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Her Home Is A Castle

One of the wonderful things about Castle Howard is its amazing archive,” says its chatelaine, Victoria Howard. “Everything has been kept, including receipts for building materials ordered by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor,” she adds, referring to John Vanbrugh, the Restoration playwright-turned-architect, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the protégé of Christopher Wren, who designed the house for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, starting in 1699.

A dressing room that has been converted into a bathroom
A dressing room that has been converted into a bathroom

The 145-room house, which took more than 100 years to complete, is about 15 miles north-east of York and is surrounded by an 8,800-acre estate of parkland, woodland and farms. Such an old and enormous building requires constant maintenance and renovation, so there is a rolling program of works to keep the house and its rooms in good order for the 270,000 visitors it attracts every year. The extensive archives are invaluable in this respect, particularly when it comes to the decoration of the historic interiors.

“Somebody had the sense to keep samples of most of the wallpapers that were put up throughout its history,” says Howard. “We have found 140 different patterns.” Luckily, these were all stored in the dark, so their original colors are fresh and vibrant. “We’ve just hung a wonderful 19th-century embossed wallpaper in one small room—there was just enough. There are fabric samples and cuttings, and some quite good lengths—some whole curtains have even been kept.”

The Goose wallpaper in the Archbishops bedroom is inspiring two new designs being produced as part of the collaboration with Watts 1874
The Goose wallpaper in the Archbishop’s bedroom is inspiring two new designs being produced as part of the collaboration with Watts 1874

This was too good a treasure trove to languish in a storeroom. Howard, who is an entrepreneur to the tips of her fingers, approached Watts 1874, a company that specializes in historic wallpapers and textiles, to produce the first Castle Howard collection of six fabrics and one wallpaper, which was launched in May. Of the fabrics, three are “Indiennes”—inspired by the Indian Tree of Life designs that were popular in Britain in the 18th century. One of these, Howard Indienne, and its matching border, has been used for bed hangings in the Admiral’s bedroom. There are also two ravishing floral chintzes in the collection and a pretty chinoiserie toile in deep pink. The Japanese wallpaper, Goose, a graphic pattern of stylized flying birds
that can be seen on the walls of the Archbishop’s bedroom, has faded over the years. Watts will be making two new versions, one in its original colors and another with a more modern acid-yellow ground.

Before taking over the running of Castle Howard in 2016 with her husband Nicholas, a photographer and a descendant of the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Howard had a starry career in business. She co-founded the publisher 4th Estate in 1984 and rose to become the chief executive of HarperCollins, one of the world’s biggest book companies, in 2000. Their talents complement one another, she says. “Nick and I are joint chairs, it’s very much a double act. He is visual; I run the business and financial side.”

The Lake Sitting Room in the East Wing
The Lake Sitting Room in the East Wing

To help with the collection and with renovating some of the rooms, Howard sought out the American interior designer Remy Renzullo. He has worked closely with Watts 1874 on the fabrics and wallpaper, and also designed some beautiful bedrooms. “Vicky is amazing,” Renzullo says. “She has such a grasp of the complete concept, yet minute attention to detail. In dealing with a house this vast, most people would say: ‘Let’s just put card shades in every room’, but we’ve had different lampshades especially made for each one.”

Alec Cobbe, who has advised on historic decoration and picture hanging for the Royal Collection, is part of the team working on the biggest project: the restoration of the Tapestry Drawing Room, one of 22 rooms damaged by a disastrous fire in 1940, which is still a stone shell. Cobbe has already completed the redecoration of the Lake Sitting Room, and is now engaged on a new scheme for the Long Gallery including a complete rehang.

The Gold Library has been redecorated to a design by Remy Renzullo
The Gold Library has been redecorated to a design by Remy Renzullo

The majority of Castle Howard’s rooms that survived the 1940 fire are now open to the public, including some dressing rooms that have been converted into bathrooms for its paying guests. Howard solved the problem of asking visitors to stand gazing at the toilet in one of them by buying a large antique wardrobe and putting the toilet inside.

For those with fewer than 145 rooms to decorate, a beautiful Indienne fabric or Goose wallpaper could turn your own home into a castle.

The Admiral’s bedroom features the Howard Indienne pattern, available as part of the Watts 1874 furnishings collection

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