Harewood House travels back to the 1920s to celebrate Christmas

PUBLISHED: 09:42 27 November 2018 | UPDATED: 09:42 27 November 2018

The Christmas tree stands proudly on the main staircase

The Christmas tree stands proudly on the main staircase

Andy Bulmer

George and Gerald are determined not to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Tucked up snugly in bed, they want to stay awake to see if Father Christmas brings them a little something for being good boys all year long. Gerald has his fingers (and toes) crossed for a fire engine.

Eventually, however, the warmth of their bed sheets and the velvety darkness of the night lull them to sleep, their dreams richly decorated with festive magic, a red and gold tapestry of imagination and reality peppered with starlight and sleigh bells and ice crystals that shine like gem stones.

Renowned art director Simon Costin has taken these imagined imaginings from the minds of the real-life George and Gerald Lascelles to create this year’s stunning Christmas adventure at Harewood House in Leeds.

Putting himself in the small, probably slightly scuffed shoes of seven-year-old George, the future 7th Earl of Harewood, and six-year-old Gerald as they enjoyed their first Christmas at Harewood in 1929 after spending their early years at Goldsborough Hall, near Knaresborough, he has designed a multi-layered, festive dreamscape to bring out the child in all of us (honestly, if you don’t clap and do an excited little skip when you see his vision, you are definitely on the naughty list).

Simon has previously collaborated with Faberge, Tiffany, Stella McCartney and, most famously, Alexander McQueen, so it’s quite a coup for Harewood. But you can also see why he agreed to the commission – the house is undoubtedly the biggest set he will ever design.

The kitchen prepares for Christmas Photo: Mark HemmingwayThe kitchen prepares for Christmas Photo: Mark Hemmingway

‘Simon spent three days with us,’ said Harewood House Trust director Jane Marriott. ‘I saw him walking around holding his phone low to the ground, filming at around knee level. I couldn’t quite fathom what he was doing at first but it emerged that he wanted to see the house from the boys’ point of view. What details did a seven and six-year-old see that the adults around them missed?

‘When he revealed that the children were key to his theme, it seemed like the perfect fit. Whether they live in a big house or a cottage in the village, all children are excited by Christmas.’

Despite their privileged upbringing as the sons of the 6th Earl and Princess Mary, third child and only daughter of King George V, George and Gerald were still just little boys who believed in Father Christmas, who wished for gifts in their stockings and who wrote sweet thank you letters to ‘Grannie’ (or Queen Mary as she was more commonly known).

Photographs of them playing with their toys, walking in muddy boots around the estate and posing hand-in-hand, their faces set rather earnestly, will be on show, alongside letters to and from the boys that often end with ‘big hugs’, as part of Harewood’s Christmas celebrations from November 24th (there’s a preview on the 23rd for members) until January 6th.

Toasted marshmallows are a special treatToasted marshmallows are a special treat

These small bursts of black and white reality make Simon’s interpretations of what George and Gerald might have been dreaming on Christmas Eve 1929 even more fantastical in comparison.

A four-metre-high willow Pan, inspired by Chippendale’s child-height carvings on furniture legs throughout the house, morphs into Father Christmas in the gallery; Princess Mary’s wedding dress is transformed into a Christmas tree adorned with Swarovski crystals; a winding road of yellow blooms reflect the boys’ memories of seeing the original Wizard of Oz in 1926; and a window left ajar in the library leaves the entire room sparkling with ice.

These are just a few edited highlights of what Harewood has in store this Christmas – the second season it has opened in December after a hiatus of five years or so.

‘This house was built to be a piece of theatre,’ said Jane. ‘It’s a place to show off and entertain. When I arrived in February 2017, it seemed obvious to me we had to share the beauty and nostalgia of this living, breathing family house at Christmas.’

Gerald did get a fire engine for ChristmasGerald did get a fire engine for Christmas

Harewood’s magical Christmas follows on from its Seeds of Hope exhibition, which took visitors back to the First World War, as seen through the eyes of ‘Bothy Boy’ John Hobbs, a hard-working gardener at the house.

‘We knew we wanted Christmas to have a strong 1920s theme so we could reflect the hope and optimism of the decade after the war,’ said Jane. ‘It was also a particularly celebratory time for the family as it is when the Earl married Princess Mary, they had the boys and the family came home to Harewood.’

As well as Simon’s magical imaginings, there will also be stacks of gingerbread, baked with a great deal of help from Harewood’s ever-enthusiastic – and seemingly inexhaustible – brigade of 200 volunteers, willow-weaving and wreath-making workshops, twilight tours and, of course, meet and greets with Mr and Mrs Claus, who will welcome children into their private cottage for stories, songs, treats and gifts.

The Harewood team gives itself just two-and-a-half weeks to install Christmas – a big ask when you are bringing children’s dreams to life – but after the success of last year’s festive hoopla, they are confident the house and grounds will be at their twinkliest.

George and Gerald's copy of Alice in WonderlandGeorge and Gerald's copy of Alice in Wonderland

‘It was a bold step to open for Christmas last year and people were understandably nervous,’ said Jane. ‘This year, however, excitement and confidence levels are high.’

And what of her own festive celebrations? Doesn’t a whole month of Christmases (plus the months spent planning and plotting) make her feel a tiny bit Scroogey?

‘I did wonder whether I would be completely Christmased out but, if anything, it makes me more excited than ever,’ said Jane. ‘It’s also made me up my game at home – well, I’ve got a lot to live up to now, haven’t I?’

Finally, for those of you still holding your breath, Gerald did get a fire engine for Christmas. And George got a canary, for which he sent a special thank you in his very best writing to Grannie. u

Harewood House is open for Christmas from November 24th to January 6th, 10am to 6pm. It will close early on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and will be closed completely on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. For tickets, visit harewood.org

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