Downton Abbey is a British period drama television series set in the early 20th century, created and co-written by Julian Fellowes. The Crawleys, an aristocratic family who dwell in Downton Abbey, are the focus of the series. Their narrative started in 1912 and lasted through the 1920s. The fifth season began in 1924. Downton’s servants look after the Crawleys, most of them are devoted to the nobles they serve. The comedy is based on the BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired in the 1970s and presented the narrative of how upper-class nobility interacted with lower-class servants. The series begins with true historical events, such as the Titanic’s sinking and Archduke Ferdinand’s killing, and then filters them through the characters’ emotions. The characters’ struggles to navigate their swiftly changing post-Edwardian society provide the drama.  The stark difference between the aristocrats and the working class is very beautifully portrayed by recreating the historical landscape of that era. Architecture plays a very important role in that.

An architectural review Downton Abbey - Sheet1
Downton Abbey_©Wikipedia

Downton Abbey viz  Highclere Castle

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Even though Downton Abbey is fictitious, the estate where it is situated and filmed is real. It’s called Highclere Castle, and it’s in the English county of Hampshire. The country residence of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family has lived at Highclere since 1679, is a Victorian mansion built on 5,000 acres of land. The castle has been used as a filming site for several different shows and films, and tours are available.

“We wanted a house that architecturally dated from the mid-to-late 19th century, to distinguish it from the many earlier houses used in previous period dramas,” says Downton Abbey’s production designer, Donal Woods. 

This style of architecture used in Highclere Castle has a few unique, recognized characteristics in terms of architecture: As in the Elizabethan style, flattened, cusped Tudor-ish arches, lighter stone trimmings around windows and doors, carved brick details, steep roof gables, frequently terra-cotta brickwork, balustrades and parapets, pillars supporting porches, and towering chimneys. Even though the building is Gothic Revival with Jacobethan and Italianate elements, the rooms of Highclere are all different in style. This provided the designers with the creative liberation to customize the room of individual characters enhancing their personality traits for the viewers.

An architectural review Downton Abbey - Sheet2
Highclere Castle_©Viator

Upstairs Vs Downstairs

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The depiction of the stark difference in spatial quality between the Crawleys’ living quarters, i.e. the masters and the servant quarters in the basement, is one of the series’ highlights. The show has always played like a bourgeois pantomime – a dream picture of a Britain that never actually existed, where everyone from the kitchen maid to the second footman is content with their lot because the folks at the top are such bally great fellows. It’s also become a site where both the workers working downstairs and the toffs in ball gowns above have been given a strange feeling of foreknowledge, a palpable understanding of their position in history and how “things” will never be the same again once they’re off the screen. However, a viewer might get an understanding of the class divide in the form of the intricately designed sets. 

The basement of Downton, unlike the upstairs rooms, which were shot on-site at Highclere, was meticulously designed. The set designers went to great lengths to establish the realism of the lower level, generating contrast between it and the upper level. The interiors were purposefully made to look plain and gloomy. The series’ art crew included little details to give the set a more genuine feel, such as scuff marks on skirting and foot impressions on doors.

An architectural review Downton Abbey - Sheet3
Upstairs_©Architectural Digest
An architectural review Downton Abbey - Sheet4

Landscape Design

The estate’s lawns and gardens also serve as a backdrop for key plot elements and narratives such as outdoor parties, cricket matches, the backyard, and so on. The designers had maintained the landscape authentically Edwardian English style, with broad lawns with mounds, ponds, and native trees. Highclere’s current inhabitants, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his family, have dedicated a section of the estate’s grounds as a wildflower meadow, much to the joy of the grounds’ invertebrate population. The contrast of rigorous architectural components (such as pergolas) with vining flowers; crisply clipped boxwood hedges with soft perennials; regulated bowling greens with the wild abandon of a meadow was popular in Edwardian gardens.

An architectural review Downton Abbey - Sheet5
Expansive english style gardens used for strolling, tea parties etc_©

Cinematography and Production Design

The interdependent but contrasting lifestyles of a late Edwardian aristocratic family and their servants above and below stairs at an English country mansion are shown in Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes developed and primarily wrote it. He is widely known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park, which likewise investigated the British social groups in the early twentieth century. This series in many ways has the ability to make one time travel to the 20th century. The intelligent use of vivid color tones to enhance the ambience of the different social groups, showcased in the series. For example: The scenes showing the aristocrats and their lavish lifestyle, are made luminous using natural lighting from large gothic windows and also given a rustic color tone. The scenes depicting the downstairs kitchen and servant quarters are justifiably shot on a different set designed by the art department. The team meticulously detailed out the space as per the design of the early 20th century, with vintage cookwares, ovens and furniture used by the working class. The claustrophobic and busy space was also enhanced using a dull bluish- green tint in colortone and minimum natural lighting. 

They also redesigned the set as the series progressed with different historical events in the background. For example: They didn’t want the smoky vibe that those sequences had in the first series, partially because electricity had replaced gaslight and candles by the time the second season began, but also because the smoke caused some editing issues. In general, there isn’t as much visual distinction between upstairs and below in this series, which seems fitting given that the people downstairs are beginning to wonder if this way of life will continue after the war. Apart from the estate, other places like the streets of London and the village were also meticulously designed as it was in that era, for example, the cobbled pathways, the vintage pubs and restaurants etc.

Contrast in production design_© IMDB

The stories of an aristocratic family’s trials and tribulations, their servants, and the fate of their eponymous estate have captivated people all over the world in the British historical drama Downton Abbey. Many of those stories, which are built on relationships and melodrama, have stood the test of time. Downton Abbey is a period drama whose narrative is inspired by true historical events. In such cases, constructing the set to match the age that the series is seeking to depict is essential in establishing authenticity.

Reference List:

Article title: Discussion: Architectural History of Downton Abbey (A Project Downton post)
Website title: The Lit Bitch


Author Condé Nast
Article title: The Sets of PBS’s “Downton Abbey”
Website title: Architectural Digest


Author Condé Nast
Article title: The Sets of “Downton Abbey”
Website title: Architectural Digest


Article title:The ASC — American Cinematographer: Varied Visions Website title:Theasc.comURL:


Srishti Dasgupta is currently pursuing Architecture from Mumbai University. Her passion for art initiated her interest in Architecture.The creative field also inspired her to explore various aspects of art and culture. She intends to keep capturing the rationalities of everyday world, integrated with the creative world through different mediums.

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