I managed to get to Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, on a day it was closed to the general public. Now, I have no claim to fame and I was not invited to take tea with the current Countess, but I was armed with a yearly pass from the Historic Houses Association of England. Reading the booklet’s fine print, I let out a very unladylike whoop–it was covered! Hopeless fan of British eye candy that I am, I was not about to miss my chance.
We arrived at the estate in sunny Hampshire on a day when a fleet of classy British sport cars were parked on the grounds. Lord Grantham and his faithful golden labrador were nowhere in sight.
Full disclosure: my husband had seen exactly half of one episode of the TV show, but we share a fascination with British country homes. It’s always fun to be on the inside looking out of those imposing windows.
Alas, no photos were allowed inside, but after a short time cooling our heels outside the famous front door, in we went. Is that door-knocker a wolf? He’s just a little intimidating, for sure. Inside, the house looks exactly as it does on TV and now in the movie. No photos are allowed, but I can’t blame the owners. Visitors moved through the lush rooms quietly, not rushed, murmuring about their favorite scenes.
The movie’s other stately home location is Harewood–pronounced “Harwood,” of course. I never get British pronunciations right until I’m either corrected or I hear them from somebody who knows better.
Harewood is in Yorkshire (where Downton Abbey is supposed to be) and it’s very grand indeed.
In the recent movie, set in 1927, it’s one of the homes of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. She is married to Viscount Henry Lascelles, later the Sixth Earl of Harewood. He had a reputation for being difficult, especially after possibly suffering from shellshock in World War I. Also, he was fifteen years older than the Princess. But I can’t find any evidence that she ever considered leaving him, as in the movie.
Princess Mary was beloved for her gentle nature and her service during the Great War, including her gift packages in 1914 to every single British and Indian soldier, nurse or anyone who had a part in the war effort. The packages included tobacco, a pipe, cigarettes and a lighter in a brass box with a picture of her face. Those who did not smoke received boxes with sweets and such instead.
Harewood as it stands today was built beginning in 1759. The money came directly from the slave trade. Henry Lascelles, an earlier ancestor of the current owners, went to Barbados at the age of twenty-one and made his family’s fortune by astute, and apparently ruthless, exploitation of interests the family already had in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco production–and in running slave ships.
The year 2007 was the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, which happened in 1807. The Lascelles family had already sponsored research into the original source of their wealth, something very few British families did. In the Bicentary year, they sponsored a whole range of talks, tours, lectures and theatrical performances on the subject of slavery. Many if not most of the stately homes I like so much share the same history, but very few acknowledge it.
My old guidebook from a visit in the 1990s does not mention the slave trade at all. To their credit, the current owners have produced a new guidebook that not only tells the sad story, but tells how to access the actual historical records online.
The original Henry Lascelles may not have enjoyed his ill-gotten gains all that much. In 1753, he killed himself by slashing his own throat. (I have to wonder if his death was really a suicide, but that’s the story in the house’s current guidebook, above). His son Edwin Lascelles immediately began planning a grand house on the property he inherited.
The slave-trade money certainly bought beauty and luxury.
Robert Adam was a young Scottish architect, recently returned from studies in Italy and on the way up the social ladder when Edwin Lascelles hired him. The hallmark of Adams’s style was elaborate symmetrical plaster ornamentation on every flat surface, and especially on every ceiling.
Capability Brown designed the extensive grounds and gardens.
And Thomas Chippendale furnished the entire house from top to bottom.
Chippendale’s hall chairs, designed especially for the grand entry hall, were never sat upon–they were purely decorative. No doubt anybody like me, who might have plopped down in one, was never left alone in this most intimidating room.
Today, Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster sculpture “Adam” dominates the grand hall. It was made in the late 1930s and arrived at Harewood only in 1961. One wonders what “Downton Abbey’s” Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, would make of this Adam.
Anglophile that I am, I’ll always fall for the beauty and romance of a way of life that only existed for a very few people in a very brief period of time. But I’m happy to see the true cost of such beauty acknowledged as it is at Harewood.