Back in time for a party: Leeds Harewood House's Victorian Christmas
For the first time in five years Harewood House is opening to the public at Christmas. Catherine Scott finds herself transported back to the estate in Victorian times.
Eight thousand baubles, 1,800 dried oranges, 220 feathers and 200 candles are just some of the festive favourites that have gone into recreating a Victorian Christmas at Harewood House. For the first time in five years the Harewood House Trust has decided to open the Yorkshire stately home to the public at Christmas. “There were a number of reasons why Harewood has been closed over Christmas, but I am really pleased that this year the house will be open,” says David Lascelles, Lord Harewood.
“I remember having many happy Christmases here in front of the fire. Harewood is big but it is still a home.”
We are sitting in the surprisingly cosy library with a roaring fire, surrounded by walls of books and incredible views out onto the gardens which will also be open for the first time at Christmas.
For three days 200 volunteers helped transport Harewood back to the Victorian era, when many of the traditions we associate with the festive season were started.
They worked tirelessly under the guidance of production designer Michael Howells, the man responsible for the award-winning set design of ITV’s Victoria, some of which was filmed on location in Harewood, in order to be ready to open to the public last week.
He was involved in the filming of the first Victoria Christmas special due to be aired over the festive season.
“Albert was instrumental in bringing many of the Christmas traditions we know today to England, including the Christmas tree,” says Howells.
At the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was not regarded as a significant event. However, in 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating around a decorated tree.
The tree was adopted by the British people and by the end of the 19th century Christmas in the UK had become the major annual celebration it is today, with trees, homemade decorations, Christmas cards, gifts and crackers.
“Up until then Christmas was much more akin to pagan rituals and that can be seen very much below stairs,” says Howells.
The kitchen scenes in Victoria were filmed in the kitchens at Harewood while the majority of Buckingham Palace, however, was recreated in a hanger at Church Fenton, near York.
But it is clear that his time working at Harewood has had an effect on Howells. “We are extremely lucky to have found such an amazingly unspoilt example of a stately home. In the South a lot of the houses have been updated, but the joy with a Yorkshireman is that when he does spend he puts in the best and so it lasts. And it hasn’t been mucked about with.
“We feel very privileged to be able to film here and to be asked back to recreate Victorian Christmas here was fantastic.”
The hand of Howells is clear to see as Christmas at Harewood takes visitors on a journey. “I wanted it to feel like the people who live here have just left the room and you are following them around the house,” he says.
“We start with Christmas Eve where the presents are being wrapped and the decorations are being put up and it’s all a bit chaotic.
“Then we move into the next room and it is Christmas Day and presents have been opened, the afternoon tea and eventually after dinner with the most incredible Victorian glass dinner service which was here at Harewood.”
Many of the Victorian treasures on display are part of the Harewood collection, including a bracelet with a picture of Queen Victoria on it which was a Christmas present from the monarch to Charlotte, Viscountess Canning.
However, the perfectly kept toys, which make up the bulk of the presents, have been borrowed from Ilkley Toy Museum.
The museum is owned and run by John and Alex Samuel and is made up of their own personal collection of toys from across the generations.
They leant some of their Victorian doll’s houses and toy soldiers for Victoria, although Alex says they were nervous.
“You do have to be a little careful when you are loaning things out on set – a lot of them are irreplaceable,” she says.
If authentic Victorian artefacts weren’t available then the set designers, helped by students from Leeds, made them.
“The plinths all the Christmas tress stand on we made for Victoria and they are now in Harewood,” says Howells, who has worked in films such as Nanny McPhee and theatre productions, as well as high-end fashion including sets for John Galliano and Christian Dior.
“They were something that Albert was very passionate about and they appear in the Christmas special and are now in Harewood.”
Howells adds that, where possible, they used Yorkshire craftsmen to recreate Victorian England.
“For the cake we found this most amazing woman who still does royal icing – it is a dying art. We also used a blacksmith from Whitby and a Yorkshire rocking horse maker to recreate the rocking horse in the nursery. Although we did get into trouble from one viewer who said we had ruined Victoria for her and she wasn’t going to watch again as we had the wrong hinges on the rocking horse.”
Howells is at pains to stress that Victoria is not a documentary.
“We do our best but at the end of the day it is a drama series and not a documentary about Victoria’s life.”
The same has to be said about A Victorian Christmas at Harewood and Howells makes no apology for adding modern reproductions of Victoriana if it fits the scene.
“It is about evoking an experience and a spectacle, to show people what Christmas would have been like in the time of Victoria and Albert,” he says.
To that end, there are more than 2,000 metres of Christmas lights where there would have been candles. Fake trees are interspersed between the real ones, although the 16ft-high tree at the entrance to the house is definitely real.
“It isn’t so bad at this time of year keeping the trees alive as it is pretty cold, but when we were filming the Christmas special it was August and it was a whole different story. I can’t tell you how many trees we got through.”
As well as experiencing A Victorian Christmas, visitors will be able to enjoy a series of events and activities including wreath-making, twilight tours and a talk on toys from the Victorian era.
Harewood House will be open until December 31 (excluding December 24, 25, and 26). For more information visit www.harewood.org or call 0113 2181000