Celebration in Stone: Castle Howard Built 1700

Celebration in Stone: Castle Howard Built 1700

Yorkshire’s Castle Howard is so large and richly decorated the human eye can’t take it all in at first glance so stop and take a moment to feast on one of the grandest private homes in the country. Take a deep breath as you walk from the main car park through the stable and carriage yard, turning sharp right into the immaculate rose garden. Keeping the high red brick garden wall to your left head for the wrought iron gate and on passing through turn sharp left into a high avenue of trees.

During the summer the view is partially obscured, you can see the grand Atlas Fountain falling away to the right, but press ahead and all shall be revealed in the magnificence of Castle Howard, the first grand home of its type to have a stone dome. The scale and creative stonework are pure theatre set in grounds manipulated by man. Stand and wonder at the Corinthian style pillars, the tall long windows and the east and west wings, all richly decorated by skilled early 18th century masons.

The crowning glory is the exact symmetry of the south elevation, the windows standing to attention like infantry on parade. From the impressive steps in the centre of the building raise your eyes to a riot of intricate stonework sitting under the apex, which points up to the massive restored dome with its lantern room on the very top. The intriguing thing is although the building is magnificent in every respect the design wasn’t drawn up by an architect or built by a builder; it is the work of dramatist John Vanbrugh who had never built anything!

So how did a man with no experience get such a prestige job? Leading architect William Talman was initially asked by Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle to draw up the plans but they were turned down. Then in the last year of the 17th century Charles turned to his friend and fellow member of the famous Kit-Cat Club, a group of influential Whigs that included Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, the Duke of Marlborough, the greatest soldier of his time, and society charmer, John Vanbrugh. Despite the fact Vanbrugh had never raised a stone from the ground, he pandered to the Earl’s tastes promising to design and build a house that would glorify the name of Howard in the best possible taste of the time.

While Vanbrugh had Carlisle’s ear, and hand on the building funds, he had to find a professional architect who knew what he was doing, and casting his net wide he found Nicholas Hawksmoor who would take on the practical work, important stuff like design and construction. Vanbrugh, ever the opportunist, had become project manager to the rich and famous.

Having got his feet under the table Hawksmoor stamped his authority on the design, swinging the building round on a north-south axis. The first part of Castle Howard to be built was the East wing, which was finished in 1703, next was the Garden Front followed by the main Central building and dome in 1706 with the western end of the Garden wing completed in 1709.

Castle Howard is a house on the grand scale; its facades dressed with carved coats of arms, cherubs, sea horses, trumpets and coronets, niches on the north front dressed with life-size statues, with more looking out across the estate from the very top of the central building along with urns positioned on every corner.

But to the observant there seems to be a mismatch in styles between each side of the building. The square columns, called pilasters, on the south face are Corinthian in style, while those on the north are Doric. When asked about the differences Hawksmoor defended himself by claiming people didn’t look at both sides of Castle Howard at the same time.

When Vanbrugh died in 1726 the house still hadn’t been fully completed, and when Charles died 12 years later the West Wing hadn’t even been started. Sir Thomas Robinson, Carlisle’s son-in-law, finished the job. Vanbrugh would have been horrified at the new building, which was built not in his flamboyant Baroque style but in the plainer Palladian manner. The grand home was eventually finished in the early part of 1811 but the attic pavilions were removed from the West Wing in 1870 to give the house better balance to the eye.

Tranquillity reigned over the grand house until the fateful morning of November 9, 1940 when flames were seen leaping from the roof and upper windows of the South-East Wing, then fanning through the building until it reached the richly decorated Great Hall and dome. Schoolgirls evacuated from the Queen Margaret’s School in Scarborough, along with staff and family, helped move some of the valuables out of the house, but not before the raging fire had gutted major parts of the building leaving it without a roof, and open to the elements.

It wasn’t until the house passed to George Howard, who inherited Castle Howard on the death of his two brothers killed in the Second World War, that the house stirred into life again. He, and his wife Lady Celia, set about repairing all the 20 fire damaged rooms and Great Hall, including the famous dome, turning it back into a home once again.

Money for the massive rebuilding and restoration programme was always short but work pressed ahead as cash became available. The dome was rebuilt in 1962, and then 19 years later the Garden Hall was completed at the time the film Brideshead Revisited was shot on location at the house. As you would expect of such a large house and richly decorated gardens, the work continues to this day with masons working on the fabric of the building and statues around the rolling estate, with lead-workers taking care of the gutters, downpipes and huge expanse of lead roofing.

Wandering through the building artwork and craftsmanship leaps at you from every corner. Going back to the Great Hall you can’t help but be impressed by the individual capitals that form bases for the four grand arches that support the upper floor as it rises ever higher to the dome, which stands 70ft high. Samuel Carpenter, a Yorkshire mason, carved them in 1705 at a cost of £84, while a French sculptor carried much of the other work out. If you ever visit Chatsworth House in Derbyshire you might recognise the work, which was carried out by John Gardon, Gideon du Chesne and others who all worked on Castle Howard.

In the time honoured fashion master masons, sculptors and architects, men who could add the final embellishments to a grand building, travelled around the country from one commission to the next, their work and skills usually being recommended by one gentleman landowner to another. Castle Howard is without doubt one of the most spectacular private homes in the country, and now owned and administered by a private company; two of its directors being the Hon. Nicholas and his brother the Hon. Simon Howard who help run what is now a massive enterprise.

Today everyone can enjoy the house, the grandeur, the spectacular craftsmanship and the rolling garden with its many huge water features. Opened to the public in 1952, around 200,000 people visit Castle Howard each year. How many walk through the avenue of trees towards the house and stop in pure wonderment?

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Mel Russ