"Highclere Castle is probably the most important character in the show," says Hugh Bonneville, in a promotional video about "_blankDownton Abbey," the popular period drama that finishes _blanka four-episode run on PBS on Sunday evening. The Edwardian upstairs-downstairs drama, starring Bonneville as the upper-crusty earl of Grantham, looks at the lives of the privileged elite and their servants at the imaginary Downton Abbey. It was filmed at Highclere Castle, a mansion still occupied by the eighth earl of Carnarvon.
No, it's not the most important character in the show. It's a house, and like many of the stately old homes of England, its owners hire it out for just about anything (corporate events and weddings are popular). But it is a very sumptuous setting for a drama that has proved addictively entertaining. And if one wanted to sum up everything that is delicious and ridiculous about this program, written by Julian Fellowes ("_blankGosford Park"), the design of Highclere is a good place to start.
On first glance, it looks just like the kind of country house that the Elizabethan elites were building near the turn of the 16th century: a brilliantly detailed, boxy, symmetrical pile bristling with delicate ornament. It has much of the whimsy and lightness of the celebrated houses designed by Robert Smythson in the mid-to-late 16th century. Like other buildings of the period, it has long, vertical windows with delicate mullions. By pushing windows out to the plane of a building's external wall, architects of this era created a fantasy of lightness in stone. The thickness and heaviness of the masonry disappears, and the structure feels almost like a tent of glass and stone pitched on a plane of green grass.
But it is really an elaborate act of fakery, a 19th-century product of early Victorian extravagance. In 1838, the third earl of Carnarvon hired Charles Barry, the same architect who (with Augustus Pugin) designed the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament on the Thames in London, to completely refashion an existing and not very interesting Georgian-style country home in Newbury, England. Barry redressed the building, added tower elements and slathered the whole thing with a thick icing of period detail, and voila: The earls of Carnarvon had a house that suggested a long pedigree and hearkened back to the fantasy days of Good Queen Bess.
Or as a guide to privately owned castles bluntly puts it: "The Earl of Carnarvon wanted a house ostentatious enough to match his increasing wealth and importance." "Gaudy is Good" was one of two guiding principles of most Victorian architectural aesthetics. The other was a strongly nativist and reactionary view of architecture: the belief that only an authentic British architecture was good enough for the Empire and that the only styles that were properly British came from the glory days of the Gothic and Elizabethan eras. Britain needed an architecture "befitting her wealth and political importance," according to a 19th-century review of Barry's Houses of Parliament, and if you wanted smugness in stone, Barry was the go-to man.