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A Feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Castle Howard




20 September 2012



First opened to the public by the late Lord Howard in 1952, two years after its self-named rail station (1845 – 1950) met its demise, seated as it is, on a ridge among one thousand splendorous acres of gardens, Castle Howard, known to many via dramatisations of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, considered from architectural and visual perspectives alone, is surely, the stuff of dreams. When pondered through the lens of human history, the place assumes legendary stature.

I mention dreams as to see Castle Howard is to feel somehow in synch with its variegated contours and remarkable timeline, almost as though one had been part of it all from the first, such is its’ lasting impression on the consciousness thereafter. I defy anyone to visit the place and forget the experience. It’s been referred to as the ‘English Versailles,’ and with good reason, as this ‘Castle’ boasts treasures beyond imagining within the vast spaces between its surprisingly un-grand doors.

Our memorable rainy day visit began with a quick but enjoyable ride from the house to the lakeside cafe on a ‘Kelly’ car’, named for artist Felix Kelly, (1914 – 1994), who rendered many well envisioned, landscapes of Castle Howard and grounds with a romantic, seemingly 18th Century twist. After rolling along a path through the trees on the rattling, open sided, tractor-lead train, we took a well defined, fondly executed outdoor tour, led by very amiable and, knowledgeable guide, Alison Bennett, offering a ‘whistle-stop’ view of the architectural nuances relating to the intriguing rises (and falls) of this super stately home. In the true spirit of adventure, Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (1669-1738) nixed prominent architect William Talman’s design in favour of commissioning friend and fellow Kit-Kat Club member, playwright, then, first time architect John Vanbrugh, who rose to the task with the help of practiced input from Nicholas Hawksmoor, former apprentice of St. Paul’s Cathedral’s designer, Sir Christopher Wren. Perhaps that was the inspiration behind the installation of a dome atop this showplace, previously unseen on residential homes at the time, however grand. But, grandeur was key for the 3rd Earl, who began and progressed the building, though his Castle was not completed in its’ entirety until 1811. Castle Howard was so dubbed because ruined Henderskelfe Castle and, accompanying villages were pulled down and moved respectively, to make way for it. Yet, there is warmth emanating from the stone walls within that can only mean this hulking building was and is, above all, a home. It is with that in mind that knowing visitors seeking further awareness enter.

A sturdily sculptural stone staircase enables access to the start of your explorations, and a chair lift helps place those with mobility problems on equal footing at their outset. Entrance and stairs are lined with capricious treasures, much more noticeable when one reaches the top, flanked by portraits of Howards through the ages. Most noted among them are a modern rendering of Honourable Simon Howard by Chen Yang Ning, who, together with wife Rebecca and twin sons lives in the Castle, and, to an artist’s eye, George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, himself, a Pre-Raphaelite painter. A helpfully, talkative, robustly jovial guide quipped, ‘visit once a year, baby each spring,’ referring to the artistic 9th Earl who, captions informed us, preferred his family’s pre Castle Howard home, Naward Castle in Cumbria to our present opulent, ‘treasure-house’ surroundings.

During our architectural tour with the affable Ms. Bennett, it was pointed out that Castle Howard has no back doors, boasting instead, North and South entrances, the former featuring Roman Doric pilasters, the latter, Corinthian. Hawksmoor’s reasoning when asked about these unusual differences being that ‘you can’t see both sides at the same time.’ A series of man-made lakes grace the North side, while an immense fountain, carved of Portland stone by John Thomas, commissioned by the 7th Earl in 1850, sporting a huge figure of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders decorates the South. Variances between the East and West wings were also highlighted, as the older East wing draws on Vanbraugh’s original Baroque design, calling for duplicate wings, while the latter attempts to modernise via the newer Palladian style, courtesy of Sir Thomas Robinson, the late Earl’s son in law post Vanbrugh and the 3rd Earl’s deaths in 1725, and ’38 respectively. Apparently, it was a variance its’ designer came to regret thereafter. Nevertheless, rather than detracting, these peculiarities only serve to enhance the experience of being there, as they add to the unique history of the place immensely. Not to mention the fact that it can be somewhat comforting to learn that one’s ancestors may not have worn the giant boots one may have imagined after all. Sadly, much of Giovanni Antonio Pelligrini’s ornate fresco works painted on walls and ceilings perished in a fire which ravaged the house, collapsing its’ dome, on Nov. 9, 1940, at which time a troupe of school-girl evacuees residing at the Castle were instrumental in rescuing a number of its precious art treasures.

Speaking of which, walking along a corridor of antiquities we could only compare to those in the Vatican, albeit on a much smaller scale, we felt we must be in the presence of some very precious artefacts indeed. That said, we were bemused to learn later on, during our second and final tour of the day with the aforementioned Ms. Bennett, of The Temple of the Four Winds on the grounds, that some of the collectors of these priceless objects, among them ancient busts and sculptures, originating from excavations encountered on 18th century Grand Tours of Italy, saw fit to replace damaged parts i.e. noses, polishing and undertaking further ‘restoration’ work prior to their display.

Room upon room lined with prized oil paintings, among them, landscapes by 18th Century pastoral painter, Claude Lorrain, Canaletto, whose grandly coloured Venetian scenes were then coveted, (as now) and, portraits by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Stubbs, Holbein and famed artists of their time and others decorate the rooms providing further historic clues. As emphasised by every priceless artefact as well as every guide, Castle Howard, with its’ palatial, treasure laden rooms and sculpture strewn gardens, originally modelled on Versailles, was unashamedly designed to impress all who beheld it. Though, subsequent residents chose to emulate Italian styling inside and out. The bulk of the art works were acquired by 3rd, 4th and 5th Earls during their Grand Tours over the course of one century.

In many cases, said rooms, in effect, time-capsules are pried open, like proverbial gilt edged, Pandora’s boxes, by highly informative, entertaining guides standing at the ready to answer questions and/or knowingly raise a few. Standing tall among them was Robert, who not only enlightened us about the angles of seventeen year old Lady Georgina Cavendish's marriage to George Howard, 6th Earl of Carlisle (1773 – 1848), but also unfavourably compared me, (and other ‘younger’, real women he’s seen) in a cryptically Hitchcockian tone, to a radiantly glowing, diminutive three hundred year old marble statue of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. What mere mortal could compete with such perpetual beauty when ‘summer’s lease’, as the Bard wrote, ‘hath all too short a date’?

Brideshead Restored, an exhibition centring on the starring role Castle Howard played in the filming of acclaimed 1981 ITV series Brideshead Revisited and its cinematic remake in 2008 revisits the goings on in the great house during those times, when antiques such as a vintage trunk covered in travel labels and china tea cups were being lent to filmmakers to enhance scenes. Formerly gutted rooms underwent superficial restoration for the film, as the East wing itself had externally for the series, when it was, in reality, still a burnt out shell inside. Photos and a succinct synopsis of Waugh’s fictional storyline, centring on the lives of the declining aristocratic Roman Catholic Marchmain family, possibly drawn from a composite of other such families through history, in which elderly Lord Marchmain makes nostalgic reference to ‘the atmosphere of a better age’, aid the uninitiated. Fees garnered from Brideshead helped create a Garden Hall, showcasing artist Kelly’s botanical murals.

Being of the present, I suppressed fleeting thoughts of Gatsby and/or Charles and Sebastian sipping champagne in their summer whites while strolling the verdant grounds, though a vintage style fair centring on such scenarios could well prove to be a fund-raising idea worthy of future consideration.

Highlights of our far too short visit, though too numerous to mention in their entirety here include the earthed but ethereally lovely chapel with its Byrne Jones stained glass windows and decorative features from many eras, flying together as a host of angels might, enabling pondering from below. Eventful too, in its’ own quiet way is the yellow walled library, peppered with family photos, favourite room of the late Lord George Howard, whose likeness was fashioned and placed on the shoulders of a statue on the roof which had lost its’ original head, to commemorate his saving of then crumbling Castle Howard when he returned home in the aftermath of WWII, in which he had been injured and two elder brothers perished.  It is through his dogged determination that the place has been preserved for posterity. The Long Gallery, intended for exercise in inclement weather, is so lengthily at one hundred and sixty feet, that it’s divided into two distinct parts. It’s the longest such room in England, Blenheim Palace’s gallery being second. Then there is the reconstructed, but still marvellously ornate Great Hall, with its marble ornamentation. Missed out on this time round was an exhibition about the women of the house, Ray Wood, Kew at Castle Howard, the Rose Garden, the Mausoleum, and countless other attractions, large and small, both indoors and out.

In answer to the question of whether weekend passes had ever been available, I was told they had been and still are, for those camping on the popular grounds set up for that purpose nearby. You would need two days to fully absorb the facets of the house and, ideally, another in which to wander its’ vast, rolling grounds and savour some of its many, varied gardens at leisure. In my case, I could not take in one aspect without missing another, so our last outdoor tour meant leaving the house.

Regardless of rain, chilling breezes and/or other natural acts capable of interfering with views, my lasting impression of Castle Howard is that it’s an esteemed place, begun by a maverick, cloaked in unconventionality, full of promise, from its inception and growth, right up to its burgeoning plans for the future, despite unforeseen obstacles delaying preservation of history in favour of necessities. What’s needed, in all cases, is imagination, something a visit to this fascinating historic place endlessly encourages.


Visitor Information   01653 648333  | Email house@castlehoward.co.uk
Castle Howard
York, North Yorkshire
Y060 7DA
Open Daily from 10am
House and Grounds: 
Adults £13.00, Concession £11.00, Child 5 – 16 - £7.50, Under 5’s – Free
Family: 2 + 2 £33.50, 2 + 3 £41.00
Grounds Only: Adults £8.50 Concession £8.00, Child 5 – 16 £6.00, Under 5’s – Free
Family: 2 + 2 £23.00, 2 + 3 £29.00
Annual Pass: Single £40, Dual £70, Concessions – N/A, Child £20, Under 5’s – Free
Family: 2 + 2 £80.00, 2 + 3 £100.00
*Additional child 5 yrs or more add £7.50 (House & Garden) or £6.00 (Gardens only)
**Please note

Further essential Visitor information: http://www.castlehoward.co.uk/Display.aspx?iid=1400

Don’t miss Christmas at Castle Howard 24 Nov. – 16 Dec. 2012


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