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Designing ‘Downton Abbey’

From the Editors of Traditional Home
  • Written and produced by Cathy Whitlock

    The English phenomenon known as Downton Abbey has gripped viewers worldwide and developed quite the cult following. Echoing the styles and storylines of period costume dramas Gosford Park and Upstairs/Downstairs, the popular Masterpiece series on PBS centers on the aristocratic Crawley family and their dutiful servants in the early decades of the 20th century.

    Downton Abbey is set in England’s real-life Highclere Castle, the Victorian estate that forms the backdrop for tales of love, ambition, rivalry, and adventure. The highly anticipated third season premieres in the U.S. on Sunday, January 6, as the inhabitants of Highclere—both upstairs and down—face new challenges and “welcome” a new character (Cora’s American mother Martha Levinson, played by Academy Award-winning actress Shirley MacLaine). Look for fireworks to ensue between Levinson and Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (played brilliantly by another Academy Award-winning actress, Maggie Smith).

    Check your local PBS stations for times or watch online at If you missed the first two seasons, the Downton Abbey Collection is available at Shop PBS.

    All photographs: Copyright Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE unless otherwise noted

  • Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey is the show’s home setting for the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three daughters. Located an hour outside of London on 1,000 acres in Newbury, the Victorian country estate was renovated in the 19th century in the Elizabethan Revival by Sir Charles Barry, who rebuilt the houses of Parliament. The Carnavon family has lived there since 1679.

  • Actors Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, who portray Robert Crawley/Earl of Grantham and his American wife, Cora/Countess of Grantham, greet visitors at the entrance of Downton. Many of the show’s interiors and exteriors are shot on location at Highclere.

  • Production designer Donal Woods (My Week With Marilyn) created the environs of Downton Abbey that he describes as two separate worlds under one roof —“above the stairs, which would always be rich, lavish, and elegant” and usually shot on location at Highclere. Below the stairs (servants’ quarters, offices, storerooms, kitchens) were built on a soundstage in West London.

    “Some of the state bedrooms we built and dressed on a sound stage and matched the look of the opulent interiors of Highclere,” says Woods.

    Shown above is actress Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley.

  • The Earl of Grantham with future son-in-law Matthew Crawley (played by actor Dan Stevens) at Highclere. The majority of the castle’s original furnishings are used along with cast members’ personal photographs and accessories added by the show’s designers.

  • Interiors were lightened up for season three as a contrast from the bleakness of the Victorian era and World War I. Above is scene-stealing Maggie Smith (who not only has all the best lines in the show but also delivers them with acid wit) as the Dowager Countess.

    Photograph:  Copyright Carnival Film & Television Ltd.  
    Photography by Joss Barratt, Nick Briggs, Giles Keyte, and Gary Moyes.

  • Actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson arrives at Downton Abbey.

    In addition to the show’s production design, the props and costumes must be period perfect as well. Woods notes Martha’s arrival from America “brings a great gust of the modern age.”

  • Costume Designer Caroline McCall molded the Countess’s wardrobe to that of Queen Alexandra while Levinson’s clothes were less subdued and more modern than those of her English counterparts.

  • Production Designer Woods visited 40 houses in Britain before Highclere was selected. “We have all filmed in some of the great houses of Britain and we all respect and appreciate that they are full of priceless treasures and they are a family home,” he says. “The dining room [at Highclere] has a 14-foot-high painting by Van Dyck of King Charles I! Priceless!”

  • The grandeur of the castle with its magnificent arches and “High Elizabethan Style” is on full display in this aerial view of the salon from the gallery. Shown above is preparation of a scene of a hospital benefit at Downton Abbey.

  • Downton Abbey owes its rich production values to the original settings that are not always found in a typical television series. The show’s designers benefit from the high ceiling rooms filled with priceless paintings and furnishings.

    Current residents Lord and Lady Carnavon estimate the castle has some 200 to 300 rooms—with 50 to 80 bedrooms!

  • Set decorator Judy Farr says the sofa (from a season two scene) was most likely from the reign of William and Mary. This copy was made by Victorians and reupholstered in the 1970s.

  • The influence of Downton Abbey can be seen in everything from fashion (Ralph Lauren’s 2012 fall collection) to a resurgence in English Country style interiors. Woods speculates fringe on lampshades could make a comeback.

    Photograph:  Copyright Carnival Film & Television Ltd.  
    Photography by Joss Barratt, Nick Briggs, Giles Keyte, and Gary Moyes.

  • Historical accuracy is key when designing a period drama. That often translates into the proper china and menus. Shown here is footman Alfred Nugent played by Matt Milne.

    Photograph:  Copyright Carnival Film & Television Ltd.  
    Photography by Joss Barratt, Nick Briggs, Giles Keyte, and Gary Moyes.

  • Eye on the details: a few period accessories used to create the world of Downton Abbey.

    Photograph:  Copyright Carnival Film & Television Ltd.  
    Photography by Joss Barratt, Nick Briggs, Giles Keyte, and Gary Moyes.

  • For a more in-depth look at the series, read the companion book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era (St. Martin’s Press) by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis. The lavishly illustrated tome gives a behind-the-scenes historical look into the ancestral home of the Crawleys.

    Photograph:  Copyright Carnival Film & Television Ltd.  
    Photography by Joss Barratt, Nick Briggs, Giles Keyte, and Gary Moyes.

  • Get an updated Downton Abbey decorating vibe—traditional, elegant, and always impeccable—in your own home.  Enjoy these rooms and ideas from the pages of Traditional Home.

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