SOMEONE ONCE TOLD me in a past life I was a bawdy, flame-headed actress in mid-nineteenth century, York. If you believe in that sort of thing. I’ve always thought this must have explained my thwarted desires to be a world famous film star, but after seeing Castle Howard—this must have been misguided. Surely. I mean, he got York right – but as far as an actress living in some cheap tenement in the back streets in York—think again.
At Castle Howard, I feel quite at home and so does my travelling companion and dear friend, Sophie. We promptly decide that we must have been sisters in a past life and we—at the very least—were honoured guests in this magnificent Vanbrugh designed masterpiece, for a house party or two.
In 2018, The Daily Telegraph said Castle Howard is ‘one of the top 10 buildings you must visit in your lifetime’. A vast number of us recall Castle Howard as the setting for the original adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited. At will, I can recall the haunting, heady heights of the oboe soloist, from Geoffrey Burgon’s famous theme from the Granada Television series. The Castle featured again in the 2008 film version of Brideshead – but minus the iconic music we first associated this grand house with all its luscious English-ness—a cross between the ceremony and pomp, the elegance of empire and a romantic time that living memory can no longer recall unless the BBC or similar recreates it for us.
To dine out on Castle Howard’s history is to delve into the very fabric of and sometimes layered eccentricities of the English aristocracy and peerage. Charles Howard, the third Earl of Carlisle, was a man destined to defy convention. After all, who would eschew the plans of leading architect of the day, William Talman, and instead favour his friend, dramatist, John Vanbrugh—who according to the Castle Howard handbook—‘had never built anything in his life’?
The history of this great house, however, does indeed begin with both these men; their fierce creative energy and ultimately a friendship that spanned nearly a quarter of a century. Both were members of the exclusive Kit-Cat club—a group of Whigs at the heart of the most fashionable and influential end of London society. And it was among spirited and enlightened discussions, Vanbrugh somehow convinced his friend he was the man for the job.
While the building became the talk of London, it was still incomplete at the time of Vanbrugh’s death in 1726, and still unfinished when the 3rd Earl of Carlisle himself died in 1738. In the end, the design was completed by the Earl’s son-in-law, Sir Thomas Robinson and in the more subdued Palladian style, not the fanciful Baroque wing designed by Vanbrugh. Still, by 1758, even this wing remained incomplete and its long-winded construction was finally completed between 1801-11.
Walking through its hallowed halls, first beginning with the grand staircase, I am struck by flickers of recognition from the Brideshead series; the Antique Passage, as it is known—was included in the filming. It’s lined with marble treasures including busts, table-tops and statues, all collected by the fourth Earl on his grand tour of the Continent.
A couple of the English houses I’ve seen so far, managed by the National Trust, have been a bit tired. A lack of funds just maintaining, not celebrating—and some of the interiors a bit sparse. The houses collections are depleted, pieces and artworks sold off. But Castle Howard is still privately owned, and it is extraordinarily well managed and everything is done beautifully. That the Howards have been arbiters of good taste for 300 years does not come as a surprise when viewing the Castle’s exquisite interior.
We weave our way through the rooms and when we pass (slowly) through the Turquoise Drawing Room, Sophie points out that she was recently told the portrait top left next to the mirror (see above), is in fact her five times great grandmother, the Countess of Carlisle, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She is in excellent company, with nearly 50 pictures attributed to Canaletto in the house, and some beautiful portraits by Thomas Gainsborough. But there’s more, of course: the Flemish master, Rubens and a stunning collection of Italian Masters including Bellini and Titian, and we cannot forget the Annibale Carracci masterpiece, The Dead Christ Mourned – considered as the greatest acquisition made to the collection.
Once we’ve languished in these magnificent rooms, we finally arrive at the The Great Hall, and—I look up.
The dome is truly the crowning glory of this spectacular space, rising a colossal 70 feet into the air. There is something beyond the physical—an ethereal connection to the spiritual. The air is somehow different, senses are heightened; I am heady. I suspect this is the intended effect. The paintings completed by Venetian artist Antonio Pellegrini are steeped in mythology and themes of enlightenment: the Four Elements, the Twelve Figures of the Zodiac and Apollo and the Muses, the climax of which depicts Apollo’s son plunging to earth.
All of the Castle’s rooms are capacious, lofty, light. The windows, huge. I feel decidedly underdressed in my jeans in the Long Gallery. It’s 160 feet in length, with an octagonal space at its centre dividing the north and south ends. While I should be taking in the bookcases and the paintings, I am drawn to the floor—seemingly endless lengths of timber dressing it, uncluttered by rugs, drawing me from one end to the other.
How can I describe these spaces and do them any justice? I know I can’t.
Once outside I reflect:
I’m drawn to the pyramid way in the distance in the landscape and silently acknowledge, Christianity is merely one of the players here. The worship of the pyramid expresses reverence for the ancients and the most timeless symbol of power and the divine, known to man. It connects the Howards to the Gods.
Castle Howard was always meant to glorify—if not the Howard name alone, but the power and almost god-like supremacy of England, which needed to be conveyed as the ‘delicate balance of arrogance and studied modesty’.(Source: Castle Howard handbook).
It is difficult to understand how this dramatic and magnificent building could be considered modest, as it truly is a design to behold and I am left breathless looking at it. Such is its beauty and situation. Such is its impact. I can honestly say I’ve never really been overawed by anything much, but I am by this. I can’t draw my eyes away. And in addition to the Brideshead theme, I find my mind drifts to one of my favourite hymns, I Vow to Thee my Country, and the lines…entire and whole and perfect.
The most beautiful description is included inside the cover of the Castle’s handbook: in 1772, Horace Walpole wrote:
‘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.’
But in the end, not matter what little snippets I have provided and what quotes have inspired me—you just must see it for yourself. Everything you will feel about Castle Howard will come to you in your own time, space and scale of awe.
We have been incredibly fortunate, we see Castle Howard in all its glory, on a day blessed with clear blue skies. We wander the grounds with the sun warming the tops of our heads. We meander through the walled gardens, view the mausoleum across the south lake and I’m left with the most beautiful view of the house as my lasting impression.
As we walk from the house towards the Atlas fountain, Suddenly Sophie grabs my arm and says:
She swings me around and I suck in a breath. For some inexplicable reason, I’m close to tears. I’ve never seen a more harmonious example of human brilliance and creative expression in my life.
It is the sheer musicality embodied in this edifice—designed by a creative genius—whose sense of drama must surely have led to his next commission—Blenheim Palace.
And for some of you who know me well, this admission is a rare one: