Castle Howard: The Architecture of the Interior

Essay by Anthony Geraghty

The magnificence of Castle Howard depends first and foremost on the complexity of the architecture. With its expansive plan, its richly decorated facades and its colossal, crowning dome, the original design of the house, as produced by Sir John Vanbrugh in about 1700, was like nothing before it in British architectural history (fig. 1).1 Amid this complexity and magnificence, however, we find an efficient and economical interior, composed, in the main, of relatively modest spaces. Indeed, with the exception of the Great Hall, which rises through the interior like a volcano, the modesty of the interior has often surprised and disappointed.2

Bird's eye view of Castle Howard

Figure 1.
Bird's eye view of Castle Howard, published in Colen Campbell, 'Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect', vol. III, 1725, Country Life, 30 January 1953. Country Life Picture Library (595502)

Digital image courtesy of Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

This is not the paradox it seems, however, for both of these things – the magnificence of the exterior and the economy of the interior – were two sides of the same coin. How so? Because Vanbrugh focused the architecture of the house on two core functions, namely arrival and reception. The plan of the corps de logis was therefore limited to accommodating these two principal functions, with all other usage relegated to the forecourt wings to the north and the service courts to the east and west (both completed on one side only). These principal functions were then visualised through the general massing of the external silhouette and the varying degree of external ornament, which intensifies towards the centre of the composition.

The result is the T-shape plan of the house (fig. 2) and the tripartite profile of the garden front (fig. 3). Castle Howard’s principal rooms of arrival – the Great Hall, the two staircases and the upper and lower saloons – were located in the main block, while the principal rooms of reception were located in the single-storey wings that overlook the garden, each of which contains an apartment. The building’s core is therefore economical and magnificent, like some diminutive garden palace.

Plan of the principal floor of Castle Howard, in Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect, vol. I, 1715, plate 64

Figure 2.
Plan of the principal floor of Castle Howard, in Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect, vol. I, 1715, plate 64, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich (Rar 445 fol)

Digital image courtesy of (Public domain)

The south elevation of Castle Howard towards the gardens, in Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect, vol. I, 1715, plate 69

Figure 3.
The south elevation of Castle Howard towards the gardens, in Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect, vol. I, 1715, plate 69, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich (Rar 445 fol)

Digital image courtesy of (Public domain)

This study will focus on this T-shape nucleus at the core of the house. My account is largely historical, since most of the interior has been destroyed. Parts of the south-west wing were taken down as early as the 1750s, to make way for the Palladian Wing, while most of the south-east wing was reconfigured in the nineteenth century, to create a Dining Room. Then came the catastrophic fire of 1940, when most of the central pile and all of the south-east wing was destroyed. The Great Hall and main apartment survive to this day, however – the essence of the house.3

I shall describe the original configuration of the rooms, and the general treatment of the internal decoration. In so doing, I consider the extent to which Castle Howard was conceived as a backdrop to movable objects – on the walls, in front of the walls and between the walls – and the extent to which this was compatible with later attitudes to display.

The Hall and Passageways

The first room of the house is the Great Hall, which is signalled externally by the dome. Internally, the dome is fully integrated into the architecture of the Hall. Indeed, the central space of the Great Hall is defined by the colossal substructure of the dome, which rises over the square shape of the plan like a giant baldacchino.

On the far side of the room, framed by the south cardinal arch, the visitor is confronted by two arched doorways, one on the ground floor, the other reached via the stairs and gallery (fig. 4). These openings articulate the ceremonial routes through the house – they beckon us forward and they hint at the status of the rooms beyond. But they are not the only possible destinations. Two sets of passageways are tucked away behind the main piers of the dome. They lead to the four wings of the house, as if to the four corners of the world, and they are surmounted by a series of transverse arches, which stabilise the substructure of the dome. The corridors therefore contribute to the firmitas as well as the utilitas of the building.

1927. Country Life Picture Library (735824)

Figure 4.
View of Great Hall interior, looking south, 1927. Country Life Picture Library (735824)

Digital image courtesy of Alfred E. Henson/Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

All these circulation spaces – hall, stairs, passageways – are defined by the complexity of the architecture, in which arcuated forms predominate, and by the particular palette of building materials, namely marble floors, stone walls and decorative painting. Vanbrugh imported this mixture of materials from France, where it was standard practice, but it was unusual in England at this date.4

The painted decoration was executed by Antonio Pellegrini in 1709–12. Although the Great Hall was originally conceived in purely architectural terms,5 the painted decoration responds to the architecture of the house with a complexity and sophistication that is without parallel in the history of decorative painting in England. The Great Hall lacks the uninterrupted surfaces of, say, the Hall at Chatsworth or the Heaven Room at Burghley, so Pellegrini responded to the formal logic of the building itself. This explains the principal forms of pictorial conceit: imaginary items suspended from the building itself, such as the garlands of musical instruments that adorn the spurs of walls within the side arches; and figural compositions located in the imaginary spaces beyond the implied apertures of the articulation.

Moreover, the form of the building prompted the iconographic programme. This programme begins high up, on the soffit of the dome, with the Fall of Phaeton (repainted by Scott Medd in the 1960s). Not only is this suitable to its location on the apex of the building but it also, because of the incipient fall, gestures to the height of the building below. Moreover, the rest of the iconography, as Charles Saumarez Smith has persuasively argued, was prompted by Ovid’s description of the Palace of the Sun, which contained an engraved depiction of ‘the waters that surround the earth’s centre, the earthly globe, and the overarching sky’ (Metamorphoses, II.1–30). Hence the several kinds of universal classification – the twelve signs of the zodiac, the four elements, the four continents, the muses, and so on – all of which is symbolically consistent with the geometrical implications of the architecture.6

The Great Hall was conceived as an autonomous interior. It is self-sufficient in its magnificence and it required no further embellishment. Owing to its formal complexity, moreover, it affords limited opportunity for displaying objects. There is nowhere to hang large-scale portraits, for example. By 1759, the date of the first inventory,7 the four statues in the corners of the Hall, still in situ, had been introduced. But when John Tracy Atkyns visited the house in 1732, the only decoration was a series of hard-stone vases over the fireplace.8

The South Front

As we move from the Great Hall to the Garden Hall (originally called the Saloon), we move from the front of the house to the back. We also move from one kind of interior to another, in terms of shape (from complex to simple), materials (from predominantly stone to predominantly wood) and contents (from few movable objects on display to many).

The Garden Hall (fig. 5) is the pivotal room in the plan, occupying as it does the central position of the great enfilade of rooms that extends across the whole of the south front. This spectacular alignment of spaces has overshadowed what was originally obvious from the internal decoration: that the twelve rooms were divided into three distinct zones: i) the main rooms of reception in the south side of the main block; ii) the earl’s apartment in the south-east wing; iii) the state apartment in the south-west wing. In other words, the plan, no less than the elevation, was tripartite in its organisation.

View of the Garden Hall before the fire

Figure 5.
View of the Garden Hall before the fire, 1927. Country Life Picture Library (533764)

Digital image courtesy of Alfred E. Henson/Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

The middle three rooms were built as the Saloon, the Dining Room (to the east) and the Tapestry Ante-Room (to the west).9 All three survived into the twentieth century, when they were known as the Garden Hall, the Canaletto Room (fig. 6) and the Reynolds Room (fig. 7). The visual unity of these rooms was due to two things: firstly, the elegantly restrained Derbyshire marble, which was supplied by John Thorpe of Bakewell and used to frame the principal features – doorways, fireplaces (replaced in the Canaletto and Reynolds rooms) and, in the Saloon, a matching niche; secondly, the rooms were linked by their wooden panelling, which was supplied by William Thornton of York and followed the same basic formula in all three rooms – a low basement, tall narrow panels, a shallow attic stage and then richly detailed entablatures (minus the architrave in the Garden Hall), including elaborately carved friezes. This formula was scaled back in the two side rooms, however, where it was combined with other treatments of the wall surface (tapestry in the Tapestry Room and an unidentified textile in the Dining Room). The relative importance of the Saloon was indicated by its plan dimensions, its pilaster order, its parquet floor and its painted ceiling, which continued the Ovidian subject matter of the Hall.

The Canaletto Room before the fire

Figure 6.
The Canaletto Room before the fire, 1927. Country Life Picture Library (9769-01-2)

Digital image courtesy of Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

The Reynolds Room before the fire

Figure 7.
The Reynolds Room before the fire, 1927. Country Life Picture Library (9769-30 CA)

Digital image courtesy of Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

All three of these rooms had painted over-doors. These followed the segmental lines of the marble-work and were almost certainly painted by Marco Ricci. It is difficult to know if the panelling itself was originally conceived as a backdrop to movable paintings. Atkyns’s description of the house suggests that paintings were hanging in the Saloon by 1732. But the attenuated proportions of the joinery were not compatible with large-scale works and it is probably telling that the inventory of 1759 records a higher concentration of paintings in the adjacent Dining Room, almost certainly in the spaces between the joinery. Moreover, it was the removal of the tapestries from the corresponding room to the east that made possible the subsequent display of large-scale works by Reynolds.

Although the Tapestry Room was conceived from the outset as an anteroom to the state apartment beyond, the apartments themselves were located in the single-storey wings of the house. Internally, this transition was signalled by a further shift in the architectural forms and building materials. The openings of the enfilade were flat-headed rather than segmental and the restrained marble-work of the middle three rooms was replaced by the elaborately carved joinery of the doorframes. There was further elaborate carving over the fireplaces and around the main entablature. (An equivalent shift in materials occurred in the adjacent corridors, as can still be seen in the passageway behind the existing state apartment.)

The original state apartment was the grander of the two sets of rooms. Situated in the west wing, it consisted of a withdrawing room, a bedchamber and a dressing room. It was followed by a substantial cabinet, which was planned as a gallery across the far end of the wing and which was preceded to the rear by a servant’s room. The last three rooms were taken down in the middle of the eighteenth century but the first two rooms survive as the Music Room (originally the withdrawing room) and the Crimson Dining Room (originally the bedchamber).

The east wing contained the earl’s apartment, with a larger number of smaller rooms: two withdrawing rooms, a bedchamber and two dressing rooms. It too culminated in a gallery-like cabinet, which survived into the twentieth century (fig. 8). But most of the apartment was swept away (with no visual record) in the nineteenth century.10

The Small Gallery at the east end of the house before the fire

Figure 8.
The Small Gallery at the east end of the house before the fire, 1927. Country Life Picture Library

Digital image courtesy of Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

With the exception of the end cabinets, which reverted to the forms and materials of the central rooms, the prestige of both sets of rooms was largely determined by the high status of the several kinds of textile hangings, which, as Saumarez Smith has carefully documented, included not only tapestry but also silk, velvet and mohair. Certain hierarchies of material and colour can be identified. On both sides of the house, blue was adopted for the withdrawing rooms, velvet in the west wing, caffoy in the east. Similarly, both bedrooms were hung with tapestry and both contained crimson beds, enriched with gold thread in the state apartment and silver thread in the earl’s apartment. Beyond, in the two gallery cabinets, the dominant colours were red in the west and green in the east.11

As Hawksmoor explained in a letter of July 1706, the joinery in the earl’s apartment was limited to the basement, the entablatures and the ‘compartments . . . about the doors and chimneys’, which should be ‘very considerable’.12 His letter suggests that Hawksmoor determined the basic dimensions of the doors and chimneys but that the precise detailing was left to the craftsmen. The two gallery cabinets were more richly appointed. The short-lived state cabinet had a marble dado, while the corresponding gallery to the east included pilasters in the joinery (see fig. 8). These features evoked the splendour of the middle rooms, as did the inclusion of domes, internally as well as externally.

The two apartments, with their large areas of textile hangings, afforded greater opportunity for displaying pictures and many were introduced in the subsequent century and a half. Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, however, paintings were restricted to a small number of rooms, all in the earl’s apartment. By 1759 there were 31 paintings, mostly Italian and presumably small, clustered in his withdrawing room and there were ‘2 Family Portrait Paintings’ and ‘2 large views of venice’ in his second dressing room. Finally, there was an especially dense hang in the Cabinet: ‘7 Miniature half Length Paintings in an Ebony Frame’, ‘5 lesser Miniature half length Paintings in an Ebony Frame’ and ‘73 small Pieces of Painting of different sizes & subjects all in Frames’. By contrast, there were only a handful of paintings in the state apartment at this date. These were mostly views of Venice and they were mostly located over the chimneypieces. It is difficult to determine when these items entered the house but some if not all must have been introduced by the 4th earl.13

What we can be certain of, however, is that the textile hangings in the two main apartments were not initially conceived as the backdrop to paintings but as prestigious objects in their own right. The 1759 inventory records the presence of protective curtains in most of these rooms, intended to protect the several kinds of hangings. During the course of the eighteenth century, however, the status of these hangings was eclipsed by the ascendency of painting and panel paintings were consequently allowed to encroach on them. These wall spaces provided a more receptive area of display than the panelled rooms in the centre of the house.

The fixtures and fittings of the two apartments influenced the display of objects in other ways. The shapes of the rooms were determined by the limited depth of the plan and by the fixed rhythm of the facade, with its regular succession of tall, closely set windows (what Hawksmoor called a ‘perpetuall Arcade’14). Within, the rooms were either two or three windows wide, with unusually slender wall piers in between. These factors influenced the scale and position of movable objects placed within them, resulting in the formulaic approach to furnishing the house that can be inferred from the 1759 inventory. Tall mirrors were hung on the wall piers. Below them were placed hard-stone side tables decorated with marbles and bronzes. Larger items, including further hard-stone tables as well as chests and cabinets, were placed against the side walls, while the richly covered seat furniture, to judge from the remaining available space, was placed in the central space of the room.

The First Floor

It only remains to describe the upper levels of the central block. If we return to the Great Hall and look up to the Gallery, we see again a second, arched entrance. This beckons us up the stairs and into the High Saloon, which was completely destroyed by fire in 1940 (fig. 9).

The High Saloon before the fire with the Pellegrini murals covered up

Figure 9.
The High Saloon before the fire with the Pellegrini murals covered up, 1927. Country Life Picture Library (533414)

Digital image courtesy of Alfred E. Henson/Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)

The intended function of the room is unclear. It was probably conceived as a high great chamber and in 1732 it was described as a ‘dining room’.15 But it was built without a fireplace and, as we have already seen, there was a substantial dining room on the ground floor from the outset. Its function, then, was probably symbolic and in 1745 it was described as an ‘anteroom’.16 The high status of the room, however, has never been in doubt, as is apparent from its position, its shape and its decoration. It occupied a commanding position in the house, signalled externally by a pediment, while internally it was the only room in the house to have a coved ceiling. It was also richly decorated.

This decoration took two forms: decorative painting and stucco ornament. The painted decoration was again by Pellegrini, consisting of eight richly coloured scenes from the life of Aeneas on the walls, and Minerva and Venus on the ceiling. All this was framed by the delicate plasterwork, which was used to articulate the architectural organisation of the room. Attenuated pilaster strips rose to a full entablature and there was further stucco decoration on the coved ceiling.17

The doorways to left and right, which were surmounted by spectacularly framed oval reliefs, led to the adjacent apartments, which were located in the south corners of the house. These corners of the house are remarkably little known, since no plan of them has ever been published and they were likewise destroyed by fire.18 Each of them contained a large rectangular bedchamber, two windows wide, followed by a substantial dressing room. Beyond the latter, instead of the usual servant’s room, there were small staircases leading to a series of attics. These little-known spaces, some of which survive, were located high up on the flanks of the main block. They were lit by a series of oval windows at the level of the main external entablature. They were not mezzanines, as at Easton Neston, but attics, located over the full height of the first-floor rooms and rising into the level of the main external balustrade, which was accordingly filled in over the end bays of the entrance facade.

Returning to the first floor, a second pair of apartments was located in the northern corners of the plan, in the limited spaces beyond the staircases. More modest than their southern counterparts, these apartments consisted of a bedchamber, a dressing room and, immediately behind the entrance facade, a servant’s room. They were serviced by spiral backstairs built into the thickness of the central salient of the facade and reached via galleries that cut across the upper level of the principal stairs (one of several instances at Castle Howard where the configuration of the plan suggests a relaxed attitude to the visibility of servants).19

In 1759, and probably from the outset, all four apartments on the first floor were hung with tapestries and known from the colour of their soft furnishings: the ‘Great Yellow Bed Chamber’ (south-east), the ‘Green Silk Damask Bed Chamber’ (south-west), the ‘Little Yellow Silk Damask Bed Chamber’ (north-east) and the ‘Crimson Silk Damask Bed Chamber’ (north-west). As far as we can tell, the internal treatment of these rooms was similar to the ground-floor rooms, only simpler. An extant photograph of the south-west bedchamber (fig. 10) shows a marble chimneypiece with a simple bolection (raised) moulding and surmounted by a rectangular mirror. The tapestries were originally framed by panelled basements and simple entablatures. There were few if any movable paintings in these rooms in 1759 and they never occupied a prominent role in the display of the collection.

The first-floor bedchamber before fire

Figure 10.
The first-floor bedchamber before fire, 1927. Country Life Picture Library

Digital image courtesy of Country Life Picture Library. (All rights reserved)


The main portion of the original house, then, was not extensive. Most of the central block was taken up with the substructure of the dome, while the remaining rooms, although grandly sequenced, were significantly smaller than at, say, Chatsworth. In part, this must explain the abandonment of the original design in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the north-west wing was built to a different design. This contained interiors of a significantly different kind, including a Gallery that could itself accommodate most of the spaces described above. As such, it could also accommodate the kinds of objects that the original building had never been intended to house. Indeed, the recasting of Castle Howard in the middle of the eighteenth century testifies not only to an important shift in architectural taste – from the Baroque to the Palladian – but to a more fundamental shift in values, a shift that likewise influenced the kinds of object displayed within the house. It was a shift from the lapidary architecture and material richness of the original house, to a Palladian ‘treasure house’ filled with antique marbles and old-master paintings. Eighteenth-century Castle Howard, then, shows us two kinds of architecture and two kinds of collection.


  • Anthony Geraghty_crop

    Anthony Geraghty teaches architectural history at the University of York, UK. He has published extensively on late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century British architecture, including a history of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (Yale University Press, 2013).


  1. Laurence Whistler, The Imagination of Vanbrugh and his Fellow Artists, London: Art & Technics, 1954; Kerry Downes, Hawksmoor, London: Zwemmer, 1959; Kerry Downes, Vanbrugh, London: A. Zwemmer, 1977; Kerry Downes, Sir John Vanbrugh: A Biography, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987; Charles Saumarez Smith, The Building of Castle Howard, London: Faber, 1990; Anthony Geraghty, ‘Castle Howard and the Interpretation of English Baroque Architecture’, in Mark Hallett, Nigel Llewellyn and Martin Myrone, eds, Court Country City: British Art and Architecture, 1660–1735, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016, pp. 127–49.

  2. James Lees-Milne, English Country Houses: Baroque, 1685–1715, London: Country Life, 1970, p. 163.

  3. H. A. Tipping and Christopher Hussey, English Homes Period IV, Vol. 2: The Work of Sir John Vanbrugh and his School, 1699–1736, London: Country Life, 1928; Lees-Milne 1970.

  4. Geraghty 2016.

  5. The section of the Great Hall and south rooms published in Vitruvius Britannicus, I, 1715, shows carved ornament in the places subsequently painted.

  6. Saumarez Smith 1990, pp. 94–108. See also George Knox, Antonio Pellegrini, 1675–1741, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

  7. Castle Howard, MS F4.1 Mods.

  8. Thomas Tracy and John Tracy Atkyns, ‘Iter Boreale, Or, The Northern Expedition’, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. Typescript in Castle Howard Archive.

  9. Castle Howard, MS G2/1/1.

  10. The second dressing room was also preserved, together with the small room that lay behind it. The latter space, which was located at the end of the corridor, was probably intended for a valet. It was much lower than the other rooms in the east wing and was situated below an equivalent space above, reached, somewhat circuitously, by an upper corridor. (Information based on unpublished survey plans at the house.) The 1759 inventory suggests a similar arrangement on the opposite side of the house.

  11. Saumarez Smith 1990, pp. 89–94.

  12. Hawksmoor quoted in Downes 1959, p. 237 (Letter 15), quoted in Saumarez Smith 1990, p. 89.

  13. Castle Howard, MS F4.1. See also Historical Manuscripts Commission, ‘Report of the Manuscripts of his Grace the Duke of Portland, K.G., preserved at Welbeck Abbey’ (hereafter, Portland), vol. 4, London, 1901, p. 183, which records that the Venetian paintings had been ‘lately put up’ in 1745.

  14. Hawksmoor quoted in Downes 1959, p. 254.

  15. Atkyns, ‘Iter Boreale’.

  16. Portland, VI, p. 183.

  17. Christine Casey, Making Magnificence: Architects, Stuccatori and the Eighteenth-Century Interior, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017, pp. 181–229.

  18. My description of the first-floor plan is based on a set of undated survey plans at the house. See also the preliminary part plan at the Victoria and Albert Museum (E2825-1995).

  19. These communication galleries are enclosed in the preliminary plan; ibid.



by Anthony Geraghty
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Anthony Geraghty, "Castle Howard: The Architecture of the Interior", Art and the Country House,