating! thank you,john, for sharing all these juicy tidbits...i hated to miss the talk at the brooks. xo

    1. Mrs Jones, I know you had a Thing Going On that morning or would have been there otherwise.

  7. I want to be the dowager countess when I grow up, and have Julian Fellowes write all my lines and live at Highclere.

    When I grow up.

    1. D.E.D., if you haven't seen the parody "Uptown Downstairs Abbey" (in 2 parts on YouTube), I think you would enjoy it, especially the Julian Fellowes character.

  8. The title of the article made me laugh out loud. Wonderfully written and very witty. Thanks so much,


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