Lord and Lady Grantham [Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern] with their daughters, Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery] and Lady Edith [Laura Carmichael] in the Great Hall, which boasts an ornate patterned antique rug.
The set decor reveals the English love of symmetry, with floor lamps flanking the heraldic mantle of carved limestone, the walls covered with gold-embossed leather from Spain…
The Downton ladies of various rank sit in the oft-seen Drawing Room, where many plots and ideas were hatched following dinner. Filmed at Highclere Castle, the pink damask couch is among the real manor’s furnishings, with other various seating and objets d’art brought in by the Set Decorator.
The Drawing Room walls at Highclere Castle, where this was filmed, are covered in delicate silk damask, an 1895 wedding gift to Almina, American heiress wife to the 5th Earl of Carnavon. She was an inspiration for our American heiress who became the Countess of Grantham, Lady Edith’s mother…
Christmas at Downton Abbey, with the enormous Norwegian spruce dominating the Great Hall as family and servants celebrate the holiday. It became a tradition to close the season, and indeed the series, with a Christmas special…
Family dining room with carved wood fireplace mantle and real Van Dyck equestrian portrait of King Charles I.
The room is set simply for breakfast, with curtains open, which could leave some fans gasping, as the windows were seldom shown. Lord Grantham [Hugh Bonneville] heads the table; Carson [Jim Carter], the butler, attends…
And further contrast in the downstairs servants quarters with simple planktop table, plain utilitarian dishes and pewter tankards.
Situated on the wall behind Carson [Jim Carter], is the Bell Board, a call system for when assistance is required upstairs at any time. Mrs. Hughes [Phyllis Logan] in her honored seat to Carson’s right.
The kitchen is bustling from morning till evening in order to prepare breakfast, luncheon and dinner at any time for an unknown number of family and guests. Lovely touches include posted bills, standing pot rack, potted herbs on the sill, tatted lace-trimmed linen jug covers…
The butler’s pantry is a perk of Carson’s [Jim Carter] position, an office and private space, which also holds the huge locked cabinet of the family silver. Additional perks include access to house wines and personal effects placed around the room. Head cook Mrs. Patmore [Lesley Nicol] consults…
Daisy [Sophie McShera] and Mrs. Patmore [Lesley Nicol] work in the stocked kitchen. This was a time of no multi-use utensils, most kitchen items served a singular purpose. Note the great antique wooden egg tray, scales, gripstand mixing bowl and terra cotta apron sink…
Daisy [Sophie McShera] attends the “cooker” using pots and pans of copper, enamelware and cast iron, while the background shows a fully-in-use prep table and a desk of bills, correspondence and notes needing tending…
Though he is the head of the household downstairs, the bedroom for Mr. Carson, as the servants would address him, [Jim Carter] shows no extra luxury from other servant quarters. A console table dressed with personal photos reveals him to be a sentimentalist…
The unmarried Lady Mary’s bedroom, filmed at Highclere at the beginning of the series.
After marriage, the bedroom changed and was built on a sound stage. One bedroom set served as Lord & Lady Grantham’s, Lady Mary’s and Lady Edith’s, which was quickly repainted and redressed when needed...
Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery] takes tea with her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, Lady Violet, who must have been very busy…we are surprised to see the carefully controlled countess’s escritoire to be so unkempt!
The Mercury bronze hints at the importance of sending written messages, which preceded texting by a few decades…
The Dowager Countess [Maggie Smith] in her sitting room…
Note: the rich porcelain amphora lamp with fringed shade atop ebonized table. Call bell at her side table acknowledges her demanding and privileged nature. Neutral palette and elegant furnishings give a perfect background to this sophisticated and powerful character…
Lady Cora sits upon an antique tight-back sofa upholstered in tangerine and sage iridescent silk velvet. Coral and sage bullion match the pinkish undertones. Floral toss pillows, including a long bolster contrast the shimmering fabric.
London’s fashionable Belgrave Square is the home of Lady Rosamund Painswick, sister to Lord Grantham.
The deep green walls, Italianate mirrors, French Settee and English Hepplewhite Shield chairs suggest an eclectic continental city style over the heavier brooding old country style. Filmed at West Wycombe Park…
Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery] and race-car driver Henry Talbot [Mathew Goode] stroll among the antique workbenches of the motor-racing team’s supplies while background spectators await the start of the action.
Throughout the highly acclaimed series, the magnificent country houses of the English aristocracy give a visual reflection of the changing times. The richness of detail and penchant for accuracy in the depiction of an evolving and devolving way of life captured the attention, excitement and hearts of viewers who became loyal and ardent fans.
SET DECOR could not let the series end without a peek inside the making of it! Production Designer Donal Woods had numerous collaborators, but especially the four set decorators, including Set Decorator Judy Farr SDSA.
[Editor’s note: Go to Film Decor to read about Woods/Farr’s work on the film that introduced us to Eddie Redmayne, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN!]
SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane, an acknowledged Anglophile, with interests and expertise in English cultural history—furnishings, mores and manners—joined SET DECOR in conversation with Producer Gareth Neame, creator of the esteemed series.*
Neame had envisioned a series exploring the fading-glory eras of the English country house. He brought on his friend Julian Fellowes [GOSFORD PARK] to write the concept script, and from there the world of DOWNTON ABBEY unfolded over six glorious seasons. In March of this year, audiences around the globe reluctantly said goodbye to the extended family of Lord and Lady Grantham, both upstairs and downstairs, and their lovely environs.
SET DECOR/Cane:Traditional English style, whether noble or normal seems to be eclectic symmetry. DOWNTON really presents that in its complete form, it’s purest form. It was exciting to see that the style of decorating was the same, whether rich or poor…it was just the lavishness of your furnishings.
One question, that sprang from the very beginning of the show, regarding filming in an extant country house, Highclere Castle…we know that the 5th Lord Carnovan, was married to an American heiress, Almina, daughter of de Rothschild. One of his gifts to her was the green silk fabric that adorns the walls in the Highclere drawing room, where many of the Downton Abbey scenes were filmed. But that was in 1895, so what are the current restrictions? How do you shoot in a room that has 200-year-old fabric on the walls and keep everything safe, clean and preserved?
Producer Gareth Neame: I think it all starts with having to maintain a very, very good practical relationship with the owners and their relatives, who have very clear ideas about what you can use and what you can’t use. The owners of Highclere not precious in a way that if somebody today had that kind of money and built that kind of property would probably be. They have a very natural relationship with the property…it has a very lived-in feeling.
And it is somewhat strange that most often when I have been there, we were usually using it basically as a film set, so it was covered with all of the normal detritus of filming, with monitors and lamps on stands and all the camera equipment and all the stuff that comes with it, and you forget momentarily that it is really actually a priceless and irreplaceable building with priceless contents in it, because the owners really use it as a home. It’s partly museum, because the state rooms are open to the public to come and see, but it’s also their family home. And it has the lived-in feel of a family home…
I always think about the Van Dyck painting in the dining room [an equestrian portrait of King Charles I], which is a very famous painting. I have no idea what the value of that piece is, and yet it sits on the wall beside us while electricians are going around with lamps on stands and big flags and things that could knock into it at any point. We just have to be very careful!
There is one room in the castle that has a very, very ancient tapestry on the wall, which we don’t use because it is very fragile. That’s hardly made any appearance in the show. It’s in quite a small room that really everyone deemed a bit too fragile to use.
But other than that, there’s a fairly robust attitude that’s taken, and a lot of the big pieces of furniture are removed and we bring our furnishings in, but by and large, we just all try to be careful.
SET DECOR/Cane:We did wonder about for the actual use, when the actors are sitting, etc, whether some of those pieces were direct copies of actual pieces that were in residence there, or were they brought in strictly to fit with the times and the places you wished to show?
Neame: There are definitely some pieces of furniture which are the property of the house and there are other pieces, like for example, Lord Grantham’s writing desk in the library, which is our prop and we bring in. So there’s some variance, and of course, there’s been some parts of the story where very different things are going on, where much of it is changed out. For example, in the second season when during the war, the manor house became a hospital for officers. Obviously, we brought everything needed to turn it into a military hospital…but that was a very different kind of set up.
Another one that really springs to mind is in the episode in the final season with Robert Grantham. His stomach ulcer exploded with grotesque effect at the dinner table, and you can imagine the work that went into making sure that no fake blood got anywhere it shouldn’t get to.
SET DECOR/Cane:Yes! We’ve been involved with that in many other productions, but not with that caveat!
Neame: Really everything that needed covering: the carpet, the table—absolutely everything was planned and covered! It was quite a military operation.
And then obviously, as much as it looks as if it’s all made at Highclere Castle, of course, it really only is used for the key exteriors and the state rooms. All of the bedrooms we do at the studios, and the servants quarters as well.
[Editor’s note: These sets were filmed at Ealing Studios, the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world, opened in 1902.]
SET DECOR/Cane:Speaking of bedrooms, early on in the series, Lady Mary’s bedroom was the red wallpapered bedroom, and then it changed to the green bedroom. Was that because once one became a married lady, you would change either the location or change the furnishings?
Neame: I think we did start shooting Mary’s in the first season at the castle. We did some of the bedrooms there early on, and we found it not to be very practical. Those are not difficult sets to build, and we decided to opt for the stages, which offered more maneuverability and access. As the years went on, we pulled more and more of our sets under our own control at the studio.
SET DECOR/Cane:In the final season where Carson and Mrs. Hughes are to be married, we’re invited into their bedrooms for various moments before the wedding. We learn that even though they, as the Butler and the Housekeeper, are the heads of the hierarchy downstairs, their sleeping quarters are really quite small and sparsely furnished…
Neame: I think it’s a little bit like on a ship. There’s something where even the captain’s cabin is fairly minimal. I think they didn’t spend a lot time in their bedrooms. For the most part, they simply went to their bedrooms to sleep, and then were up early and working.
Obviously, the butler had his own butler’s pantry, as it’s called, which served as his office, because he’s the chief executive of the house. His butler’s pantry is where all of the valuable silverware is stored under lock and key, and is where he does all his wine decanting and keeps his books, and so on.
Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, has a sitting room. The housekeeper always has a sitting room and the butler has a pantry. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. [He says wryly.] But they had their own spaces where they could both decorate to their own taste and use to relax and to do their interviewing of the staff, and from which they run their responsibilities. The lower servants, when they have their break, tend to be in the servants’ hall. So the bedrooms were really not used for anything other than getting ready for bed and changing for work in the mornings.
SET DECOR/Cane:And even though Mrs. Hughes’s space was rather small, she still had, six lamps in there. That’s very British. Lamps seem to be just a great part of any English room...
Neame: It’s never occurred to me, that particular tradition that we have. I know that there was even a blog that somebody was doing called “The Lamps of Downton Abbey”! I suppose it might have to do with the idea that they were built before electricity, and so electric lighting had to be retro-engineered. And it was easier to have table lamps and standard lamps than to actually wire-in ceiling lighting. But obviously, it does give a much nicer effect in ones own home, as it does on the screen, to have lamps rather than overhead lighting.
SET DECOR/Cane:The lamps in the show were amazing, sumptuous shades and beautiful lamps, whether it was just a thin candlestick body or an elaborate ormolu base or sculptural. And we watched as many of the shades became sort of pink. We saw them evolve from ivories onto the softer colors, when the lamps were not just used for the brightness of the light. Perhaps the pinks were to complement complexion? Was that something that you noted, as someone not usually focused in that specific direction?
Neame: Well, you know my job is to make sure that the show, in terms of the visual side of things, delivers the look that we wanted for the series. And the starting point for that is getting the right production designer, Donal Woods. He’s designed every episode of the show, without exception. He’s somebody I’ve worked with going back 15-20 years. He’s just such a brilliant visionary and is also a very practical designer. He’s a lovely guy and very talented.
SET DECOR/Cane:We know of him through Judy Farr who is a close friend of his, and came in to help him with the second season. They’ve worked together many, many times.
Neame: We’ve landed him with a lot of big set pieces over the years, but what we’ve tried most to do is to find the lifestyles of these people in that era, and all the different events they would go to, such as: going up to their townhouse in London…we did a whole sequence at Buckingham Palace when Lady Rose was presented at court…we’ve been up to the Highlands of Scotland…we’ve had cricket matches…we’ve done horse-riding…and we did motor racing as the sport in last season.
It’s Donal’s [and his team’s] job to deliver that look every single time, a look that I hope defines this unique period of English history and the role of the English country house. And I think he did that with such aplomb.
I think the designer is a specialist, and his team are all specialists, but first and foremost a storyteller. You know, I always consider that the cinematographer and the production designer to be one of the producers. The production designer, in particular, because he or she is usually the person who is interpreting a script which may not be very visual at all and is helping the producers and the director to decide how this thing is going to look. It has such a big bearing on how the production is made and how the budget is spent, that I always treat the designer as though he’s/she’s just one of the producing team. And that’s very true of Donal. First and foremost, he’s just telling the story, but he’s doing it with a particular set of expertise.
SET DECOR/Cane: Most people do not realize that it goes beyond just making a beautiful set. For instance, Edith’s office being dark and depressive...or when Thomas is interviewing for the butler position at the crumbling manor house in the last season. The crumbling, faded elegance of the house is representative of the changing times and those families that lived in them, and how that way of life is literally crumbling…
Neame: Yes. We were very much talking about the end of that era, the dying of the light. You know, we started at the very height, just around 1912, before the First World War, when the British Empire was all-powerful and the aristocracy seeming unassailable; but of course, by the end of the show, the mid-1920s, it is really massively in decline. A good way that we illustrated that was the auction in the first episode of the final season, where Robert [Lord Grantham] and his family go to a friend’s who is the same level of society as them but has lost everything, and you see all of his possessions go under the hammer. That was another thing that Donal [and the set decorator] had to re-create to show the decline of this way of life.
SET DECOR/Cane: Yes, and portray the farms and the village life. We also have “Downstairs”…the way of life and the way it was set up, i.e. the kitchen details. There was all of the period set dressing, including a wall of filled crocks and jars, but it was also a time where there were no multi-use utensils, each had its own specific use. For example, there was an asparagus poacher—you didn’t poach anything else in that. Each of the individual pieces was represented, whether actually put in use as a prop or not. Elements from the cooker and ovens to pot stands and racks to herbs being grown to the style of pendant lights and sconces…that is, indeed, where the set decorator is working hand-in-hand with the production designer because their role is to bring in all the details and to fill the personality, the life of the place and characters...
Neame: I mean it’s a brilliant craft that I know very little about, to be absolutely honest, because I’m dealing directly with the production designer on what is the look we want to create and then he has his whole team of specialists of which the set decorator is a key part.
SET DECOR/Cane:And ahead of the crew… They’re doing stuff today that you’re coming in to see tomorrow…
Another thing with the kitchen that was fun was in the first season…they’re talking about the electricity in the house and Lord Grantham says something about, “I was going to do the kitchen, but I couldn’t see the point.” And “Cora won’t have it in the bedroom.”
Neame: Quite right. Well remembered.
SET DECOR/Cane:But in the opening of the second season, we see that the kitchen has been retrofitted and where the gas lamps were, now are electric lamps. They switched out where those gas line holes were with new sconces and we see that the bedrooms have also been done. It is years later, and we just see that there was an evolution…
Neame: Well, technology has always been a big part of the show. In a way it’s a bit like when you refer to the movie stars they like or the politicians that they loathe. We’re trying to show that they’re just like us. Their concerns are very similar to our concerns, you know, 90 or 100 years later, and electricity was something that Violet can’t get to grips with at all, because she’s lived most of her life without it.
We continued with things like that, with the invention of the radio coming in, or the refrigerator in the kitchen. The head cook, Mrs. Patmore, has worked all her life without refrigerators, and in a way, people then did everything that a refrigerator does for a modern person. It employed people, back in those days…if you bring in a refrigerator, then somebody’s going to lose their job.
We are living in a technological age, but so were they. We’re trying to work out how to use apps for transportation—or whatever we might be trying to come to terms with—and they’re doing really exactly the same thing when they are trying to work out how to use a wireless radio or the telephone.
SET DECOR/Cane:They were so cleverly written into the script, to be an inherent part of the storyline…when Rose wanted to play the gramophone after dinner that nigh or listen to the King’s speech on the wireless with everybody gathered…
She was the one who pushed for the gramophone and wireless radio. It was the young one who really promoted these technologies bringing in a more modern sensibility.
Speaking of different sensibilities, their London home, Grantham House, is in the same palette, perhaps a bit stronger than their country home, whereas his sister, Lady Rosamund’s is more French, Italianate, with the large frames, no skirts on the upholstery, more continental…
Neame: Well, we wanted to show the difference for somebody who lives in London. There is the town and country thing in England, particularly for the established class. You had your London home and you had your country home. And that was the way things were.
We know that Lady Rosamund’s late husband was wealthy, so although we haven’t really talked about the backstory hugely, it looks to me that she’s had the money to decorate it at some point in the early part of the 20th century. People, as you know, used great architects and interior designers from Paris and the continent.
The building that we used for the exterior of her house is in Belgrave Square, which is a very fashionable part of London…very much one of the top neighborhoods. The place that we shot the interior is, in fact, another country house, Wycombe Park, which is owned by the National Trust, a body that protects a huge number of historic properties and buildings.
In fact, the Grantham’s London house was also filmed in a country house and we just do a cut to the steps of a building in London. We shot the interiors at a country house called Basildon Park, which is also owned by the National Trust. So these are all places that people can go visit when there aren’t production teams filming.
Also, you know, we established that her late husband was into “new money”. Violet is very, very snobbish about him, saying with disdain, “He was a manufacturer.” That means you’ve earned your money from working, which of course is the worse thing you can do. You should have your money by inheriting it and owning property that makes money. However, he died a very wealthy man, and in fact, Rosamund mentions the convenience of having a much older husband who dies soon! So she had all the money to spend and decorate her home the way she wishes.
SET DECOR/Cane:There does seem to be a concept of “inheritance is best.” There was a scene that used furniture as a metaphor, when Lady Mary and Richard Carlisle are examining the empty manor house that they might live in close to Downton, she asks, “What about furniture?” He replies, “We’ll buy it all.” And she says, “That’s the difference between our lots. Your people buy it, our people inherit it.”
Neame: Again, well remembered. I’d forgotten that scene, but it’s completely right. They’re different kinds of people. The idea that you have to go and buy furniture is a sign that you’re not the real thing.
You know the idea of going out and making money and having to buy things means that you’re nouveau riche, and you haven’t had this legacy. And of course, it shows the complete difference between the British aristocracy of that time and the moneyed-class of America, which was all about going out and being entrepreneurial and working for money. For the American wealthy, this is still the case today. Look at the old media-moguls in their 80s and 90s who continue to work, even though they’ve made their fortune decades ago. That was very different from the British. When the British people either inherited money or when they made their money, that was it. They stopped work, because you know, the most famous line ever in the show, is Violet’s line, “What is a weekend?” And there’s no better line to show how different those people are from the rest of us. You can only understand the concept of a weekend, if you have a working week.
SET DECOR/Cane:Speaking of the concept of a workweek, we had mentioned Edith’s office being darkly oppressive. Again, it’s that very psychological thing that the audiences always don’t pick up on, but is built in through the production design and the set decoration. While her editor is screaming at her and while they’re working feverishly to get that issue out, it’s all very dark, with shadows in the corner. But then, when they’ve made the deadline and are sitting on the couch sort of rejoicing over it, the louver on one window is open just a bit, so there’s a little shaft of light streaming in and suddenly it’s lighter and airier in there, and life is all better…
Neame: Yes. Right. I suppose it started with the environment that her lover had. I mean, it was his business that he left to her in his will, so we first saw it as his place, a very male establishment. And then it becomes more feminine as Edith owns the business and is a very active proprietor. She then in turn, of course, brings in a new woman editor, who you may have noticed, smokes at the desk, which is probably all quite modern. By the way, that was all built, the atmosphere created, as you say.
SET DECOR/Cane:Unfortunately, we have to wrap this conversation… You came up with the concept for the series in the very beginning and it held for six seasons! How did you envision it and what came of that vision for you?
Neame: Well, overall, the show is very much as I had originally imagined it. Obviously, the characters hadn’t been invented at that point, nor the actors yet involved. But I had this idea of taking the quintessential English country house…you know, the English country house is a genre in itself…but to reboot that to the 21st century, to put very fast-paced storytelling and multiple storylines and a big ensemble cast in there, is something that hadn’t really been done before.
A lot of these situations have been seen with adaptations of existing novels, and we didn’t want to do that.
We wanted this to be an original, almost at times, soapy, very accessible, contemporary show that just happens to be set a hundred years ago. And so that was what I was envisaging, and I think very much how the show turned out.
And in terms of the look, I wanted to recapture, I’m sure you remember the Merchant Ivory films of the 1980s. Those films back then were really showing a particular period, the Edwardian, and I remember how lavish they were. I thought that if we can capture a bit of that and combine it sort of with a THE WEST WING into a modern, fast-paced show that’s all set in one building where everyone, all of the characters, are there to serve one person, be that the President or, in our case, Lord Grantham.
I just always felt it’s been a very, very popular environment and one that audiences have been perennially interested in. And if you could just update that and modernize the storytelling, it could be really popular. And of course, that’s exactly what happened.
SET DECOR/Cane:Indeed it did! One last question, Julian Fellowes mentioned in an interview, a great desire for a movie…
Neame: That’s something that we’re talking about. We’ve said we’d be very interested in seeing if we can make that happen. Occasionally a successful TV series can spin off into a movie, but it takes a while to get all the parties back together, because the cast has all gone off to do other things, and we’d have to bring everyone back together again. So it’s not guaranteed by any means, but it’s something that we think could be good to do, if we can bring it about.
*Editor’s note: SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane also provides commentary on the photo gallery above.