The Light at Downton Abbey

Masterpiece theater has met and exceeded their standards with their latest drama – Downton Abbey.  The last episode aired on Sunday evening, although a second “season” is already in production.  Check it out immediately if you missed the live presentation.  (Not that its in any way relevant to architecture) but the story centers around the a particular family in Edwardian England and life above and below stairs.  It was written by Julian Fellows who also wrote Gosford Park so that should give you the general idea.  If you didn’t see it live, you can find them online at the PBS website for a limited time (which is really cool).  That’s also the source of these screen captures.

The thing that strikes me most about watching it – aside from how much I LOVE British period drama is the light.  In almost every shot there is beautiful natural light coming in through the amazingly large windows.  The bulk of the production was shot on location at Highclere Castle in Hampshire.  The building is filled with all these beautiful, enormous windows – some of them door sized.  If it had been a set built for the production I might have suspected some lighting designer of having oversized all the openings but as its a real place I just have to assume that designers of the past had a wonderful vision of how to let light into their buildings.

This dining room (below) isn’t at Downton, its at Mathew Crawley’s home in Manchester and still there are these beautiful large windows in the rooms.  I have to think that they would also be a huge heat lost issue in cold weather – after all that’s single pane glass and, if poorly constructed, it could leak air infiltration at every joint –  but England’s climate is milder than ours here in Wisconsin.  And they did take some steps to insulate.  The reason all the windows are set so deeply in the walls is that they all have heavy wooden shutters which fold open in the day and close at night.  Its a security system as well as some guard against air infiltration.  Good idea.  The deep, shuttered window openings have another purpose as well – since the shutters are usually painted a light color (white in this dining room and what looks like gold leaf in the library above) they also serve to bounce more light into the room.

Even in the servants quarters there is all this natural light.  Its beautiful, isn’t it.  This I’m not sure is entirely accurate because they didn’t shoot the “downstairs” segments of the production on location but in re-constructed sets.  That’s because while people have found it worthwhile to preserve some of England’s great houses in all their historically accurate splendor they generally considered byzantine servants quarters with no electric power and wood heat to be a little impolitic.  Since they built the sets, they could have thrown in all the extra windows they wanted but I’m not sure they did.  Natural light was just as good an idea in the serving areas as it was in the rest of the house – more windows equals less money for candles etc.

I could choose from endless counterpoint images of contemporary buildings with small or now windows and natural light sources but I won’t sully this post with ugly pictures.  So what’s the takeaway?  More natural light in buildings.

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3 responses to “The Light at Downton Abbey

  1. I don’t think I noticed the light specifically, but now that you mention it, I’m sure it was coloring my sense of drama and character in every scene.
    I love the big windows, and I love windows through deep walls that widen from the exterior to the interior. They not only let in the light, but bounce it around the interior in a generous, splashing way that lifts my spirit.

    I’m looking forward to building windows that do that in our straw-bale home. To me, that is one of the big pluses of straw-bale construction — what it does to the windows.

    • In a time before electric light it would have made sense to capture as much daylight as possible – it certainly wouldn’t have made sense to be using candles or gas any more than you had to. The plot of Downton Abbey takes place during the time when electricity was first being generally used. In fact, in the first sequence when the household is waking up and the staff are prepping the upstairs rooms and they talk about there being electric light there but not in the servants quarters.

      But you’re right, Denise. Even though we have electricity at our fingertips now it shouldn’t be a reason to take it for granted. And besides saving power, using daylight gives a beautiful variable quality of light that we’d be foolish not to take advantage of.

  2. It struck me that the skylights in the servants bedroom would enable them to get up with the sun. I’m assuming alarm clocks weren’t in common use. The character Daisy had to get up before all of them to start fires and then to wake them up. I’ve wondered what woke her every morning.

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