“Country house” in Britain and Ireland refers to no quaint cottage, but an estate built during the 1500s and beyond. They were the seats of lordship and often center of the feudal system that supported nearby villages. When he began to catalogue country houses in 1999, architectural historian Curt DiCamillo likely had no idea that a Jacobethan-style country house in West Berkshire, England, would become a globally recognized work of architecture and television character in its own right, with its towering turrets, lavish interiors and sprawling grounds.
Highclere Castle, known to public television viewers as Downton Abbey, is the setting of one of the most critically acclaimed English-language television series, and most watched drama shows in the world.
On Saturday, the Thomasville Antiques Show will welcome DiCamillo, whose 2 p.m., lecture, “Lords, Ladies & Mummies: The Story of Highclere Castle, the Real Downton Abbey,” will reveal the actual stories of the centuries-old estate. Home to the eight Earls of Carnarvon since 1672, Highclere’s rich past is one of great fascination and mystery.
Highclere Castle became what television viewers recognize as Downton Abbey when the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned major renovations in the late 1830s by Sir Charles Barry, who had just finished building both houses of Parliament. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon funded several Egyptian archeological expeditions in the early 20th century and was present in The Valley of the Kings when Howard Turner opened the antechamber which led to the tomb of Tutankhamen; he died five months later in Cairo of an infected mosquito bite, though some believed it was the so-called “Curse of the Mummy.” DiCamillo’s lecture will include such stories that will mirror, match and even surpass the masterfully crafted plots of Downton Abbey.
The cataloguing of British country houses like Highclere Castle began for matters of personal reference for Curt DiCamillo. As his fascination grew, he recorded beyond the houses’ conditions and locations to include extensive history of their builders, gardens, collections and inhabitants. The Curt DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses is now an internationally acclaimed online database, containing more than 7,200 listings of such dwellings.
DiCamillo began his career with a 13-year stint at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and later spent eight years as executive director of The National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA. He went into private practice in 2012 and is dedicated to the online cataloguing of every British and Irish country house ever built. His database has won numerous internet awards and DiCamillo has been presented to The Prince of Wales and the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for his efforts. He is a member of The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Tickets to DiCamillo’s lecture are $45 and may be purchased at www.thomasvilleantiquesshow.com. Lecture ticket prices include admission to the Antiques Show. If you relish in the ups and downs of the Crawleys of Downton, you’ll be equally fascinated by the real cast of characters who have inhabited their beloved estate over the last 300 years.