Behind the green baize door in the Saloon is the entrance of a tall, cream painted, plain passage from which flights of stone stairs wind up and down. These are the old servants staircases by which the staff “invisibly” accessed the house. The shorter flight leads down to a lower corridor and then through a door into what used to be the Staff Dining Room. The old servants quarters and kitchens no longer exist in reality at Highclere, having given way to more modern needs and uses, and so some of this staircase was re-created by “Downton Abbey” in their film studios so that Carson or Thomas could begin a scene “downstairs” and continue their story some weeks later, when filming moved to Highclere, as they popped out “upstairs” through the green door.
One of the main requirements of “downstairs” characters, both in reality and fiction, was to keep up appearances, to never show their feelings but to retain an imperturbable façade, almost a mask. Carson (Jim Carter) bears similarities to Highclere’s former butler Robert Taylor. Tall, immaculate never fazed, his demeanour never slipped whatever the situation, he remained in his post for 50 years.
In some ways, all actors wear a “mask” behind which they hide their real selves and, historically, masks have been important in plays and entertainments. The Romans believed they offered clarity, and all Greek actors wore them. Expressions were often exaggerated and visibly transformed the wearer. They allow one to experiment, give protection and to offer a different face to hide behind. Shakespeare used masks to facilitate the deceptions that are at the heart of many of his plays.
The old staff dining room is now the first room of our Egyptian Exhibition which runs through the cellars under the Castle. One of the cabinets focuses on “Faces and Figures”: masks and statues of people long dead but remembered through the hands of sculptors. Some of the masks are small but the detail is charming. Made from different materials such as granite, wood, calcite or pasted papyrus, you can look into their eyes and wonder. Not all the masks can be categorised as either masculine or feminine, some of the faces were carved from life, others more stylised. All are fascinating.
Several rooms later the exhibition builds towards the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, until visitors reach the point where part of the inner shrine is replicated with, of course, one of the most famous masks in the world: the gold death mask of the boy king from 1570 BC. He died unexpectedly young, so does the mask replicate his real features or is it just a stylised representation? How has a minor pharaoh from an antique land captured the imagination of millions of people? It is a compellingly calm gaze and was one of the hardest things for us to replicate because the actual mask in Cairo has such presence.
The idea of a death mask seems to me strange, even a little ghoulish, yet the tradition of a wax or plaster cast of a person’s face made shortly after their death is astonishingly widespread. Serving as mementos of the dead, they stand in for the subject, allowing family, friends and subjects to trace the features of the beloved or admired individual.
In fact there is a rather outstanding effigy in Highclere Church dating from the 17th century where you can see the family in repose, eyes closed as they left this world in stiffened ornate clothes of stone, yet with a tenderness as their kneeling children gazing faithfully at their resting parents, eyes closed in peace. It is, in some ways, quite beautiful.
Back in the Saloon in the Castle, if you look carefully at the stair garland this year, you will also see golden masks unexpectedly tied into it as it weaves its way up to the gallery. This year the theme of the Christmas Tree and Oak Staircase’s garland was inspired by the 1920’s Art Deco. The time of “The Great Gatsby” was bold and decadent, making a statement and claim for modernity in the still new 20th century. In fact, the black, gold and silver theme is, we hope, quite a glamorous and fun take on the decoration of the great ocean liners, the movie theatres and hotels of the 1920’s.
Perhaps part of the success of a mask is that you don’t notice it and just enjoy the party as you can be whoever you wish to be.