Castle Howard is a magnificent 300-year-old stately home sitting among rolling hills just outside of York. It was designed for the third Earl of Carlisle by his friend John Vanbrugh, a famous dramatist, and the resulting building reflects this theatricality, alongside a strong Venetian aesthetic which was an architectural fashion of the time.
Designers Charlotte Lloyd Webber and Bretta Gerecke have taken these influences as their inspiration for this year’s Christmas installation, and created a walk-through experience based on the castle hosting a Venetian Masquerade Ball to celebrate the festive season. It features such characters as Harlequin and Punchinello from the Commedia dell ’Arte (a popular troupe of entertainers whose influence can still be seen in theatre today).
Visitors start at the foot of the main hall’s grand staircase where the opulent decorations, in the Venetian palette of jewel colours, invite us up and through the similarly adorned archway into a space where a colourful tree is hung with exquisite ornaments, each a miniature work of art in its own right. We are then drawn through countless rooms, each dedicated to a different aspect of the ball. The first room is decorated for the character Columbine. Dusty pink, gold and silver tones fill the space, and a gentle fairy light glow catches the exquisite texture of the fabrics that make up her ballgown.
The following room is decorated for the clown Punchinello, forerunner of our own Mr Punch. This provides a contrast to the calm of the previous room with a show-stopping, riotous explosion of Christmas created by an upside-down tree, bright white lighting and a plethora of baubles and sparkles. The bedrooms of Pierrot and Harlequin are next, each with different atmospheres created though clever use of lighting, lavish trimmings, precise colour palettes and masks.
The Great Hall provides an awe-inspiring change of scale, as visitors are given the chance to stare up at the full 26-foot height of this year’s incredible Christmas tree, dripping with 3,500 artfully placed baubles.
The following rooms are each dedicated to different aspects of the masquerade. The costume room is particularly beautiful, featuring exquisite gowns strung high with swathes of fabric hanging like ghosts of celebrations past. The mask room is similarly moving, decorated with fans and backlit masks from Castle Howard’s own historic collection. Next, we come to the paper theatre, which playfully works with the architecture of the building itself to link the installation inside with its setting in the wider landscape.
Another of the highlights is artist Mark Bond’s engrossing scale model of the actors and guests arriving at Castle Howard for the masquerade ball. The intricacy is astonishing and provides an exciting counterpoint to the enormity of the Christmas tree we have just seen.
The rooms build in lavishness as the tour continues, passing through a palatial Venetian feast, a games room complete with the sound of playing cards being shuffled, and a music room filled with voices and song.
The Long Gallery is the centrepiece of the Christmas experience and takes us to a Venetian canal during Carnival. With a dazzling three-metre suspended Harlequin mask and an iridescent river that runs the length of the room, again, the scale is breathtaking. Meanwhile, the chapel is the final stopping point, which has been decorated beautifully with a nativity scene and handmade decorations by children from nearby Slingsby School working alongside Castle Howard’s charity of the year, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
A Christmas Masquerade is a lavish and enchanting celebration of the season. Using 3,500 baubles (not to mention the feathers, sequins and ribbons which adorn every surface), everything traditionally associated with Christmas is present in generous abundance and it is fantastic. The real success, however, lies in the considered way in which it has been designed to incorporate aspects of Castle Howard itself. By working so meticulously with the building’s own architectural features, layout, scale and drama, the designers have created an experience that feels authentic. This makes it easy for the visitor to be transported to another time, and to share in the growing excitement for the forthcoming Christmas celebrations.
Images by Charlotte Graham
Castle Howard: A Christmas Masquerade runs until January 5, 2020 (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Tickets are available online from £20 (Adult), £19 (Concession) and £11.50 (Child) Family tickets available. Pre-booking is strongly recommended with 10 per cent off tickets booked online in advance, visit castlehoward.co.uk.