"Downton Abbey" Style

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

The British period drama “Downton Abbey” has enthralled TV viewers on both sides of the pond. The U.S. premiere for season two had an average of 4.2 million total viewers, according to Nielsen’s ratings. No wonder: It’s visual feast of Edwardian décor, replete with Victorian holdovers that can be seen echoed in the halls of GasLamp.

 

This unlikely hit, about an aristocratic family living in pre-World War I England, is fictional, but the Crawley family’s English country house rings of authenticity. Kicking off in 1912, the drama-riddled story takes place in a four-level country manor, the real-life Highclere Castle, a Victorian structure from 1878.

 

The interiors are done in rich decoration, including wall coverings made of leather and silk, tassel-trimmed silk curtains, sculptures in marble and bronze, tapestries and carved wood staircases.

 

These sumptuous surroundings are populated aristocrats, including family grande dame Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith). In real life, she would have been surrounded by pairs of lustres, such as the cranberry ones seen in the photo, above right (pair, $595; Booth B-106). These mantle and table decorations with hanging glass prisms were expensive, even 100 years ago, and were found in the more prominent homes to hold candles.

 

And, as viewers of “Downton Abbey” will remember, the countess was horrified when electricity was introduced to the upstairs room of the home, recoiling from a chandelier and saying, “Oh, dear, such a glare! I feel as if I were on stage at the Gaiety!”

 

No doubt, the countess missed her lustres.

 

Another funny moment was when the countess visited a lawyer’s office (that of the dashing cousin Matthew Crawley). She had trouble keeping her balance in the swivel chair, prompting this exchange:

 

"Good heavens, what am I sitting on?" asked the countess.

“A swivel chair,” answered Crawley.

“Another modern brainwave?” she asked.

“Notvery modern,” he replied. “It was invented by Thomas Jefferson.”

“Why must every day involve a fight withan American?” she retorted, exasperated.

 

Again, the countess was more accustomed to the romantic past with which she grew up. One familiar item would have been this velvet Victorian chair, photo, left ($410; Booth B-114).

 

Every evening the Crawley family meets in the dining room, where Lord Grantham, the father of three daughters, quizzes them about their activities. As the butler, Mr. Carson, pours the wine, we spy a silver cake stand on the table.

 

There are other more “relaxed” scenes (comparatively) when the ladies take tea outside. For such a venture, this three-tiered dessert stand, in the photo at right, would have been perfectly at home ($139; Booth B-200). It is a prime example of English pink lusterware, a pottery or porcelain that was wildly popular in 19th-century England. Its glamorous iridescence and pink palette makes it popular today, as well.

 

Such a massive house as Downton Abbey would have required massive upkeep, naturally. To that end, the program features an abundance of maids, cooks and footmen, along with the butler lording over them all. This small army would have kept the upstairs of such a grand home running smoothly by arranging fresh floral bouquets, dusting chandeliers, measuring table settings to make certain everything is set at proper intervals, and the like.

 

Viewers witness daily life for the servants of Downton, which includes removing cold ashes from the many fireplaces and stoking new fires; such a huge house required continual warming. Servants of this era would have also been busy carrying up coal from downstairs, getting the black lumps from a coal bin, such as the one seen in the photo, left ($249; Booth B-200). Covered in tole paintings, it has heavy decorative feet, a common feature in the late 1800s.

 

The members of the “Downton Abbey” serving staff lead lives as intriguing, in their own fashion, as those of the aristocrats upstairs. Viewers have watched their various romances, including, briefly, that of housemaid Elsie Hughes, who occupies the highest rung of the female staff. In 1913, Hughes’ old flame, Joe Burns, revisits her, asking her for the second time in her life to marry him.

 

During this episode, the two went to a nearby carnival. Viewers who watched closely would have seen that when Burns played a game of ring toss, one of the prizes was a Staffordshire pottery spaniel. These dogs, such as the one seen in the photo, below right, were produced from about 1720 to 1900 in Staffordshire, England ($259; Booth B-200). Today, spaniels remain the most popular. Their model was the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, named for King Charles II of England, who adored the scampering pooches.

 

During the reign of Queen Victoria, when the fireplace was the heart of every home, working class families put a pair of Staffordshire Dogs on both ends of the mantel. Unfortunately in “Downton Abbey,” Burns doesn’t win a Staffordshire dog, but instead, some shabby trinket. (And he doesn’t win Hughes’ hand, either).

 

Viewers of “Downton Abbey” love the drama, the intrigue, and the luxurious set. Since the Edwardian period followed the Victorian period, the set is a mélange of antiques from both eras, and from prior ones, as well.

 

The era was a fashionable period, following the example of King Edward VII, and anyone who loves glamour and antiques will enjoy the beauty that is “Downton Abbey.”

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