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The Building of Castle Howard

Although building work began in 1699, the construction of Castle Howard took over 100 years to complete, spanning the lifetimes of three Earls.

Vitruvius Britannicus Image

The 3rd Earl of Carlisle enlisted the help of his friend,  dramatist John Vanbrugh. Vanbrugh, having never built anything before, recruited Nicholas Hawksmoor to assist him in the practical side of design and construction and between 1699 and 1702 the design evolved.

Built from east to west, the house took shape in just under ten years. By 1725, when an engraving of the house appeared in Vitruvius Britannicus (The British Architect), most of the exterior structure was complete and its interiors opulently finished.

However, at the time of Vanbrugh’s death in 1726 the house was incomplete; it lacked a west wing as attention had turned to landscaping the gardens. It was still incomplete when the 3rd Earl died in 1738. Little could both men have guessed that, when the house came to be completed by Carlisle’s son-in-law Sir Thomas Robinson, Vanbrugh’s flamboyant baroque design would be brought back down to earth by the 4th Earl’s conservative Palladian wing.

From the outside, the unbalanced appearance of the house provoked a mixed response, and many visitors noticed the disjointedness.

The construction of Castle Howard was finally completed in 1801-11 with the decoration of the Long Gallery by Tatham. Further alterations were to be made when the attic pavilions at either end of the West Wing were removed during the refurbishment of the Chapel between 1870-1875, as part of a plan to bring both wings into greater harmony.

Thus today the final appearance of the House bears only a partial resemblance to the idealised view in Vitruvius Britannicus (see illustration): instead of two identical wings the House boasts two wings that do not match: it has a spectacularly asymmetrical appearance as Vanbrugh’s Baroque vision is challenged by Palladian afterthought.

The Great Fire of 1940

On the morning of 9th November 1940, fire broke out at Castle Howard
Children watch the dome ablaze

The blaze began as a chimney fire in the south-east corner of the South Front, and swept westerly through the building. 

Fanned by strong winds, the fire destroyed rooms in the basement, principal and upper levels, as well as the dome, which collapsed into the Great Hall.

That the damage was not more extensive was thanks to the fire service, who eventually brought the blaze under control, and to the girls of Queen Margaret’s School, Scarborough, who had been evacuated to Castle Howard and were able to salvage some of the contents.

Nearly a third of the building was left open to the skies and the biggest architectural loss was the dome. In time the debris was cleared and the structure made secure, and the exposed parts of the building received a temporary roof and new windows. It would be another twenty years before major restoration work began.

After the Fire

Restoration and Conservation
The remarkable efforts of George Howard and Lady Cecilia achieved the restoration of Castle Howard, to restore it as a family home and major heritage attraction. 
In 1960-62 the dome was rebuilt and redecorated, and in 1981, in conjunction with Granada Television and the filming of Brideshead Revisited, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. 
As time and money permit, the gradual task of restoring the fire-damaged section continues, and in 1994-5 the Central Block was re-roofed. All over the Estate restoration work and essential maintenance are being carried out, ranging from large projects dealing with masonry, lead roofing, the gardens, and the lakes and waterways, to smaller but no less important objects such as lead statues, paintings, books and textiles.