Highclere Castle, seat of the Earl of Carnarvon and the setting of Downton Abbey
The country houses of England are among the country’s greatest treasures. Art historian Bonita Billman surveys a selection of these grand estates, known for their architectural magnificence, spectacular decorative art and art collections, and glorious gardens.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Elizabethan and Jacobean Excess
Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth were both shaped by Bess of Hardwick, founding matriarch of the Cavendish dynasty. Hardwick is noted for its collection of exquisite embroideries and portraits from the period. Chatsworth, home of the Dukes of Devonshire, has one of the most spectacular collections of art in the country, including a superb collection of Old Master drawings. Its gardens, designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, are in their maturity now, 250 years after their planning.
11 a.m.–12 p.m. Baroque Exuberance
Beginning in the late 17th century, wealthy Britons embarked on the fashionable Grand Tour, bringing back from Europe a taste for classically inspired mansions. One of their preferred builders was the playwright-turned-amateur-architect Sir John Vanbrugh, who designed the large-scaled and extravagant mansions Castle Howard, the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, and Blenheim Palace, commissioned by Queen Anne as a reward for the victorious Duke of Marlborough whose wife, Sarah, was the queen’s favorite.
12–1 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1–2:15 p.m. Palladian Purity
Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who adapted the Roman architectural orders to a domestic architecture for villas in the Veneto, had a major influence on the architecture of 18th century Britain. Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, and architect and landscape designer William Kent, promoted the Palladian style. Lord Burlington built and Kent decorated Chiswick House outside of London as his own version of a Palladian villa, and they also created Holkham Hall for the Earl of Leicester in Norfolk, a house with grand but chaste interiors by Kent. Houghton Hall, designed by architect Colen Campbell, was the pride of Sir Robert Walpole, the de facto first prime minister, and Stourhead, a Palladian mansion by Campbell, is set in a magnificent landscape by Henry Hoare II that features temples, follies, and a lake inspired by the paintings of Claude Lorrain.
2:30–3:15 p.m. Gothic Revival
Medieval architectural features like lancet windows, cloisters and galleries, rib vaulting, and turrets became an on-and-off mania in the late 18th century into the Victorian era. The 18th-century promoter of all things Gothic was Horace Walpole, a son of Sir Robert, whose home Strawberry Hill is the paradigm of Gothic Revival domestic architecture. Other mansions in the style include James Wyatt’s long-lost Fonthill Abbey, Prince Albert’s Balmoral Castle, and William Burges’s Welsh castle, Castell Coch.
3:15–4:15 p.m. Victorian Country Houses
During the Victorian era, professional architects could design for a client—particularly a newly monied one—a mansion in any style desired, be it a medieval castle, an Elizabethan manor, a French chateau, or a Renaissance palazzo. Two important Rothschild family estates, Ascott (with its medieval half-timbered look) and Waddesdon (in the style of a French Renaissance chateau), are mansions in historicist styles. Other notable Victorian country houses include Lanhydrock in Cornwell and Highclere Castle in Hampshire (the real Downton Abbey). The day concludes with a look at Eltham Palace, which melds a medieval palace with an Art Deco addition.
Billman is an affiliated faculty member in the department of art and art history at Georgetown University.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit
S. Dillon Ripley Center
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Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)