There can be little doubt that the third Earl of Carlisle was out to make a splash with his new house. In the earliest part of the 18th century, he employed Sir John Vanbrugh to design "Castle Howard" in Yorkshire. Modest it was not. And in 2008 it is still not modest.
Sir John was really a theater man – a playwright – and Castle Howard was his first architectural venture. It was conceived as a gigantically impressive, theatrical, even operatic, monument to grandiose living. Today it is not all as he planned, but it remains – in spite of wars and fires and financial disasters – superb, arrogant, magnificent.
Until the other day, I hadn't visited Castle Howard for 20-something years, although now and then clips of it are shown from that classic TV series "Brideshead Revisited."
I was not really at Castle Howard to admire the exhilarating baroque architecture or gaze at the splendid lakes and fountains. I was there to read letters written by a small girl, and later young woman, to her maternal grandparents at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th.
This girl, Winifred Roberts (later Winifred Nicholson), was to become an artist of notable vision and originality. The letters – the earliest ones "dictated" by her and written by her mother – reveal a child who delighted in flowers and loved painting.
She had, in fact, been born not only into an aristocratic family, but into an artistic one. Her grandfather was George Howard, who in spite of becoming the ninth earl, lived the life of a full-time painter. Winifred's mother (one of the earl's daughters) also painted. Winifred was not bound to become a painter – but she had an encouraging start.
In one letter she says how much she loved Castle Howard. It's clear she didn't realize that it symbolized an unusually privileged upbringing; she just took it at face value.
All this made my visit well worthwhile. But, oddly, it was an inconsequential incident that stays with me.
One lovely morning, I arrived half an hour early for my archival research. I parked in the far right corner of the estate's private car park, at the foot of a small bank on the edge of the woodland.
As I sat waiting, enjoying the peace and quiet, something suddenly caught my eye. At the top of the bank, edging the woodland, were several youngish sycamores, not much more than saplings. At the foot of one of these – a vigorous specimen with several upward-branching trunks – a miniature explosion of scattering water droplets appeared. I couldn't see the cause of this minifountain.
I watched, bemused, for some time. And then, suddenly, a blackbird hopped round my side of the tree trunk. "Ah," I thought, "so you are the perpetrator!"
He seemed oblivious to my watching him. His scale of reference and mine were as different, perhaps, as the child Winifred's and the self-important grandeur of her Howard progenitors. But what entertained me was the fact that this small Castle Howard inhabitant had no need of elaborate theatrical plumbing, or even a commonplace, human-provided birdbath, for his morning ablutions.
If Castle Howard is a grand verse epic in stone, the blackbird bath, in contrast, was no more than a haiku. But, as someone once suggested, big is not necessarily as beautiful as small.