Thursday, August 09, 2007

Castle Howard


Another Wednesday, another day off, another day out somewhere and in Yorkshire we are spoiled for choice when it comes to stately piles.

Castle Howard was the choice yesterday, home of the Earls of Carlisle for 300 years - note to those unfamiliar with wealthy British landed gentry, Carlisle is another 120 miles NorthWest of here, Castle Howard was not their main residence, simply a stopping off point on the five day trip from their London home, a sort of glorified bed and breakfast joint when the rest of us were living in houses made of mud and straw.

There is a glorious celebration of empire in these stately homes of ours, many of the old families who have passed the dwellings through the generations have made their family brass through such jolly japes as banking or trading, both of which relied heavily on the slave trade in the 1700's, but we tend to gloss over those snippets of information and instead glory at the complete over-exhuberence of design and craftsmanship wich went into their huge family homes.

Castle Howard, like other stately homes is stuffed full of boring old portraits of family members and hangers-on, a subject which always has me gagging yawns all day long, only in one room did the paintings attract my attention, those painted by the 9th Earl at the end of the 19th century during his grand touring days.

During Victoria's reign it was the done thing for wealthy gentlemen to "do the tour" of Europe and visit the classic sights of ancient Rome, Greece and the Middle East in order to learn of the ancient ways and perhaps plunder a bit of treasue here and there, and thus it is coomonplace to fid in our stately homes marble busts of ancient Roman emporer's, marble columns from ancient Greek temples and the odd Egyptian artifact here and there - not all of them genuine as the wily foreign-johnny's became astute in faking such artifacts after we had stolen - sorry, purchased - most of the originals.

Castle Howard is no different and succesive Earls on their Grand Tours took a magpie's interest in collecting Roman sculpture so that a whole 100 yard corridor is lined with fine marble 1st and 3rd century busts, its impressive it really is and you can't help but wonder if the Italians actually have any historical artifacts left at all, or maybe in their stately homes they have collections of stone hammers, wooden carts and horned helmets and mud from their Grand Tours of England.

The 9th Earl George Howard was an artist, an unassuming artist for he never sold his works but in the tradition of English Gentlemen he was tutored by several leading professional artists of the time and his work which hangs in one of the rooms at Castle Howard of his Grand Tour is bloody good, as are the thousands of sketches of his family at work and play that he made right through his lifetime.

Looking at furniture and over-gilded rooms has never held any fascination to me, I prefer to hear of the lifestyle of the landed gentry and more particularly of the people who worked for them, typically the 9th Earl in the 1890's had over 100 employees to look after himself, his wife and eleven children, and Castle Howard was just one of three houses that he owned.

An exhibition at the house details the life and times of the servants in his household thanks to his and his wifes own notes and drawings of the time and this is the part that finally interested me , lots and lots of detail such as the housekeepers accounts books showing the day to day expenses (Cooks wage, £40 a year, the best paid of all the employees including the Housekeeper who was top of the servants tree) and his wife Rosalind's accounts of their expenditure on huge swathes of wallpaper from the London shop of William Morris, famous arts and crafts designer of the time, she spent a small fortune on his hand printed papers and another small fortune (£89 in one year) for a man to come to Castle Howard to hang it properly.

So precious was the William Morris paper that seven years ago when they wanted to convert the old schoolroom into a shop they went to great lengths to remove the 100 year old wallpaper from one of the walls, securing sheets of plywood and battens to the wall first then gently dismantling the wall from the room behind, brick by brick, until only the plaster remained standing still bolted to the plywood which could then be carted away to laboratories for professional removal - a steamer from B&Q and a scraper would have done the job just as well and at a fraction of the price.

So its the deep and dirty stuff that I enjoy not the glamour and facacde of our stately homes, we're going to Edinburgh in a few weeks and Holyrood House is on the list of things to do, I'll be looking under the beds for The Queen's muck, don't you worry.

And on the way back the discovery of another fine English invention, the country pub. This time it was The Victoria at Cattel near York, as fine a pub and eating house as you could wish to stumble upon during your countryside rambles and although we only stopped for one pint of Kronenburg we will return for vittles at some point in the near future, it has a fine menu.

Chinese was the order for the night though and a sweet and sour cantonese chicken sat on my lap when we got home, unfortunately the sweetness of the dish and the one pint of Kronenburg brought on my usual curse of a headache within a half hour of eating and it was an early bath with paracetemol for me to finish off the day.

Next week - who knows ?

1 comment:

Island Girl said...

I would love to go to Castle Howard, because of Brideshead Revisited.

One of my favourite adaptations ever.