Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Closer Look at Downton Abbey and Stately Home Chic

A sponsored guest post by Liz Higginbottom

Whiling away a wet Sunday afternoon I found myself re-watching series 2 of Downton Abbey. As always I was soon enveloped in this wonderful Edwardian aristocratic world with its elegance sophistication and manners.

Suddenly, however, I was shaken out of my pleasant reverie: there was Sir Hugh standing in front of the chandelier I have just ordered on the internet!

On closer inspection it turned out to be a standard lamp, but there was the rather tottering tower of tiny shades topping the candle like lights and the ornate leaf like decoration of the frame dripping with glass droppers. Admittedly the colours were different. Mine is purple and chrome with strings of glass beads but its derivation is plain to see.

Examining the interiors more closely I began to notice a whole host of individual pieces which contribute to that wonderful period feeling without taking your attention away from the twists and turns of the story.

It was a big thing in this era. Electricity had not been around for long and lower class houses were still lit with candles, oil and gas lamps. In fact at the beginning in Downton electric lights were only installed in the upstairs rooms.

The servants’ quarters downstairs are much darker, as they were still using candles and oil lamps. Daisy was scared of electricity and even Lady Violet expresses a dislike of the glare and the smell of electric lights.

There are lights everywhere. Table lamps on every surface, scrolled wall lights, elaborate gold and glass ceiling lights, fringed table lamps all add to the warm glow of Downton.

So what else should one expect to see in the mansion of an Edwardian or post-Edwardian aristocrat?

At first I assumed that the furniture would all be of the Edwardian period, always one of my favourites, but as I watched on this was not always the case. Yes there are examples of the lighter inlaid cabinets and beautiful fabrics, chintz wing chairs and colours are brighter than the preceding century. Patterns were feminine and inspired by the natural world definitely influenced by the Art Nouveau period.

But there were other pieces which were clearly not Edwardian. The huge ornately carved sideboard in the dining room for instance could never fit into the definition of Edwardian design. Had they got it wrong? Surely not. And of course they hadn’t, when I thought about it.
In the year 2013 we may find it easy to pigeon hole d├ęcor and furnishings into decades. We talk about things being typically sixties or seventies but that is only because we don’t belong to the aristocracy. We haven’t got a houseful of furniture to inherit. We move into our own place and furnish it in the prevailing fashion of the time.

Living with the centuries
As a new wife arriving in the family home Lady Cora must have wanted to put her stamp on Downton Abbey and indeed she was probably permitted to clear out certain pieces. Much of the decorating seems fresh and probably dates from her arrival. But not for her a clear out of unwanted items on eBay, no, if she was lucky she probably managed to hide a few monstrosities in the servants’ quarters or in less well used rooms.

She was in fact quite lucky that electricity brought changes so that she could indulge in some beautiful new lamps. Just to reinforce this point the lamps in the series are mostly those still used in Highclere Castle, (where the series is filmed) to this day.

Felicitous combinations
The main influence on Edwardian furnishing styles was the desire to move away from heavy and dark Victorian interiors. Reproduction 18th century furniture became popular again with Sheraton style chairs and cabinets made of rosewood. Inlay, marquetry, elaborate paint effects all came to the fore.

In Downton Abbey we see glimpses of delicate side tables in the new style in the same room as an incredibly heavy and ornately carved sideboard which must date from the Victorian Gothic movement. English 19th century mirrors sit on marble topped bombe chests of drawers which are undoubtedly French in their influence. In fact, French furniture is everywhere.

The Louis chairs and sofa which grace Lady Mary’s bedroom, so contrasting with the square upholstered armchair more of the Edwardian period, favoured by Sir Hugh. Console tables and chaise longues of differing periods are to be found in many of the rooms. Decoration is often more of its time with muted floral wallpapers and light gilt edged panelling, though on the stairs we can still see a 17th century tapestry.

Eclectic mix
Was there ever a more ringing endorsement of the eclectic mix! If you love interior design and have individual pieces of furniture that you still wish to keep, but would love to add new modern or ethnic pieces that you also love, but are not sure about the overall effect, be bold. Show your aristocratic leanings and indulge in a mix of styles. You are probably just showing that you have blue blood in your lineage!

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