Winter at Castle Howard

As much as I wanted to visit Castle Howard at Christmas, I sadly didn’t get a chance to visit before I went home for the holidays. The house is usually filled with the most ornate decorations and ginormous tree, so it’s really worth going to see. For more information on visiting Castle Howard in the few days before Christmas visit the website. Nevertheless, I had a beautiful visit to Castle Howard, earlier this winter and thought I’d share my thoughts and a bit of history about the house.

The building of the house started in 1699 and took over 100 years to complete, meaning both the original architect Sir John Vanbrugh and the initial owner the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Charles Howard never lived to see its completion. Despite Vanbrugh’s premature death, the final building resembles the initial plans made with the aid of Nicholas Hawksmoor, with two symmetrical wings projecting to either side of a north-south axis. However, a number of additions were made during the build, creating more of a Baroque structure, decorated with coronets, cherubs, urns and cyphers. Even the looming central dome was a later addition to the design, added after the building had begun.

castle howard 1

An interesting element of the architecture is the difference between the classical orders on the north and south façades. The north front is supported by Doric pilasters, well known for their solidity and ability to hold heavy weights, representing the male. In contrast, the south front features Corinthian order, more slender columns, often heavily decorated and ornate, the feminine order. The north front is the entrance front and the south, garden facing. This makes an interesting comparison of domestic roles within the house, and the more appropriate female position residing behind the scenes, not immediately visitor facing.

Castle Howard is another house I studied for the Country House module last year and I actually visited earlier in the year. However, the actual house was closed on my visit meaning I didn’t get to see someone of the beautiful interiors I’d learnt so much about. Luckily I managed to visit on the last day before it closed for Christmas preparation so I could experience both the outside and inside of the building.

Dome ceiling

The interiors were spectacular, especially the dome with the famous recreation of Antonio Pellegrini’s ceiling decoration the Fall of Phaeton. It is a shame the original isn’t still at the Castle, but sadly the dome along with the central hall, the dining room and the staterooms on the east side were entirely destroyed during a fire on 9 November 1940. In 1960–61 the dome was rebuilt and a few years later repainted by 1962 Scott Medd, a Canadian artist.

Another interior I found particularly striking was the chapel, originally built as a dining room in the West Wing in the eighteenth century. It was transformed into a chapel and heavily redecorated in 1870 in the pre-Raphaelite style, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones designs. The beautifully detailed coffered ceiling is based on Holbein’s design for the Royal Chapel in St James’ Palace and rises above a selection of biblical frescos adorning the walls.

Chapel Celing

In one of the main rooms of the house, a dummy board, from the seventeenth century was positioned in front of the fire. I’d never seen one before and they have the rather novel use of working as fire screens but also as a decorative feature in the home. They were made to look as lifelike as possible, with bevelled edges so as not to look flat, meaning many were mistaken for real people. I thought this was quite an ingenious idea giving the impression that the house owned more servants than they actually did!


Aforementioned, the fire sadly destroyed much of the house and many of the rooms were not restored. Some first floor rooms were superficially restored for the 2008 filming of Brideshead Revisited, and also a few featured exhibitions. The South East Wing remains a shell, although it has been restored externally, maintaining the look of a fully completed house. I never knew this so it was interesting to find out it was never fully restored, it’s a shame as it would’ve been interesting to see recreations of some of the lost rooms.

The exhibition sections of the house in the shelled exterior really added to the history, beyond the traditional stories of the original families and architecture of the house. One exhibition ‘Duty Calls’ focussed on the history of Castle Howard during the wars. This gave a glimpse into the ways the family opened their doors to help do their bit in the war effort. Part of the display features a long timeline from the Wars of the Roses and the Battle of Bosworth Moor in 1485 to the present day, showing the involvement of the family in a series of different battles, to give a wider context. There were also individual displays, looking more closely at the roles of individuals, including the period Castle Howard was used to house evacuees in the Second World War.

As well as the house, Castle Howard also has a large amount of land and gardens, both formal and less constructed. There is a large formal garden immediately behind the house. The house is situated on a ridge, allowing the house to look over the landscape and lake on north front and the formal garden, merging into a landscaped park on the south.


Within the garden and parks, a number of buildings are set into the landscape, the largest being the Temple of the Four Winds at the end of the garden, and the Mausoleum in the park. Other buildings include Hawksmoor’s Pyramid restored in 2015, an Obelisk and several follies.  The gardens are also beautifully decorated with a number of decorative fountains and statues, marking pathways and features in the landscape.

I absolutely love Castle Howard, it’s one of my favourite country houses I’ve visited so far. It’s beautiful seeing the house I’d studied so intently in real life. Hopefully, I’ll get to visit Castle Howard at Christmas one day!!

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