If I pull open one of the small drawers in the Carlton House desk in the Library, I find a letter to Lord Grantham. It was one of a few, used as props, left behind after the final series.
Whilst Downton fans may think of it only as where Hugh Bonneville, aka Lord Grantham, used to sit to conduct his business affairs, it is part of Highclere and the Carnarvon family’s delight in collecting beautiful works of art as well as practical pieces of furniture. The desk was made probably by Gillows of Lancaster and dates to the 1780’s. It is a distinctive design, with a superstructure of three tiers of small drawers which curve around the sides. It is made from mahogany and satinwood with brass mountings and a leather inlay on which to write.
The name Carlton House references the residence built by the Prince of Wales (later George IV) in London. It was a white stuccoed mansion with many pillars facing St James’ Park and was furnished with nothing but the best, or the most extravagant, depending on your taste and loyalty at the time. The Prince of Wales was always deep in debt, often immersed in scandal and his physical stature reflected his hedonistic lifestyle. Nevertheless he was passionate about art and supported the best of English furniture. This particular desk reflects the period although the term “Carlton House” was not actually attributed by Gillows until 1796. I might have done the same for marketing purposes…
The question is – how much do we actually write today? I can disappear into the archive rooms to read hand written letters and find that it is not just the words on the page that give so much away, it is also the script and handwriting. Letters from 1916 that are scratchy because the soldiers were writing in pencil to Lady Almina to say thank you for their treatment and shaky because they were writing with their other hand, their writing hand having been badly injured, a common injury as soldiers went over the top in the trenches.
Flowing script races across a page from a lady who had fallen in love with Geordie’s grandfather, letters from builders argue a point in precise and angular letters and the wonderful clear script of the 4th Earl reports in his diary that he “rather liked” the American, Charles Adams. Ledgers with lists of staff help me identify families and names whilst letters which say thank you for a marvellous party make me smile when I read them, as I remember the struggle to teach my own son to do likewise.
I still use headed paper and proper envelopes and, whilst my own letters are often somewhat belated, I hope their recipients enjoy them as much as I enjoy receiving them in turn. The handwritten envelopes are a joy to open whereas the barrage of emails blinking at me saying “not read” is much less enticing.
Currently, the ground outside is so parched outside that I can read the outline of some of the previous buildings in the ground. The photo on the left marks a wall which was a Tudor gatehouse dating from 1370, to which Robert Herbert lined up Heaven’s Gate in 1737. So I am trying to match a written outline from 1370 to what I can now see before me in 2018 – “writing” in a different form but nevertheless there for us to see and find continuity.
Some ten years ago, Geordie and I created our Egyptian Exhibition here at Highclere, based on his great grandfather’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun with Howard Carter. Central to my work on the explanations and guidebook was the surviving written Ancient Egyptian script: the hieroglyphs.
Writing and scholars were much respected in ancient Egyptian life and the written word was an integral part of their society. Post Rosetta Stone, it was equally important to our developing understanding of their world. As a result, 3000 years later, we can get a glimpse of how their lives functioned and the philosophies by which they lived. Obviously, one can write just as well using a keyboard but personally I hope we do not lose our dexterity at uniting mind and hand. Writing itself is an adventure but, to me, hand writing gives one a moment to pause, reflect and think – if only about where to start!