Every week, we move back to England along with the Downton Abbey cast and watch the final season of our beloved series with bated breath. While we still don’t know how the characters’ lives will unfold, we pause to look back at the Downtown Abbey’s Flowers that gave color to their world.
Whether it’s the loose, cream-colored petals falling from a simple bunch of garden roses in the opening credits of the series or the more formal towers of flowers arranged to celebrate the wedding of Lady Rose and Atticus Aldridge in the season five finale, flowers are ever-present in Downton Abbey, the award-winning British morality drama about the trials and tribulations of the Crawleys, those fictional aristocrats now known around the world, and the men and women who serve them. One scene’s seasonal flowers (hydrangeas, lilies, roses) add color and texture to the series’ already lush setting. Still, they also help paint a picture of the life around a grand English village house in the early 20th century, explains Donal Woods, production designer for the Downton series.
One brief example is a scene in which one of the Crawleys’ gardeners brings home buckets of freshly cut purple tulips and young yellow daffodils. Seconds later, we see bowls on legs – exactly the kind used by Gertrude Jekyll in her 1907 book Flower Decoration in the House – filled with spring treats on the Crawleys’ dining room table. “With expansive gardens and glass conservatories, these homes historically abounded with flowers and potted plants that could be brought indoors,”
Whether the English were born at court or not, they are known for their love of gardens. Ladies of English country estates held annual flower shows to benefit local charities, where townspeople showcased their gardening efforts. This is just one of many flower scenes in the Downton Abbey series. In the first season, the Dowager Countess is “encouraged” to relinquish the award for best flower in the village to the hardworking William Molesley.
Earl and Countess of Carnarvon
Today features several greenhouses growing roses and fruit for the non-fictional Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Given the extensive woods, parks, flower gardens, and greenhouses, it would seem that Downton’s art department might be tempted to search Highclere, but Woods says: “No, that wouldn’t be fair to Lady Carnarvon.” Instead, the crew brings its mix of fresh and silk flowers, the latter being an option when the new varieties are likely to disappear before the filming of a scene is complete.
English Village Look
The Downton set decorator, Gina Cromwell, says the arrangements in the family’s rooms at the castle are meant to have an unforced, timeless English village look. The number depends on the season and the situation – less in winter and more during house parties – but three arrangements are typically placed in the living room and other living areas. Each bedroom on the “floor” gets at least one bunch of flowers. Less frequently, flowers appear in the servants’ quarters, although astute viewers noticed in the first season that Mr. Bates surprises his budding love, Anna, with dinner on a tray decorated with stems in a glass.
World War I and the Spanish flu in 1918
During World War I and the Spanish flu in 1918, White gave the appearance of death, so flowers in bright colors were preferred,” – Woods says. He and Helen Byrne, a florist in the film and television industry, wanted to confirm this, so for Lavinia and Matthew’s highly anticipated wedding, which was scheduled to take place near the end of the war, the team brought in orange and purple flowers to fill the Crawleys’ sprawling entrance hall.
Ironically, despite these cheerful hues’ positive vibes, Lavinia succumbs to a tragic pandemic and never makes it to the altar.
Flowers played a role in on-screen weddings, both upstairs – Lady Mary with Matthew Crawley – and downstairs – in Anna and Mister Bates’ hasty civil ceremony. As the series moved into the 1920s, the crew was able to turn up the glamour. (After all, though the farmhouse is the home base, the Crawleys and their servants occasionally go to their London home.) With its endless social whirlwind of balls and visits to jazz clubs, Season four was fabulous for the set decorator, says Cromwell: “The floral arrangements had to be bigger, which gave a sense of decadence.”