A Downton Abbey Dinner Party
As we clamour around the TV to watch the last season of Downton Abbey, we wonder what can sustain our glamourous vintage cravings after the series finale. Why not dress up your dining room for a glorious Downton Abbey style dinner party, as a fond farewell to the show?
Of course there are many colour pallets and styles to choose from, but as always the devil is in the details. We’ve found some historically accurate top tips for throwing your own Edwardian dinner party to say goodbye to Downton Abbey in style.
The recently re-released book The Butler’s Guide to Running the Home and other Graces by Stanley Ager, who has been perfecting his trade over the last 53 years, is a recommended read by the historical advisor to Downton Abbey, Alastair Bruce OBE. The guide is edited by Ager’s former employer, Fiona St Aubyn, and has had significant influence over the instructions for the preparation of the perfect dinner party.
Of course, a properly set table will be the gracious backdrop for your well to do dinner. Only a white tablecloth is acceptable, which hangs midway between the table edge and the floor. Ager recommends placing a wool cloth under the formal table cloth to prevent any sliding.
Bishop’s Miter style napkins should be placed at each setting, along with a place card. The Bishop Miter style of folding is both the simplest and the most uniform, meaning that a Downton Abbey style dinner needn’t be difficult! Upon this table should sit a traditional formal setting placement, consisting of enough tools to aid a seven course dinner. A water goblet and two wine glasses accompany this placement for an evening of pure indulgence.
Ager and St Aubyn agree that both fruit or flowers may grace the table as a centrepiece, but not at the same dinner party. The smells of the fruit or flowers should not overpower the smell of the food, and it is for this reason they never appear together. If you would like to keep your dinner party as authentic as possible, only light your dinner party with candle light, or soft lampshades at the edges of the room.
Whether you have a vintage record player or not, set the mood for the evening with some early 20th century songs to compliment the soft candlelight. Seek out recordings of “Look for the Silver Lining” by Jerome Kern or “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)” by Nat D. Ayer, as both songs have been featured on the show. If you have a musically talented guest then go the extra mile, and find scores online at the British Library from the era.
Ager claims within The Butler’s Guide to Running the Home and other Graces, that it is the conversation, not the meal, which is the purpose of the dinner. For this reason, the seating arrangement at a Downton Abbey dinner party is crucial. The host and hostess sit opposite each other within the middle of the table, with the guest of honour sitting on the right side of the host. Around the table, the order should proceed man, woman, man, woman, with husbands and wives not sitting next to each other (the Edwardians presumed that the husbands and wives would appreciate an opportunity for fresh conversation!).
The romantic Edwardian setting should have your guests in the mood for a smooth drink to converse with before the dinner starts. Traditionally, pre-dinner drinks consist of a small glass of sherry or a cocktail, using a dark spirit as a base. The sherry is carried form the parlour to the dining room to sit with the soup course, and then this is replaced with a bottle of Chablis for the fish course. Variations of red wines are brought out with the entrees, meat course, game course and port with the entremets. If you’re still standing by then, finish your desserts with a bottle of champagne or madeira.
By hosting your own Downton Abbey style dinner party, you can truly appreciate the hard work which is put into the show by set designers, researchers, actors and directors. This magnificent method of dining is to be relished and celebrated, and maybe even subtly brought back forward to the 21 century, for a touch of long forgotten elegance.