Step into the 1,300-years-old Downton Abbey rooms that everybody wants a piece of. Find out where to buy decor items that are inspirationally similar. Learn how to set a perfect dinner table from the Châtelaine of the castle herself. Plus, so much more…
BY NABANITA DUTT
Downton Abbey, the PBS period drama set in early 20th Century England, is possibly the best-told fairytale of this millennium, sweeping millions of television viewers a century back in time, to an opulent country estate where the Crawley family retold the story of an aristocratic Edwardian life with post-Victorian costumes, prideful characters and elaborate social manners.
An existence that was propped up by the imposing towers and pinnacles of a neo-Gothic manor – Downton Abbey – and facilitated by an army of invisible `downstairs’ staff who lived a parallel existence in their subterranean quarters but were somehow privy to every gossip-worthy event taking place among the Crawley family members upstairs.
Season after season, while viewers were held spellbound by fascinating developments in the drama’s incredible storyline, one thing remained constant – the grand location of a mammoth architectural structure, and all the hand-picked decorative artefacts displayed inside it.
Downton Abbey-inspired décor is all the rage now, and millions of house-proud fans of the show want to give modern minimalism a break to delve into this treasure chest of 19th Century opulence.
But the thing is this: Downtown Abbey wasn’t a filming set design dreamed up by some genius styling professional with a history book in hand. The castle wasn’t staged to be period-perfect. Because it is period-perfect, and currently the home of George Herbert the 8th Earl of Carnarvorn and his wife Lady Fiona.
Highclere Castle, which plays the Abbey in its reel life, sits in the midst of 5,000 acres of countryside south-west of London. Built in 1842, the estate has been lived in for 1,300 years and has played host to royalty and nobility from Europe and beyond. The Carnarvon family has been stewards of Highclere Castle for 300 years. Today, the estate still functions as a modest version of its glamorous heydays, and even has Colin Edwards, it’s real-life butler.
As is to be expected, the décor of a home with such history cannot stay true to any particular design style. The structure of Highclere Castle itself, for example, was Georgian, stunted and block-shaped until its façade was raised in Jacobean-Tudor style to a towering majesty.
The interiors reflect a mish-mash of architectural influences with stone vaultings, clustered pillars, baroque ceilings etc. that have been added by generations of owners who wanted to leave a stamp of their own legacy inside the building.
The decorative elements have been collected over centuries, and procured from Europe and distant countries within the British colony and such an authentic inventory is practically impossible to duplicate.
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR: THE SALOON
The sky-lit saloon is the heart of the house and was designed in a gothic style with a triple-height vaulted roof. It was the Victorian equivalent of a home theatre with a magnificent gallery decorated with carved alcoves and hung with Belgian tapestries. Notice the unusual embossed leather wall covering, made in Cordoba, Spain, in the 1800s. And the pair of matching Dutch cabinets against the far wall.
Many Downton Abbey scenes have been shot in this space, including the family and staff’s gathering to announce the end of World War I.
SHOP THE LOOK: (1) Green Lacquered Chinoiserie Cabinet (2) New Bond Street Embossed Leather Wallpaper (3) Baroque Candelabra (4) Michael Amini Palace Table (5) Upholstered Custom Sofa With Fringe Detail (6) Old London Area Rug (7) Taylorsville Bleached Wood Table Lamp
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR: DRAWING ROOM
Legend goes that Almina Herbert, a previous châtelaine of Highclere Castle has been given bolts of exquisite green French silk by her father, which she used to cover the walls of this memorable drawing room. Decorated in the `rococo revival’ style, this south-facing room is filled with family portraits and furniture that dates as far back as the 1700s.
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR: DINING ROOM
Van Dyck’s massive equestrian portrait of King Charles 1 dominates the honey-yellow walls of the state dining room. The traditional Victorian family dining table, the other prominent décor feature, can seat up to 30 guests. (Scroll down to read how Lady Carnarvon sets this table for the castle’s dining events.)
SHOP THE LOOK: (1) Queen Anne Side Chair (2) Acacia Elephant Sideboard Buffet (3) Oriental Ariana Persian Rug (4) Elegance Silver 5-Light Candelabra (5) Wildens Family Portrait Canvas Replica Art (6) Charles X Period White Opaline Gilt Vase
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR: LIBRARY
In spite of the opulence of deep, royal red that overwhelms the décor scheme of this sprawling library, it’s masculine overtone is hard to miss. Designed by a Sir Charles Barry, the architectural aesthetics of an imposing pair of dark mahogany columns, gilded bookcases and a costumed ceiling do not take attention away from the room’s main purpose: books. Almost 6,000 volumes of hard-bound books that look like they have been read over and over again through the centuries. The room can seat approximately 140 people.
SHOP THE LOOK: (1) Corona Decor Bali Pillow (2) E. Lawrence Fine English Decorative Books (3) Midnight Blue Ceramic Vase (4) Carolina Cottage Gilda End Table (5) Purple Marriage Crystal Candelabra (6) Rare Federal Upholstered Antique Armchair
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR: MASTER BEDROOM
This is the master bedroom in Downton Abbey, where Cora and Robert Crawley sleeps. Notice how the décor is much more subdued compared to all the public rooms in the castle. The periwinkle blue of the walls and the rosewater pink of the upholstery are telling choices of the times, balancing heavy, dark furniture with a surround of softness. The 4-poster canopy bed is hand-painted and probably a close cousin of the Chinese opium or wedding bed.
SHOP THE LOOK: (1) Vintage French-Style Ornate Mantel Clock (2) Pink Rosewater Silk Duvet Cover (3) Dale Tiffany Pink Fringed Lamp (4) Metropolitan Wall Scone (5) 4-Poster Canopy Double Bed (6) Louis XV Armchair
SETTING A DINNER TABLE, DOWNTON ABBEY STYLE
Châtelaine Lady Fiona Carnarvon explains how her dining room is prepared for one her
legendary Highclere Castle meal experiences
Highclere’s dining room table seats between 4-30 people, depending on how many `leaves’ are carefully put into the Victorian extension mechanism. Setting the table is an art and allowing enough time for it is important. The detail and charm of the operation hasn’t ever been covered in Downton Abbey, as it tends to focus on the ‘upstairs’ conversations.
Colin, our Butler, and Luis, our Banqueting Manager, usually set the table in the afternoon for that evening. The exact layout obviously depends on the menu and number of courses that Paul the Chef and his assistant Rob are preparing, and the choice of wines made by my husband with the help of Luis.
Colin and Luis work wearing white gloves, which keeps the silver clean and fingerprints off the glasses, in exactly the same way as their predecessors would have done at any point in the past 100 years.
♦ White embroidered linen tablemats are placed over leather protective mats to mark each dinner guest’s place.
♦ The knives, forks and spoons are set from the outside in, beginning with the bread knife and working through each course to the cheese.
♦ A pat of butter is impressed with the intertwined C’s and coronet of my husband’s crest and placed in front of each guest.
♦ The wine glasses and water tumbler are arranged to the top right of each setting and the mnemonic to remember the order is `white-on-the-right’, or as Luis likes to tell the staff, like “a Mickey Mouse head”, with the two smaller glasses as the ears.
♦ The pudding glass sits at the back, as this is the last one guests will drink from. The Downton Abbey [crew] prefers a different arrangement to the glasses but, hopefully, our ancestors hanging in their gold frames in the dining room would accept the alternative as more photogenic and for an entertaining cause.
DOWNTON ABBEY DECOR
♦ Gilted, heavy wood furniture in empire, rococo and baroque styles.
♦ Lots of decorative items like baroque picture frames, candelabras, table lamps, equestrian memorabilia and crystal accent pieces.
♦ Richly upholstered furniture in velvet, damask or heavy silk.
♦ Heavy, layered window treatment with swags/valances.
♦ Oriental rugs, wall scones and tapestries with classic, European themes.
♦ Large, elaborate chandelier.
♦ Dark wood shelves full of leather-bound books.
♦ Fresh, floral arrangements.
♦ An overlay of genteel shabbiness, so nothing looks too new for comfort.