THE decorative Christmas displays at Castle Howard, near York, are the most theatrical yet.
Running until January 5 2020, A Christmas Masquerade has taken over every public room in the historic Yorkshire house for this themed event.
Each one is dressed in ornate and elaborate feathers, sequins, baubles and twinkling lights as visitors join the Howard family in their preparations for a Venetian-themed Christmas Carnival, complete with masquerade ball and entertainment from Harlequin, Pierrot, Colombine and Puchinello, all part of the Commedia dell’arte troupe.
Producer Charlotte Lloyd Webber and theatrical designer Bretta Gerecke once again have led the team of set dressers, florists, baublographers, artists and seamstresses to create the immersive masquerade experience.
“Castle Howard is a house that was built with a sense of theatre and extravagance inspired by Venetian design – Vanbrugh was both an architect and a playwright – and at a time of year when glittering opulence makes its way into almost every home, we couldn’t think of a better opportunity to explore a tradition enjoyed by generations of the Howard family: the masquerade ball,” says Charlotte.
“Many of the themes, colours and styles that we have used to recreate a Venetian masquerade ball fit perfectly within the theatrical grandeur of each room.”
The experience opens with the grand staircase in the main hall, setting the scene for the lavish displays that follow. Using the Venetian palate, the staircase is lavishly decorated with sapphire blue, magenta, purple and gold.
At the top of the stairs, visitors gain a taste of the entertainment for the forthcoming ball: multicoloured Harlequins, one of the characters in the Commedia dell’arte, the troupe of wandering artists that delighted 17th and 18th century audiences with a mix of pathos, romance and slapstick.
On the China Landing, an estate-cut twig tree has been painted in the Harlequin colours and hung with a plethora of ornaments following the Venetian theme, while two masks give a further hint of the ball’s lavish theme.
The following suite of four rooms highlights the four key characters for the Commedia dell’arte visiting Castle Howard over the Christmas period. Lady Georgiana’s bedroom is handed over to Colombine, a character who started life in the troupe as an elegant dancer, before joining the “Zannis” and becoming partner to both Harlequin and Pierrot.
Pinks, golds and silvers fill the room to reflect the custom-made Colombine ballgown on display in the room, as if the mistress of the house were preparing her own costume for the ball. The room also hosts the first of a special collection of masks, hand-created by Venetian master craftsmen for Christmas at Castle Howard: the Rosetta Mask.
The adjacent dressing room is a huge contrast, to reflect the first of the troupe’s clowns, Puchinello, leader of the Zannis and inspiration for the modern English use of the word “zany”. This wacky room features an upside-down white Christmas tree, with a circus fairground feel. The very British Punch and Judy explode out of a present in a nod to the seaside tradition that has its origins in these Venetian artists.
A popular contemporary vision of clown Pierrot finds him sitting in a moon, and this provides inspiration for the Castle Howard dressing room: a dreamlike and tranquil space decorated with a starry ceiling, gold, silver, black and white, with the character himself in a familiar pose at the back of the room.
Harlequin’s bedroom is one of the most lavish in the house: red, gold and green with a beautifully decorated tree, atop which sits another ornate Venetian mask. This is the space where the Master of the House will prepare for the ball, his Harlequin costume awaiting on a mannequin.
The rich, bright colours of the theme inspired the Antiques Passage, an explosion of colour featuring a jewellery box of hues and shades presented through exotic birds and butterflies.
The Castle Howard tradition of the enormous Christmas tree continues in the Great Hall, where a remarkable 26ft real tree is installed and covered with 3,500 baubles. “As far as we’ve been able to tell, this is the largest Christmas tree in a stately home in the country,” says Abbigail. “It’s certainly several feet bigger than the trees in Buckingham Palace.”
However, the Masquerade theme is still very evident in the room; the view up to the balcony features acrobats on the handrail with a monochrome and a colourful Harlequin balancing there.
The influence of the Commedia dell’arte becomes even more prominent in the three rooms on the first floor that show the theatrical experience of masquerade and pantomime from both backstage and audience perspectives. The display includes historic items from Castle Howard’s collections, featuring dresses, masques and fans that would have been worn and used by ancestors of the present custodian, the Hon. Nicholas Howard.
On display too are wigs, make-up and other accoutrements that would have helped the actors’ preparations for the stage. The centrepiece of the High South is a life-size “paper theatre”, inspired by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, which uses the architectural features of Castle Howard in a colourful pantomime display.
Returning to the ground floor, visitors will have another behind-the-scenes peek in the room dedicated to the ruler of Venice. The new library includes the Doge Tree, dedicated to the “Duke” of Venice – or in Castle Howard’s case, the master of the house – and laden with opulent Venetian glass ornaments and fabrics, with books on display all about the Venetian masquerade – essential for planning any authentic ball.
The Garden Hall’s traditional bare twig tree returns, but this year features candle-lit decorations of brightly coloured Venetian Glass to create a kaleidoscope effect in the room.
A special model of Castle Howard created last year by artist Mark Bond returns to the Cabinet Room, now joined by a new model showing the exterior landscape down the Lime Avenue. Tiny depictions of actors and their supporting crew from the Commedia dell’arte can be seen making their way with horses and carts on their way to the house in this tiny display, while ladies in their ballgowns can be found on the North Front of the main model, arriving for the ball to entertainment from a miniature Punch and Judy show.
In the music room, one of the paintings almost comes alive, as characters step out of Marco Ricci’s The Opera Rehearsal and don costumes ready for the ball.
The Crimson Dining Room is a glittering Venetian feast, the table set with a centrepiece of lions and exotic monkeys. As Charlotte Lloyd Webber explains: “We have tried to amplify and reveal aspects of the house that you may not have noticed with the designs. A painting of the Grand Canal in the Crimson Dining Room, for example, is reflected in the gondola-themed decorations in the room.”
Crimson turns to scarlet for the drawing room – the only colour used in here – with two mannequins wearing bespoke garments created for the room and a Venetian Fraudis Jolly, a masquerade mask made of playing cards.
Resuming the figurative flow of the water in the dining room picture, the Long Gallery –the epicentre and pinnacle of each year’s Christmas designs – recreates the glittering waterway as the setting for the Venetian Carnival that has been teased throughout the house.
Visitors join the guests at the waterside Ball, its setting drawn from the imagination of Brette Gerecke, using artistic skills and set-dressing normally seen from afar on the theatrical stage. The “canal” itself is made from nearly 250 metres of moulded aluminium foil, on which 4,300 customised iridescent sequins have been painstakingly glued in a task that took three people four days to complete.
At the heart of the Long Gallery is a three-metre-wide suspended revolving Harlequin mask, one side multicoloured, the other covered in sequins of gold, silver and bronze. One of the windows at the octagonal centre of the gallery has been replaced with a stained-glass window to shine coloured diamonds all over the space, even on darker winter days, when an artificial light provides the illumination!
Leaving the Long Gallery, visitors descend to the chapel, which this year has been dressed by Slingsby School working with Castle Howard’s charity of the year, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Alongside a traditional Nativity scene, children have created animal-themed decorations with hand-written eco-wishes. Visitors are invited to swap real coins for chocolate ones in a donation box, with proceeds going to the charity.
Each weekend during the Christmas opening until January 5, those visiting will be joined by members of the Commedia dell’arte troupe for live entertainment around the house, while soundscapes and music arranged by the Hon. Nicholas Howard provide an additional sensory appeal to the proceedings.
Head of marketing Abbigail Ollive says: “Christmas at Castle Howard is an experience never to be forgotten, with many people returning year after year to get their festive ‘fix’, whether to take inspiration back for their own home designs, or simply just to marvel at how an already beautiful property can be transformed into this magical place – a veritable festive film set that you can walk through and admire!
“Each year’s designs are totally different, and the jewel-like sapphire blues, ruby reds and golden amber bring a whole new colour palette to this winter’s displays.”
Castle Howard: A Christmas Masquerade runs until Sunday, January 5 2020, closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Tickets are on sale at castlehoward.co.uk.