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Downton Abbey before it was Downton Abbey

Rummaging around the vaults on Architectural Digest’s website, I came across a story from 1979 profiling Highclere Castle and the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, whose father financed the expeditions of famed archeologist Howard Carter, which resulted in the discovery of the pyramid tomb of King Tut, the boy king. While the editorial ran 34 years ago, the house remains, in grand English tradition, very recognizable from the television series now airing it’s third season in the US.

The dining room of Highclere is dominated by the large portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck. The dining table was scaled for intimacy and surrounded by Hepplewhite chairs all on a Caucasian rug. Though shot in 1979, this photo looks like the set is ready for Lady Edith to join her father and brother-in-law for breakfast (after all, spinsters don’t breakfast in bed!). The walls are a different color and the pictures are rehung, but Charles I is still center stage!

downton abby

DA Dining room

The library, scene of much of the drama on Downton Abbey, as photographed in 1979. Those great antique red sofas are so distinctive. Tall gilded columns serve to divide the long axis of the library. The rich tones of the coffered wood ceiling and Caucasian rugs give the room a warm Victorian feeling. On the far wall, a massive double-pediment bookcase is filled with old books, their fine leather bindings creating an additional pattern.

Downton Abby library

DA Library

The living room is seen through a series of arches and is open to the grandly proportioned center space. Much of the characters’ comings and goings traverse this hall (and that rug- SO carefully rolled up for Lady Edith’s wedding reception just to be un-rolled again…) Griffons depicted on the iron fireplace flank a Jacobean needlepoint screen, while a portrait of the sixth earl of Carnarvon, at right, is casually displayed next to a Toledo chinoiserie screen.

Downton Abby gallery

DA hall

DA Gallery

The production designers wanted a house that architecturally dated from the mid- to late 19th century, in order to distinguish it from the many earlier houses used in previous period dramas. While the designers kept most of Highclere’s furnishings and art, they brought in some period furniture, picture frames, dishware, cutlery, crystal, and lamps. “We updated the lighting to show the transition from gas to electric fixtures that was taking place then,” says set decorator Judy Farr.

One of my favorite rooms is the green drawing room, unfortunately not shot for the 1979 article. The fabric that covers the walls is a beautiful green French silk given in 1895 by Alfred de Rothschild to his daughter Almina, wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. As I like to say, “Buy well, buy once!” It still looks amazing after 118 years!

DA Sybil drawing room

DA Living room

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