The stunning salvation of Castle Howard, one of the greatest houses in Yorkshire — and, for that matter, the world

The Herculean efforts which saved Castle Howard's architecture and collections after a devastating fire in 1940 have lasted for decades; the results are truly magnificent.

Every Tuesday, we look through Country Life’s architecture archive to find a gem from the past. Today we consider Castle Howard, near York. This piece first ran in September 2003, but the images we’ve chosen represent some of the finest efforts of Country Life photographers over the years at this wonderful spot, from both before and after the fire.

In 1944, the fate of Castle Howard hung by a thread. In 1940 a fire had broken out in the south-east wing, apparently in a chimney. By the time it was extinguished, the south-east wing and main block were gutted, the dome had collapsed and nearly 20 rooms had been lost.

The great collection of china had exploded like fire-crackers in the heat. Pellegrini’s wonderful murals in the High Saloon had been destroyed, together with Chippendale mirrors, Westmacott’s statue of Venus and a dozen Marco Ricci overdoors.

The grand decorative stucco overmantel at Castle Howard is thought to be the work of the Italian stuccoists Giovanni Bagutti and Signor Plura. As pictured in 1953. ©Country Life Picture Library

The answer lay in reviving the tradition of opening to the public, which Castle Howard first did in 1953. The art historian Rupert Gunnis played a major role in making the rooms fit for the public.

Recommended videos for you

Equally important was the artist Felix Kelly, who designed a ‘fantasy train’ to take visitors from the car park to the house; in reality, a tractor pulling carts.

The south front of Castle Howard, pictured in 1953. ©Country Life Picture Library

Slowly the house was pulled back from the brink. The gutted area was roofed and the windows on the south front replaced. An early grant from the Historic Buildings Council funded the restoration of the Temple of the Four Winds. By 1960, the dome had been restored and shortly afterwards it was decorated with a new version of The Fall of Phaeton, painted by Scott Medd.

The 1970s saw the launch of two important landscape projects: the planting of Jim Russell’s distinguished collection of rhododendrons and azaleas in Ray Wood; and the creation, also under Mr Russell’s direction, of the arboretum. This is now of such importance that it is partly managed by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

A group of flatcoat retrievers strike a pose beside the lake at Castle Howard, as pictured in 2012. ©Country Life Picture Library

The Garden Hall was decorated with modern Vanbrughian fantasies by Felix Kelly. This was followed by the creation of the adjacent library. The Long Gallery was redecorated and rehung. This has been followed by the complete restoration of the adjoining bedrooms in the west wing.

Tapestry Room at Castle Howard, as pictured in 1904. ©Country Life Picture Library

About 90% of the furniture and paintings in the house have now been restored. In the gardens, the waterworks and lakes have been restored, as have the fountains, lead statues, bridge and cascade.

Interior of the mausoleum at Castle Howard in 1904. ©Country Life Picture Library

For anyone visiting Castle Howard regularly, what is most impressive is the constant state of activity, the sense that a project has always just been completed, that another is about to begin.

Lead figures swagger in front of the garden facade of Castle Howard in 1999. ©Paul Barker/Country Life Picture Library

Today, it is possible to see a time, not that far off, when this great restoration will at last be complete. It is a remarkable achievement, for which two generations of Howards deserve every credit.