Castle Howard: a house for all seasons (Yorkshire)

In all my visits I've never taken a picture of the whole house so I hope Curt Di Camillo doesn't mind me sharing his that sits in the public domain

Castle Howard is an ego house: a gigantic lump of baroque designed by John Vanbrugh (his very first design!) and built for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a man who intended to become prominent on the political playing field and have a house to match.

Owned by a company since the 1950s, while remaining a family house Castle Howard is very much a business: a day at Castle Howard will entertain you.

Reason to visit: they light the fires for their Christmas opening, adding life to a lived-in country house and laughing in the face of some many NT houses that have become no more than museums.

You should visit Castle Howard at least four times – it really does have something to offer for every season.

Comprising the house itself, a garden centre, farm shop and courtyard of purchasing opportunities, walled garden, lake, fountain and woodland walks, there’s plenty to do.  There’s a cafe on the ground floor of the house and a tractor bus taking visitors down from the courtyard to the house.

The timeline

Although building work began c. 1699, construction of Castle Howard took more than 100 years:

  • prototypes were designed between 1699-1702;
  • the projecting wings always featured in proposals;
  • the 80ft high dome above the grand staircase (beneath which is a fireplace with seemingly no chimney (that splits to facilitate an open balustrade offering views from the first floor down into the entrance hall while disguising the stairs)) was a later addition to the design and the first in a private residence in England – possibly following Wren’s St Paul’s or the palace designed for Charles II at Winchester;  if replication is the greatest form of flattery, Castle Howard’s dome was shunned: it was never recreated elsewhere;
  • the house’s axis is north/south, meaning half the gardens receive full sun and the other constant shade – a challenge if trying to create unity in a garden;
  • the pilasters to the north are Doric, those to the south Corinthian: when challenged over this Hawksmoor replied that nobody could see both fronts simultaneously;
  • building began in 1701, with the east wing completed by 1703 and the central block and dome in 1706;
  • pavilion rooms at either end of the West Wing were removed during the refurbishment of the Chapel in 1870-75, as part of a plan to bring both wings into greater harmony;
  • although some of the bedrooms were completed and in use at the end of the century, the Long Gallery and projected new Dining Room beyond remained unfinished, until decorated in 1801-11 by Charles Heathcote Tatham.
Lovely frosty fields on a walk around the grounds on a Sunday morning

Putting Castle Howard into it’s historical context (as I like to do), Chatsworth was being remodelled at this time and the baroque wing at Hampton Court was just being finished.  Nothing on the scale and to the design of Castle Howard existed in the north.

The Old Castle Henderskelfe had been damaged by fire in 1693 and so the time was ripe.  Charles Howard, who at the time was only a minor political player, took a lease and sought an architect.

Initially 30 year old Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, approached William Talman, the leading architect of the day.  His work on court buildings would have found favour with the Whigs, which Howard desired.  However, his designs were rejected.

It was fellow Kit Cat Club member and entirely novice designer, 35 year old John Vanbrugh, who was given job. One can imagine the two sipping whisky while the dramatist convinced the young earl (who has inherited his title in 1692) that together they could create the most impressive show home in the land.

Vanbrugh recruited Nicholas Hawksmoor to assist him in the practical side of design and construction.  Together they fashioned a house that would be discussed in high society.  However, the earl’s early focus was landscaping, which frustrated Vanbrugh and delayed construction of the house’s west wing at the cost of symmetry.  In fact, Vanbrugh never saw the house completed.

The west wing was not completed until a Palladian wing inspired by William Kent’s designs for the Houses of Parliament was added by the 3rd earl’s son-in-law.  By this time baroque was falling out of fashion and design had evolved.  It means that the finished house bears little resemblance to that published in Vitruvius Britannicus: two identical wings are replaced by two wings that do not match; the house has a spectacularly assymetrical appearance as Vanbrugh’s baroque progression is challenged by Palladian afterthought. 

In his unpublished reminiscences the 5th Earl remembered how the family found it difficult to comprehend their father’s decision to build a new wing ‘not correspondent to the other, or to the centre part of the House‘, and he recalls that his father too was unhappy with the result, registering disgust ‘with all its unconquerable faults‘.

And so the delay continued: the 4th earl died and the 5th earl inherited, but his frugal trustees were disinclined to fund furnishing and decorating of the interiors.  Hence it took well over a century to complete Castle Howard.

My conclusion: Although I’ve visited it many times, I don’t like the building.  I wouldn’t have it given.  There is nothing sweet or inviting about it; it’s a man’s house shouting ‘here I am’.  However, it can appreciated for its greatness, its drama, its position in history as possibly the first really great country house of its type in the North.  I just wouldn’t want to live there.


On 9 November 1940 fire broke out in the south-east Wing.  The fire destroyed the dome and nearly 20 rooms, leaving swathes of Castle Howard unroofed throughout the 40s & 50s. The collection of china was heard to explode like “fire-crackers” in the heat.  Pellegrini’s murals in the High Saloon were destroyed, together with Chippendale mirrors, Westmacott’s statue of Venus and a dozen Marco Ricci overdoors.

Look out for the cracks on the entrance hall floor where debris smashed to the floor.

However, there’s still some splendid interiors and do look out for the Bellotti examples (Canaletto’s nephew).  I think I would have died and gone to heaven if I’d seen the original collection of 18th C Venetian pictures that existing in the house by 1800.

In 1960-62 the dome was rebuilt and redecorated and in 1981 the Garden Hall was rebuilt.

Since then there’s been scandle when the first Mrs Howard of the present earl was divorced and the present Mrs Howard married the family.  Adds to the family history I suppose; it’s just more widely scandalised in the media age.

When I visited in 2010, for the first time I saw inside the gutted but now re-roofed rooms.  It was wonderful to see the proportions of the interiors.  Reason enough to go back if you haven’t been there since they opened?

House: ***

Garden: ***


Theme tune: If I Ruled the World by Tony Bennett

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