What’s a period drama without a sumptuous interior and a fabulous dress? Like many 19th-century French artists, Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942) was captivated by contemporary fashion.
While Blanche’s 1884 painting Henriette Chabot au piano features a type of dress popular a generation before those worn by Downton’s young heroines, Lady Mary and Lady Sybil, it was no less fashionable in its day. The elegant white chiffon dress, embellished with a ruffled bodice, is embroidered with a geometric black-and-white pattern that repeats on the cuffs, collar and skirt hem. The sheer sleeves were particularly à la mode.
Lucy Prévost-Paradol, daughter of the French ambassador to Washington, brought the dress to France from America in 1873, when she came to live with Blanche. The artist painted Henriette Chabot in this dress several times — for him, it clearly evoked the modern aesthetic that was all the rage in contemporary painting. Her simple black ribbon choker, the stacked rings on her right hand, and the expensively furnished room speak to the richness of life for the fashion-forward Belle Époque woman. She certainly seems like a woman who, like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, doesn’t know the meaning of ‘weekend’.
No self-respecting period drama would be without an illicit love affair. In Entre la richesse et l’amour, an early work by French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), the heroine, a beautiful young woman in a rose-coloured gown, must choose between a wealthy man and her younger, poorer lover.
She is depicted sitting between her two suitors. The first, an old man dressed in silk and fur with a heavy gold chain around his neck, offers her a jewellery box and a string of pearls. The second, a humbly dressed young musician, holds his lute in one hand, indicating that this — and his love — are the only things he has to give. The woman looks into the distance, her enigmatic smile revealing nothing about her final choice.
The decision to paint these figures in Renaissance costume is unusual within the artist’s oeuvre. There is no documentary evidence as to what might have sparked this interest, but we know that in 1869, they year in which this painting was executed, a production of Faust by Bouguereau’s friend, the composer Charles Gounod, was extremely popular at the Paris Opera. Set in the 16th century, Faust’s themes of love, death and sin may have influenced Bouguereau’s choice of subject matter.
As dedicated Downton fans know, the series opens with the loss of the Earl of Grantham’s heirs, James Crawley and his son, in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic. Much like the unfortunate Crawley heirs, Arthur John Elsley’s Here He Comes also met with a watery fate.
Elsley (1860-1952) was among the most beloved artists of the late Victorian era. Print companies often competed to buy the copyright to his paintings for marketing purposes, and his works were routinely reproduced in colour calendars, soap advertisements, and on the cover of publications. Here He Comes was purchased by the Thomas D. Murphy Company of Red Oak, Iowa after its completion, and dispatched to America from England by ship. Unfortunately the boat that was meant to transport the painting was sunk by a German U-boat in 1917.
Fortunately, Elsley was able to paint a replica of the lost composition from a photograph of the original work. A reproduction was subsequently used in a 1921 calendar, where it was seen by the wife of the painting’s first owner. She was so taken with the charming image that she hung the calendar on her wall, where it remained until her husband surprised her at Christmas with the original painting to hang in its place.
The peaks, moors and forests of Northern England have served as the backdrop for period dramas from Jane Eyre to Downton Abbey. In the last years of the 19th century, the landscape around Whitby on the north Yorkshire coast would serve as the setting for Bram Stoker’s Gothic masterpiece, Dracula. This landscape also inspired the Yorkshire-born English artist John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), who was celebrated for his moonlit scenes of urban and rural landscapes.
Grimshaw’s haunting depictions of the gas-lit streets and misty harbours in and around Yorkshire capture both the poetic and spiritual bent of the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s easy to image a comparable scene appearing in one of today’s period dramas, as a character skulks into the night for a clandestine meeting or secret tryst.
Attentive followers of Downton Abbey may have noticed the names of the family pets, Pharaoh and Isis. These names wink at the history of Highclere Castle in the south of England, where the interior and exterior shots of Downton are filmed.
George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and the great grandfather of the home’s present owner, the 8th Earl of Carnavon, was an enthusiastic Egyptologist who financed the expedition that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. His death less than a year later — from blood poisoning after cutting a mosquito bite with a razor blade — was the first in a series of mysterious deaths associated with the expedition, and which inspired rumours of a ‘Pharaoh's curse’.
Austrian artist Alexander Rothaug’s The Death of Achilles, previously owned by renowned 20th-century Egyptologist William Kelly Simpson, reflects the 19th-century vogue for scenes from antiquity — an interest that was reignited in the early 20th century with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.