Castle Howard, Brideshead and some London connections

I am tempted to start with “It’s that place where they did Brideshead Revisited, isn’t it?” But to limit its appeal to that tag is a mite disrespectful, even though both the 1981 TV series based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, and the later 2008 film, were made at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, and the stories of the filming of each are told in a special exhibition in the house.

Castle Howard

Grand it certainly is, but not, at least by way of approaching vista, on a par with that other admired stately home and film location -  Chatsworth House in Derbyshire -  a little further south, aka Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

It  rang the bells though, for the 18th c. aesthete and social commentator Horace Walpole (1717-1797), who in 1772 wrote expansively of the house:

“Nobody...had informed me that I should at one view see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being a metropolis of the Druids, vales connected to hills by other woods, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive; in short I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one”.

The prolixity of Walpole’s description can be understood better by reference to his own tastes and the house that he had designed for himself in the Gothic Revival style. Strawberry Hill House is found in Twickenham in south-west London, and was recently refurbished at a cost of £9m with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Closer up

A more significant player in the story of Castle Howard is the architect of the house, Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726). Better known in early life as a playwright – works such as The Provok’d Wife were successes at the end of the 17th c. – he gained membership of the Kit-Kat Club (a group of Whig politicians and part of London's high society) and there met Charles Howard (1669-1738), the 3rd Earl of Carlisle.

By virtue of this connection, Vanbrugh secured the commission in 1700 to build Castle Howard, a pretty amazing feat as Vanbrugh had no architectural design background. However, in 1698 he had met the established architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (he of some grand London churches including St Mary Woolnoth and Christ Church Spitalfields), and Hawksmoor evidently played a role in the design of Castle Howard.

The dome. Not the original by Antonio Pellegrini,as the dome was destroyed by fire in 1940, but part of a careful restoration in 1960-61 by the Canadian artist, Scott Medd.

 There is irony in the subject-matter, The Fall of Phaeton, as this depicts the story of the son of the Sun God Apollo, who drove his father's chariot so dangerously that the Earth nearly burnt up.

In “Georgian London”, the architectural historian Sir John Summerson writes of the early suspicion of the Vanbrugh/Hawksmoor collaboration – that “Either Hawksmoor was a hack and merely followed Vanbrugh, or Vanbrugh was an incapable amateur entirely dependent on Hawksmoor”. In any event the collaboration, which extended to other work including Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, was highly successful, and Summerson goes on: “The truth is that the Vanbrugh-Hawksmoor combination was that rare thing – a fertile marriage of equally creative minds”.

In the recent blogpost: A Prosperous Lawyer, and a Red House and Red Lion connection, I wrote of the influence of Morris & Co of London's Red Lion Square. The firm pops up again in Castle Howard, with stained glass in the Chapel.

Chapel - Morris & Co design

Castle Howard also featured in Vitruvius Britannicus, a grand survey of British architecture by the architect Colen Campbell, published in 1715. London connection? Campbell designed his own house at 78 Brook Street in Mayfair - the house still stands and is marked by a Blue Plaque.

The Long Gallery

The last London connection is found from a wander through the house’s Antique Passage. Here amongst the artefacts garnered from Grand Tours of Europe done by members of the family, we find a bust of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211), who is credited with some part at least in the building of the defensive wall around the old City of London.

And just down the A64 from Castle Howard lies one of the foremost cities of Roman Britain, then called Eboracum, but today known as York.

York Minster - Easter Saturday 2012