"I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one," wrote Sir Horace Walpole of Castle Howard. As Cabana Issue 20 exclusively reveals Remy Renzullo's redecoration of Castle Howard, Charlotte di Carcaci explores the architectural history of one of England's most exalted addresses.
BY CHARLOTTE DI CARCACI | 27 OCTOBER 2023
For many of us, Castle Howard will forever be Brideshead, home to the fictional Flytes; but in reality, this grand baroque palace that presides over an estate of thousands of acres of North Yorkshire moorland, has always been the seat of one actual family, the Howards, descendants of Lord William Howard, known as Bauld Willie.
Youngest son of the fourth Duke of Norfolk, William Howard married an heiress who brought as part of her dowry the village of Henderskelfe, later to become the site of Castle Howard. The bloodline prospered; William’s great-grandson Charles, ambassador to Russia, Sweden and Denmark, was created first Earl of Carlyle by Charles II, and the family's fortunes rose to such magnitude that the third Earl, once Lord Justice of the Realm, is said to have built Castle Howard using only a third of his yearly income.
In 1699, this 3rd Earl commissioned a fellow member of the Whiggish Kit-Kat Club, to build him a vast mansion. His choice was a fortunate, if eccentric one. For John Vanbrugh, a man of brilliance and colossal geniality, though already a renowned playwright, and a supposed spy who had already spent four years incarcerated at the Bastille on charges of espionage, had not yet designed a single building.
It seems the sheer force of Vanbrugh’s charm persuaded Carlyle to allow him, an untried amateur, to draw plans for what was to become perhaps the finest example of the English Baroque. With the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor, architect of six great London churches and the magnificent Easton Neston, Vanbrugh created a great, winged edifice with a central block dominated by a large dome. It was its first usage in English domestic architecture, possibly influenced by Vaux-Le-Vicomte, or even Vanbrugh’s sojourn in Gujarat, where, as a youth, he worked for the East India Company.
By 1709 the building was more or less complete, and resplendent with carvings of coronets, ciphers, coats of arms and a frieze of seahorses and cherubs. Statues and urns filled the niches on the North Front, and two orders of pilasters on the two facades: Doric for the north, and Corinthian for the more exuberant garden aspect.
The original design for Castle Howard incorporated two long parallel passages that ran the length of the building from east to west. This was a novel concept, since most English houses were still being built en enfilade; indeed, in 1716 Vanbrugh, while working on Blenheim Palace, a commission won from Queen Anne on the back of the plaudits received for his work on the Yorkshire mansion, found himself having to explain the meaning of the word ‘corridor’ to the Duchess of Marlborough.
Within the house, at its very heart, Vanbrugh placed a Great Hall, an extravagantly theatrical space decorated with a monumental scagliola niche for an ancient marble of Bacchus, and a fireplace-surround of gilded baroque excess created by the bravura Swiss stuccodore Giovanni Bagutti. The hall is supported by towering columns topped with stylised acanthus leaves and crowned with a cupola painted by the Venetian artist Antonio Pellegrini, depicting the fall of Phaeton, a mythological tale of hubris that many an 18th century wag and wit delighted in comparing to the vaulting ambitions both of Vanbrugh and of Carlyle himself.
Once the project was under way, Carlyle set his mind to the surrounding landscape and, having demolished the inconveniently placed village of Henderskelfe, began to set out parterres and waterways and lakes and fountains, dotting the grounds with lead statues of gods and gladiators. In 1724 Vanbrugh sent designs to his patron for a porticoed garden pavilion based on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, which is now known as the Temple of the Four Winds. But if Castle Howard was the great monument to Carlyle’s earthly triumph, soon he took to thinking of a suitable resting-place for eternity; thus Hawksmoor designed a colonnaded mausoleum, about a mile from the house, where Carlyle was buried, as have been subsequent Howards.
Later custodians only added to the grandeur of the house. The fourth Earl visited Italy twice, bringing back from his tours the collection of ancient busts, statues, urns, as well fragments of Roman mosaic which, mounted upon white and gold tables, now line the castle's Antique Passage. His son, the fifth Earl, concentrated on buying Old Master paintings from the famed Orléans Collection, as well as more contemporary works by Gainsborough and Reynolds.
But not every Carlyle was an admirer of Vanbrugh’s vision: the ninth Earl, a keen artist and friend of William Morris and members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, preferred another of the family houses, Naworth Castle in Cumbria, which better matched his aesthetic. Indeed, so much did the Earl and Countess dislike the Baroque decoration at Castle Howard that they hung the long gallery and state rooms with William Morris wallpaper, and even covered every trace of stucco-work in the great hall with raised panels of the selfsame florals.
After her husband’s death, the Countess, a great supporter of women’s suffrage, left Naworth Castle to her eldest son and Castle Howard to her eldest daughter, who, being less forward-thinking than her mother, felt the gift too great a responsibility for one of her sex and passed it to her younger brother, whose heirs live here to this day.
But the last word on Castle Howard must surely remain with Horace Walpole, that great 18th century aesthete, who wrote after his visit to the castle in 1772: "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 each 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."
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THE NEW ISSUE
Discover Remy Renzullo's redecoration of Castle Howard exclusively in the NEW issue: Cabana Issue 20 | Order your copy here.