Whether it’s the loose, creamy petal falling from a simple gathering of garden roses in the show’s opening credits, or the more formal towers of blooms arranged for the wedding of Lady Rose and Atticus Aldridge during the season five finale, flowers are ever present in Downton Abbey, the award-winning British period drama about the trials and tribulations of the Crawleys, those fictitious aristocrats now familiar worldwide, and the men and women who serve them. Aside from adding color and texture to the series’ already lush sets, seasonal flowers help paint a picture of life revolving around a great English country house in the early 20th century, explains Downton’s production designer Donal Woods.
Case in point: a fleeting scene in which one of the Crawleys’ gardeners wheels to the house buckets and buckets of fresh-cut purple tulips and yellow daffodils. Seconds later, we see footed bowls—just the sort advocated by Gertrude Jekyll in her 1907 book, Flower Decoration in the House—brimming with spring bounty across the Crawleys’ dining table. “With their vast gardens and glass conservatories, these houses historically had an abundance of flowers and potted plants to bring indoors,” says Woods.
Indeed, today at Highclere Castle in Newbury, where Downton is filmed, several glasshouses can be found harboring roses and fruit for the not-fictitious Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Considering the property’s expansive woods, parklands, flower gardens, and glasshouses, it seems Downton’s art department might be tempted to raid Highclere’s stash, but Woods says, “No, that wouldn’t be fair to Lady Carnarvon.” Instead, the crew brings in its own mix of fresh and silk flowers, the latter being an option when the fresh variety will likely perish before a certain scene is finished filming.
In general, Downton set decorator Gina Cromwell says, the arrangements seen throughout the family’s rooms at the castle are intended to have an uncontrived, timeless English country look. The amount varies by season and situation—less in winter and more during house parties—but three arrangements are usually placed in the drawing room and other living areas. Each “upstairs” bedroom receives at least one gathering of flowers. Rarer are flowers in the servants’ quarters, although eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed in season one that Mr. Bates surprises his burgeoning love interest Anna with dinner on a tray prettified with stems in a glass.
Occasionally specific period trends are referenced. “Modern audiences associate white flowers with weddings, but right after the devastating losses of World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu, white felt deathly, so brightly colored flowers were preferred,” says Woods. He and film and television industry florist Helen Byrne wanted to acknowledge this, so for characters Lavinia and Matthew’s anticipated wedding, timed around the war’s end, the team brought in orange and purple blossoms to fill the Crawleys’ sprawling entry hall. Ironically, though, despite the positive vibes of the upbeat hues, Lavinia herself succumbs to the tragic pandemic and never reaches the altar.
As the series has moved into the Roaring Twenties, the team has been able to dial up the glamour. (After all, while the country house is home base, the Crawleys and their servants do get to their house in London from time to time.) Season four, with its endless social whirl of balls and visits to jazz clubs, was fabulous for a set decorator, says Cromwell: “The flower arrangements needed to be bigger, creating a sense of decadence.”
While grander and more stylized arrangements evoke a cosmopolitan scene, they also on occasion serve a more utilitarian purpose—handily obstructing the reflection of the crew’s equipment in the antique mirrors found at the historic houses used for location shoots, notes Basildon Park house steward, Neil Shaw, who was invited to arrange flowers when Downton filmed at the National Trust property, thereby making Basildon the stand-in for the Crawleys’ London home.
Using garden-style silk flowers specifically chosen by Downton’s art department, Shaw created elegant arrangements for season four’s Christmas special, when Lady Rose debuts in London society, and for season five when she marries Atticus. Is it a bit daunting to arrange flowers for Downton? Absolutely, says Shaw. “Knowing that ‘my’ flowers were going to be seen by millions of people all over the world, I think that Christmas day 2013 was one of the most nerve-racking yet proudest days of my life.”
By Courtney Barnes