Meet the Real DOWNTON ABBEY… the breathtaking HIGHCLERE CASTLE

Highclere Castle Front Facade

I became a DOWNTON ABBEY addict a bit later than most… I had missed the first season and read about this brilliantly written, sensationally Acted and Directed British series as a result of the rampant and obsessive LOVE for it in the “blogosphere”.  This  Masterpiece Classics series is of course a PBS extravaganza that has resulted in a new craze for corsets, cloche hats, High Tea and cravats, not to mention an even greater obsessive love for British country “homes”… and by homes I mean the singular spectacle that is Highclere Castle in Berkshire (browse through the gallery of interior, exterior and garden images on their website…truly scrumptious beyond description).  Highclere Castle is owned by the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and has been in their family since it was constructed.  The Carnarvon family have lived at Highclere since 1679, and the current Highclere Castle stands on the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester for some 800 years! (How’s THAT for lineage)  Like so many, I have succumbed to the magic of BOTH Downton Abbey as WELL as Highclere Castle… in the series Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey in the show) has such a presence, that it truly is a main character in the series.  Of course one can NOT speak of Downton Abbey without giving proper homage to the Divine Dame Maggie Smith; her Dowager Countess’ one-liners alone are reason enough to watch the program and relish every utterance and facial expression, Maggie Smith is divine!  The craze for Downton Abbey can be seen in the endless parade of features the show has inspired including  British Vogue, The Washington Post, Town & Country, The New York Times and the holy grail… Vanity Fair.

Highclere Castle was Designed by the iconic Sir Charles Barry  and is in the “Jacobethan” style, referring to the Victorian revival of English architecture of the late 16th century and early 17th century (think Tudor architecture fused with  Renaissance Revival influences and a dash of Gothicism).   During the 19th century there was a huge Renaissance revival movement, of which Sir Charles Barry was a great exponent – Barry described the style of Highclere as “Anglo-Italian Renaissance”…which we now refer to as Jacobethan.  Barry is perhaps most famous for the Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster) in London.   Personally, I adore Highclere’s bold visual combination of the vertical sections juxtaposed against the equally bold horizontal detailing, all of which are in contrast to the slender proportions of the towers.  As well, the stunning, warm and visually captivating Bath Stone used to dress the entire exterior of the Castle is exquisite.   Another instantly captivating feature of the facade that gives it such a fresh, almost modern feeling is the beautiful repetition of the massive windows… windows so large they almost seem impossible/incongruous on a stone structure of this size.  The repetition of them gives the massive structure an openness that both softens the scale and entices the onlooker.

“I am the last link of the feudal system. I’ve done everything I possibly can to keep the ancestral home.” The 6th Earl of Carnarvon

Another fascinating historical feature of Highclere Castle is its Egyptian connection.  Highclere is home to a permanent Egyptian Exhibition, which was founded by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who, along with his archaeological colleague Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922.  The 5th Earl was an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist, undertaking the sponsorship of the 1907  excavation of the nobles’ tombs in Deir el-Bahari (Thebes).    Another family story I particularly love is about the 6th Earl … when he threw a Ball for a thousand guests in the 1950’s, he wanted the house to be perfect.  So the crenelations around the towers (made of the very soft yet very beautiful Bath Stone) which were falling apart, were reconstructed for the occasion in hardboard and then back-lit floodlighted in order to give a gorgeous silhouette to the oncoming guests as they drove up the long gravel drive. (Perfection is in the Details…or is it madness).  Highclere Castle is open to the public on a limited schedule…. I strongly suggest a visit.

The Great Salon is the physical and social heart of the Highclere.  It was designed for the 4th Earl by Thomas Allom in a Gothic style with rich hand carved stone and walnut decoration and completed in the 1860’s.  The gorgeous wall coverings are made of hand tooled leather and were brought back from Cordoba, Spain by the 3rd Earl and date from 1631.

The STUNNING Music room is a wonderful south-facing room with views towards two of the Gardens follies: Jackdaw’s Castle to the east and Heaven’s Gate at the summit of Siddown Hill.  The baroque ceiling was painted by Francis Hayman in the 1730’s while the walls are hung with Italian 16th century Italian embroideries.

The Great Library of Highclere is actually a massive double room and was used by the 4th Earl of Carnarvon as a “withdrawing” room.  The Earl was an active Tory in Parliament, a member of Disraeli’s Cabinet in the 1860’s and 1870’s and would discuss politics with friends or retire in peace to this his “inner sanctum”. There are over 5,650 books, the earliest dating from the 16th century.

One of 2 Main Staircases…This is the Red Staircase… it makes me think of Edward Gorey’s “A is for Amy…” (if you don’t know the Reference look it up for a laugh)

The sunlight Great Hall with its glorious rows of original skylights.  The 17th century wall coverings are made of hand tooled and painted leather from Cordoba, Spain.  Identical panels can be found at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

 Highclere Castle Second Level Floor Plan

Highclere Castle’s ground floor plan

Highclere Castle Ground Floor Plan

Library Floor Plan

Highclere Castle library floor plan

The Following images are from a Architectural Digest Feature ON Highclere Castle from 1979.  To see the full Architectural Digest Feature CLICK HERE

A pair of canephorae decorate the gateposts of Highclere Castle … alluding to the “dark splendor of treasures within”, I love that line from the Architectural Digest feature.

Tall gilded columns serve to divide the long axis of the library. The rich tones of the coffered wood ceiling and Caucasian rugs give the room a warm Victorian feeling. On the far wall, a massive double-pediment bookcase is filled with old books, their fine leather bindings creating an additional pattern.

Gothic Pointed arches, decorated with small marble columns, give the entrance hall a feeling of mysterious beauty. 

The living room is seen through a series of arches, and is open to the grandly proportioned central space. Griffons depicted on the iron fireplace flank a Jacobean needlepoint screen, while a portrait of the present earl of Carnarvon, at right, is casually displayed next to a Toledo chinoiserie screen.

Exotic forms of griffons decorate a Regency armchair that attends a Regency mahogany and bronze writing desk. A Louis XVI bronze and ormolu candelabrum on a pedestal illuminates antique volumes in a parcel-gilt walnut bookcase.

  1. Daria HoldingDaria Holding03-21-2012

    WOW WOW WOW WOW. Followed closely by, Drool Drool Drool Drool and Drool. As always amazing Robinski!

  2. Gabriel RaymondGabriel Raymond01-07-2013

    Wish I could live in a place like that for a week.
    I always dreamed of living in a “large” place…..