When watching the Downton Abbey television series, viewers will immediately notice the grand and elegant entertaining style of Lord and Lady Grantham. There are simple breakfasts served most mornings from the sideboard or lavish multi-course dinners served very formally in the dining room or tea served in the drawing room, these scenes are all filmed for the television series on location at the real-life Highclere Castle (please see the photo below of the Highclere dining room) In this post I will discuss the entertaining styles shown throughout the series beginning in the first season during the late 1910s in the post-Edwardian era dictated by strict rules and traditions to the final season during the mid-1920s when social changes were happening at a rapid pace after World War I as England was moving into more modern times.
Back in England during the post-Edwardian period of the mid-1910s, a woman such as Lady Grantham would spend quite a bit of time planning a dinner party. Special care was taken in choosing the food and drink for the menu, selecting china, silver and crystal for the table service, flowers for the centerpiece and the seating arrangements for the guests. Entertainment was an important part of the aristocratic social life and it was also a way for gentlemen to conduct business away from the office. (The photo below shows the beautiful Downton dining table set for a formal dinner in season 3 episode 2)
For special dinners it was customary for invitations to be addressed and sent to the guests four to six weeks in advance. In general, the dinner time would start at eight o’clock in the evening and guests were expected to arrive at least fifteen minutes prior to the time indicted on the invitation for pre-dinner drinks. In contrast to the lengthy formal dinners lasting several hours during the Victorian and Edwardian times, by the 1910s there would a considerably shorter eight course meal lasting under an hour. Upon arrival, the guests would remove their coats and then proceed into the drawing room for pre-dinner drinks. (as shown in the photos below) Once all the guests had arrived they would go into the dining room and seat in very specific places depending on their rank and status. In general, the head of the house sits at the head of the table but in Downton Abbey Lord and Lady Grantham sit on opposite sides in the middle of the table. In either case, the guest of honor or most important man or women sits next to the host and hostess. (the photo below shows a typical Downton Abbey dinner with the guests seated at the table)
Each place setting would be carefully laid out defined by strict etiquette rules with the correct plates, utensils and stemware for the meal being served. (as shown in the photo below) On a more formal occasion, each guest would have a place card with their name and sometimes several menu cards with the each course written in French would also be placed on the table. Lighting for an evening meal would be keep low with candlelight and there would be floral centerpieces or perhaps fruit in silver or crystal bowls that could be eaten later during the dessert course. The meal would be served by butlers working their way around the table starting with the host or hostess, serving on the left side of the person and taking away used plates from the right side always in a manner that is quiet and without disturbing the guests or interrupting conversations. During each course the butlers will stand a short distance behind the table and keeping watch in case a guest should need attention. (the photo below shows Carson waiting to serve the guests in between courses)
At the conclusion of the dinner, the ladies would “go through” to the drawing room for coffee while the men would remain in the dining room for port, sherry or claret and cigars or cigarettes. Later the gentlemen would join the ladies and occasionally there would be entertainment in the evening and it could be laying cards, charades or other games. In the case of Downton Abbey it would be an invited Opera singer or perhaps a visiting Jazz band or music from the gramaphone. (the photos below show the various forms of after-dinner entertainment as depicted in Downton Abbey)
Here is a list of items needed to set a proper Downton Abbey-inspired table:
- Table pad or other cloth, goes underneath the formal tablecloth to keep it in place
- White tablecloth, length should hang with the end between the floor and the table edge
- White napkins, approximately twenty-four to twenty-six inches square. For a very formal table the napkins should be folded into the Bishop’s Miter style
- Place the plates, utensils and stemware in a formal place setting, if you are a real stickler for details you can use a tape measure for precise placement (look for an example in the photo below)
- Candlelight would set an enchanting mood; use long white candles that are slightly longer than the candlesticks
- Floral arrangements add beauty to a formal table but be aware that placement does not block the view of the guests. Fruit in silver or crystal bowls and fern or other greenery placed on the table are another alternative.