The critically-acclaimed costume drama “Downton Abbey” transports television viewers away from the cacophony of the modern world into the aristocracy of a British country estate a century ago. But there’s no need to stay couch-bound to delve deep into this British series that airs locally on PBS, nor does one have to hop a flight to England. As a new exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum shows, there are deep ties to the “real” “Downton Abbey” right here on the Seacoast.
The exhibit, “Downton Abbey — A Portsmouth Family’s Connection,” running through Dec. 1, explores the ties between the Portsmouth, N.H.-based Wendell family and Highclere, the home that’s used as a stand-in for the fictional estate of Downton Abbey.
“‘Downton Abbey’ is actually filmed at a place called Highclere Castle,” says Ronan Donohoe, one of the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s proprietors and curator for this exhibit.
For more than a century, Highclere Castle has been home to Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon, and the historical lives of its real-life residents sometimes mirror the fictional ones of the people who call Downton Abbey home.
Take, for instance, Catherine Tredick Wendell, granddaughter of Jacob Wendell of Portsmouth.
Catherine married the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, and the couple lived at Highclere, the stately home used in the series, from 1922 to 1936 (the fifth Earl of Carnarvon is famous for discovering King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922).
Like in the fictional world of “Downton Abbey,” the fortunes of American heiresses helped cash-poor, but titled young men hang on to their estates. In exchange, American women, like Catherine Tredick Wendell and the fictional Cora, Countess of Grantham, became countesses.
The exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum draws on letters and correspondence between members of the Wendell family. According to Donohoe, there are about hundred boxes of letters belonging to the family in the Athenaeum’s collection; the letters were written from the 1600s to the 1980s. He says that many of the letters related to the exhibit are from an English cousin through the 1920s-40s, who corresponded with Catherine while she lived at Highclere.
The letters detail the everyday goings-on of the aristocratic life at Highclere.
“Dinners parties and christenings and the ins and outs,” Donohoe says.
His favorite letter has shades of a “Downton Abbey” drama: It details the day a houseguest died when visiting Highclere, an event that caused the countess to faint three times.
Donohoe says it reminds him of a similar incident on the show, which caused the acid-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Dame Maggie Smith) to declare, “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner.”
The exhibit features letters, photographs and objects that belonged to that family, such as the Wendell family coat of arms, calling cards, furniture and a monogrammed seal. There’re also modern-day photos of Highclere from the current Earl of Carnarvon, and “Downton Abbey” plays onscreen at one end of the room.
Donohoe says he hopes the exhibit will draw fans of the show to the Athenaeum. But he also thinks the exhibit will have more universal appeal as well.
“Even people who don’t watch the show (will) find it interesting,” he said, adding an aside from the Athenaeum’s librarian, who says “It’s popular because everybody is a bit of a snob.”
If you go
What: “Downton Abbey — A Portsmouth Family’s Connection”
Where: 9 Market Square, Portsmouth, N.H.
When: Now through Dec. 1
Cost: FreeLearn more: 603-431-2538 or portsmouthathenaeum.org