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.
Interesting as always and a bit of a history lesson!
Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!
Thank you – Happy Christmas!
Such an interesting description of the history of masks. I love the photographs! Thank you, dear Lady Carnarvon, for your wonderful blog. I always learn so much. Best wishes for a blessed Christmas.
I think I need a mask sometimes!!!
What a wonderful blog to read, and sometimes in the hustle and bustle of this busy world, especially at this time of year, one thinks it would be nice to be able to hide behind a mask!
As always I have loved reading your regular blogs in 2018, and sharing your life at Highclere through them. Such beautiful decorations for such a lovely home.
May I wish you and your family a very Happy Christmas and a fabulous New Year at your lovely Highclere!
Thank you – Merry Christmas!
A very interesting topic, Lady Carnarvon; one which I very much enjoyed reading about! The masks are beautiful. Hopefully we will see more of this year’s Christmas decorations at Highclere?
We had a big dinner and are just trying to sort ourselves out again and reposition everthing
Yes please! Do treat us with images of Christmas Decorating 2018 at Highclere. I know it will inspire many of us…Thank you
so very much for a wonderful year of sharing and inspiring with Highclere/Downtown Abbey enthusiasts worldwide. Your words are truly appreciated. Jane Evans
Thank You. Great to learn of the on flowing stories of your grand Home.
Wishing You all the very best for Christmas and the New Year.
Kind regards Richard
Thank you – Happy Christmas!
I so enjoy reading your blog entries as they share not only insight into life at Highclere but interesting glimpses into history which I find fascinating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I wish you and the Highclere family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Thank you – Happy Christmas! To you and your family
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to know the Highclere Castle and the life of your family there.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog article. Thank you for sharing your beautiful home with us through your blog! Wishing you a very Merry Christmas.
Kind regards Jany
So fascinating! We had tickets to see the exhibit but due to miscommunication on my part we did not have time to see it. Gives me another reason to visit again! We loved visiting Highclere it was truly one of the highlights of our trip. Blessings to you and your family at this very special time of year. A very Happy Christmas from Jay & Merlina, Seattle Washington
Come back and let me know when you do..
Your blog is fascinating as usual and love the history and the beautiful decorations and story behind the masks. A Happy Christmas to you and yours. Some of my Christmas gifts this year will include the Elder Flower cordial I made last Fall from your directions. It has been a wonderful experience to serve this and tell the story of the Elder Flowers and how I came to make this delicious treat.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Your blog today was so very interesting. I toured the Egyptian exhibit when we visited Highclere the first time in 2017. The steps prove difficult for me to manage, so we did not venture down there during our Heroes at Highclere visit in September. But we both were amazed at the quality of the display. Well done!
The part of your blog that really struck a chord with me was the photos of Highclere Church. WOW. How did we manage to miss visiting this wonderful Church when we were there? We did however visit a very old Church in Penkridge during last years visit. I wish I could send a few photos to you to show you what I discovered. I have met (posthumously) Grandparents from at least 10 generations back by visiting their effigies in the Churches they supported and helped to build! I cannot begin to express how much it meant to me. So, when you posted the photos of Highclere Church, well, all I could think of is how wonderful for Lord Carnarvon to have these likenesses to visit and remember those who went before him. I know when I met my 10x Great Grandparents, it moved me to tears. Then this year we went to Worcester and I met another Grandfather via his effigy in the Cathedral. Goodness…moved to tears again!
God Bless you, Lady Carnarvon. I feel as if we are friends, even though I know our relationship is one sided. Reading your blog is the first thing I do on Mondays. It is always a joy to read.
I pray you and yours have a Christmas filled with lots of love and everything and everyone that mean the most to you.
L. Sue Smith
Thank you – Highclere Church is a beautiful church and space -I keep turning over how I can do more to share it
Wonderful posting! I so appreciate your attention to detail and consistency. Thank you for posting at this time of your busy year. I would love to use your last sentence(with attribution, of course). ”
“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.” Such profound wisdom has certainly ruled our social systems throughout recorded time. Thank you.
Have a wonderful and enjoyable December 2018 and on through your holiday season.
Best wishes. Ida
Thank you – happy Christmas!!
Thank you for your blogs. I have really enjoyed them.
Wonderful meander through Highclere & its history of the understairs working life along with the fascination with Egyptian artifacts. I agree the gold masks & caskets in the Cairo Museum are spellbinding in their intricacies and Tutankhamun’s mask magnificent to behold!
It was an extraordinary civilization spanning far longer than ours – thought provoking.
Dear Lady Carnarvon
Thank you for the lovely blog, art and artifacts. I am a semi-retired art teacher and it is a pleasure to see what has been assembled. I think King Tut must be most people’s favorite. Exquisite craftsmanship.
Merry Christmas, I look forward to more interesting blogs in the coming week. I save them all.
You are kind -I enjoy writing them and they keep me to a rhythm!!! Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas to you and all at Highclere. Keep warm!
Thank you – I have just been on the top floor and it was a bit nippy up there!!
What a fascinating story of the masks! And I remember being so impressed by the Egyptian exhibit in what was once the servants’ space. You really have brought a wonderful array of history to Highclere Castle, and it is always a joy to read your blogs. Thank you so much, and a most wonderful Christmas to you and all at Highclere.
Thank you Happy Christmas!
Merry Christmas and Happy Christmas, (whichever you prefer)
I love reading your blog and seeing the photographs. One day I promise I will come to see it in person.
I can hardly wait for the Downton movie to come out in September 2019.
I live vicariously through you and Highclere and (Downton),
Happy New year!
Happy New Year
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I never knew about the church on the property. Is it open to visit at all? My visit last year I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful churches and this would have been one to see while I was at Highclere had I known and it was open. Thank you for all the wonderful back stories each week. I find them very interesting and it makes my memories of my time spent there putting a smile on my face and longing to return soon.
It is not always open – I gave a talk in it to help raise funds two months ago. There is another chapel too and I thought I might offer to take people to it on a Spring Day when we are open.
Estimada Lady Carnarvon
Como siempre, un placer compartir sus blogs,son maravillosos aportes para nuestro conocimiento de
tantas historias y anécdotas.La felicito a Ud. y su familia por la humildad y grandeza de compartir con todos parte de su diario vivir, haciéndonos casi participes de esa hermosa familia que Highclere.
Les deseo a Ud. y maravillosa familia muy feliz navidad para la familias que también sigue sus blogs.
Humildemente y de todo corazón desde este pequeño y hermoso país Uruguay, que espero pueda conocer algún día.
Thank you Washington! I did a little Spanish and as ever the poetry and read St Juan de La Cruz some of his lines live with me “En el atardecer de nuestra vida, seremos juzgados por el amor”
How clever, the incorporating of the masks and feathers into the Christmas garland and I also like the color scheme. Beautiful!!
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.
Dear Lady Carnarvon. My name is Mario and we met at the Christmas Ball in the gift shop. You took a lovely photo with my wife & daughter. Being a photographer, I took an absolutely beautiful photo of your home with the moon shining above. It would be my pleasure to send to you and feel free to use it for any occasion. Please reach out to me, you will truly admire this photo.
How very kind – it was lovely to meet you all!
Beautiful images of the effigy of Highclere Castle, and so real. The khol rimmed eyes on the Tutankhamun mask is impacting. The decorations are lovely. Thank you for such beautiful photos. Wishing you a happy Christmas and wonderful new 2019.
Thank you – we have little kohl pots here – they are amazing and 3,000 years old!
The staircase is absolutely beautiful! What a great idea! I do hope you have a Merry Christmas!
Thank you Happy Christmas
Lady Carnarvon: you and your husband have done an amazing job keeping Highclere alive and intact for many more generations of your family to call home. Thank you for opening the doors to your home for all to enjoy.
I lived in London in the 80s and would have been so excited to see it. I love history, and the Egyptian connection to me is fascinating. My 50 birthday trip was to Egypt.
Keep up the hard, but I’m sure, enjoyable work.
Hope to visit one day soon.
Wishing you the happiest holiday season.
Thank you – Happy Christmas
You and your team have again created a Christmas wonderland. We were supposed to be there tonight but due to our pup developing diabetes we had to stay and take care of his transition onto his medication. We will come again in the future! Have a fabulous evening. You are supporting a great cause.
I am so sorry – it was in fact a wonderful evening to say thank you to the RAF – we welcomed RAF pilots, those from the GReat British War team, B-17, Tiger Nines and Concorde, BA, RAF 100 Appeal and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen John Hillier – they all led us all in carols!!! Let me know if you try to come here again.
I definitely will! Hope to come for the June 22 event. Thank you so much for your response!
I’m thrilled you had such a wonderful evening…I would have loved the caroling. Happy Christmas to you all!
MY DEAR LADY CARNARVON,
91 ° F RIO CLARO
THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR ATTENTION AND AFFECTION SHOWING
US YOUR BEAUTIFUL HOUSE. REMINDEND ME OF VENICE IN ITALY WITH THIS MASKS
IN YOURS FESTIVITIES .THE COLORS : GOLD, BLACK AND SILVER ARE MY FAVORITES .WISHING YOU A VERY SPECIAL COCKTAIL IN THIS EVENING IN HIGHCLERE TOGETHER
WITH ALL THOSE PRESENTS. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
PROFESSORA MÁRIA AUGUSTA PINHEIRO VILA ALEMÃ RIO CLARO SP BRAZIL
I love reading your blogs ! Thank you so much for sharing the history of this beautiful home !
Happy Christmas to you and your family.
Thank you for sharing this. How wonderful to think of the ancient masks. I felt like I was there in the room with the masks. I enjoy all your writings.
Merry Christmas to all!
Thank you – happy Christmas!
Faces. Masks. Somehow i am reminded of a T. S. Eliot poem The love song of j. alfred prufrock where he says “there will be time to prepare to meet the faces that you meet”. Not sure why this jumped into my brain but we all do put on masks or faces to meet the faces that you meet. no? yes?
You are right – what is behind the faces and eyes
We had the privilege of attending the wonderful Champagne Reception last evening. What a night! Thank you so much. Everything was beautiful. We really felt as if we were in a dear friends home, so relaxed, welcoming and friendly. Wishing you and yours a most joyous Christmas.
Robin and Elizabeth Grey.
You are very kind – thank you! Happy christmas
Thankyou for your blogs i look forward to them i remember the butler well and his storys merry Christmas to you all and the honey lady and all the wonderful dog family xxx
Thank you for the Masks photos and your thoughtful descriptions of past and present connections- a very nice read! Your energy and enthusiasm, along with your good taste and writing style have all been an enormous benefit to the preservation of Highclere. From nuts and bolts of construction repair, to the delicate bows on your Christmas decor – you’ve become masterful, and we love it!!
Thank you so much for sharing family history, today’s updates, and your personal journey at Highclere.
You are too kind – thank you. Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas for all family of Highclere,and thank you so much for you wonderful blogs.
Thank you – and Merry Christmas to you too.
I always enjoy reading your posts and seeing the beautiful photos of Highclere and the grounds and gardens. It is especially interesting to hear what is going on and to learn about all the special people that keep Highclere running. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your husband and to all those who make Highclere so special.
Pamelia Spivey – Birmingham, Alabama
I enjoy reading your blog. I have to visit Highclere myself one day. I find Earls Carnarvon’s lives so fascinating. I am from Mexico and we don’t have novelty titles. Thank you for sharing and I wish you and your family to continue having Highclere for many many more years. Today I am about to see Downton Abbey (movie) I am sure I will enjoy it.
I noticed there are two railings on this staircase, starting at the landing. Is there a particular reason for this? After noticing I couldn’t help but search for a purpose, as trivial as it may be, and I can’t find an answer. Hopefully going right to the source, I might get an answer! Thank you so much.
The turn around the corner is quite tight and this gives more room and safety
My father George Poore was a Doctor who served in England during WWII. He and a friend met Almina, then Lady Carnarvon, when her car broke down on the road. They were invited to dinner and my father struck up a friendship. She gave him a George III meat Skewer for a wedding present when he married my Mother. His note with the skewer in my possession said he visited her often at Stogumber, England during the war. Stogumber does not appear to be very close to Highclere. Would there have been some other residence where she lived at that time? My husband and I are planning a trip to England in April of 2022.
She was living in Somerset at that time – her hospitals had been closed (too near London). Exmoor is utterly beautiful and worth a visit.