Castle Howard in Yorkshire is one of a select group of country houses that must be seen as complete works of art. Visitors to the great domed palace, set in the gentle hills northeast of York, may be bowled over by the panache of the architecture and the beauty of the landscape, or they may be dazzled by the collections of pictures, porcelain and furniture inside. But the experience is more than the sum of each of those elements taken singly. The house and its contents, together with the land, show why the English country estate has so often been regarded as a beacon of civilisation and the art of living well.

Yet Castle Howard is more even than this, because written into its stones is the story of the extraordinary characters who created it. Its builder, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a descendant of the Elizabethan 4th Duke of Norfolk through a younger son, was a politician and courtier who rose to become First Lord of the Treasury under William and Mary in the 17th century. Like other members of the exuberant Kit-Cat Club, he enjoyed theatre, music, poetry – and gambling (though he was self-disciplined enough to leave the tables in London while he was ahead and take his winnings home to the North; in some years they constituted as much as a third of his income).


A PORTRAIT OF HENRY VIII FROM THE WORKSHOP OF HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER (£800,000–1,200,000) HANGS INSIDE THE CASTLE WITH OTHER PICTURES.

At court, the Earl moved in a circle for whom architecture and what it could say about one’s position in the world was a major preoccupation, shared by the King himself. Carlisle had a particular stimulus to build: in 1693, the year after he inherited the family seat in Yorkshire from his father, it had burnt down. In 1698, he identified the village of Henderskelfe as the site of a new one. To build it, he turned first to William Talman, the Duke of Devonshire’s architect at Chatsworth; but Talman was a difficult character and they fell out. John Vanbrugh saw his chance.

Vanbrugh had, at this stage, built precisely nothing. Now in his thirties, after having served as a soldier and spent several years languishing in French prisons following his arrest in Calais for lacking the correct papers, he burst onto the London scene as a saucy playwright and wit. It was not unusual for architects to come to the profession late; Sir Christopher Wren had been a mathematician and astronomer before designing St. Paul’s Cathedral. But we have no idea how Vanbrugh had prepared himself for his new career. The satirist Jonathan Swift poked fun at Vanbrugh’s inexperience by writing “Van’s genius without Thought or Lecture/Is hugely turned to architecture.”


THE BESSBOROUGH VASE: A MONUMENTAL QUARTZ DIORITE VASE FROM ROMAN EGYPT, CIRCA 1ST CENTURY BC, FROM NERO’S NYMPHAEUM, ACQUIRED BY THE 5TH EARL IN 1801 (£400,000–600,000).

Yet with amazing confidence, Vanbrugh sketched out an enormous house, the centrepiece of which was – for the first and nearly the last time in British domestic architecture – a dome. Fortunately, the diligent, diffident Nicholas Hawksmoor was on hand to help with the practicalities of such an endeavour. Perhaps Vanbrugh’s experience in the theatre had imbued him with an innate feeling for stage effects, for Castle Howard is nothing if not dramatic. Giant pilasters rise up the full height of the centre block, wings sweep forward on either side and statues gesticulate along the skyline. Vanbrugh’s genius was made for the flamboyant Baroque style, of which Castle Howard is one of Britain’s principal examples. The classical repertoire of columns and pediments was deployed to create effects of movement, contrast and light and shade. A painted and gilded hall rises up 70 feet into the dome.


BERNARDO BELLOTTO’S VENICE, A VIEW OF THE GRAND CANAL LOOKING SOUTH FROM THE PALAZZO FOSCARI (£2,500,000–3,500,000) SHOWN BOTTOM RIGHT.

The ambition of Castle Howard, though excessive for a relatively minor northern peer, had been in keeping with Carlisle’s role in state affairs. But when the Tory-leaning Queen Anne came to the throne in 1714, his Whig face ceased to fit. Rather than scaling back on his work in Yorkshire, Carlisle made the remarkable decision to change course. He turned away from the architecture – even though that meant leaving the west wing to be finished by the next generation at the hand of his pedestrian relative Sir Thomas Robinson – and refocused his resources onto the landscape. The change put Castle Howard at the forefront of the Picturesque Movement, by which gentlemen conceived the parks around their houses as a living equivalent of the masterpieces by Claude Lorrain that they had seen on the Grand Tour.

It was Vanbrugh who had been the first to suggest the concept of the Picturesque in a letter to the Duchess of Marlborough, justifying his (illicit) restoration of Woodstock Manor at Blenheim (for his own use; Vanbrugh went on to design that other Baroque masterpiece, Blenheim Palace). At Castle Howard, he had the opportunity to build mock ramparts, in memory of the Roman fort that had once stood on the site, as well as a pyramid. Credit for the mausoleum goes to Hawksmoor. Set on a hill, its great stone drum crowned by a shallow dome and surrounded by Doric columns, it was, quipped Horace Walpole, enough to “tempt one to be buried alive.”


ONE OF A PAIR OF ITALIAN PIETRE DURE MOUNTED, INLAID EBONY CABINETS, CIRCA 1625 (£800,000–1,200,000).

It was perhaps the largest monument of its kind ever to have been constructed in Britain to date and probably the first funerary structure to have been built outside consecrated ground since Saxon times, reflecting Carlisle’s anti-clerical views.

The 3rd Earl of Carlisle lived until 1738. His astounding achievement in architecture and landscape was followed by the zeal for collecting shown by the 4th and 5th Earls; indeed, the works offered in London this summer were acquired by these two avid collectors. Henry Howard, the 4th Earl, shared his father’s passion for Italy, and, during a trip there in 1738, acquired one of the most extensive groups of vedute bought by a British patron in the 18th century. Among these were a number of works by Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto, whose Venice, A View of The Grand Canal Looking South From The Palazzo Foscari will be part of the Old Master Paintings sale this summer. It will be joined by another example of the 4th Earl’s taste in the form of a pair of extremely rare Italian pietre dure inlaid cabinets produced in Rome in the 17th century and possibly commissioned by a member of the Borghese family, which may have influenced Lord Carlisle’s desire to acquire them.

Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, collected more broadly, embracing contemporary British pictures as well as Old Masters. His acquisitions transformed the collection at Castle Howard into one of the most significant in Britain. Included in this sale is Portrait of a Boy by Ferdinand Bol, one of Rembrandt’s favourite and most talented pupils, offered with two of the 5th Earl’s other acquisitions: a late 16th-century bust of a nobleman and a superb Baroque bust of Anne of Austria, mother of King Louis XIV.


JACOPO SANSOVINO’S RELIEF WITH THE MADONNA AND CHILD (£400,000–600,000).

The sale also contains a work that relates to the historical antecedents of the Earls of Carlisle: a portrait of King Henry VIII from the workshop of Hans Holbein. The likeness is dated 1542, the year when the King’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, niece of the Duke of Norfolk, the ancestor of the Earls of Carlisle, was beheaded on the grounds of alleged adultery.

Always spectacular, by the mid-20th century, the castle came to symbolise the desperate plight of country houses after the Second World War. As such it was one of the inspirations of Evelyn Waugh’s doom-laden Brideshead Revisited (and was used as the setting for the hugely popular television serialisation of the novel in the 1980s). Not the least remarkable part of the Castle Howard story is that of the past 60 years, which have seen it recover from the doldrums of requisitioning and a fire that destroyed the dome, to rise again with new vigour.


Clive Aslet is Editor-at-Large of Country Life.

Works from the Collection of the Earls of Carlisle will be on view in London from 4–7 July. Auctions: 8 July. Enquiries: +44 (0)20 7293 5000.



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08 July 2015 | London