A little 'Downton' in Binghamton

2013-12-16

BINGHAMTON, NY – Fans of Downton Abbey are eagerly anticipating the U.S. premiere of Season 4 on Jan. 5, when the British television drama resumes with events unfolding in the early 1920s. A trip to the Binghamton University archives offers a glimpse of what may lie even further ahead for Highclere Castle, the real-life estate featured on the show.

Tilly Losch, a dancer and artist, married Lord Porchester, the sixth earl of Carnarvon and heir to Highclere, just before World War II. Her personal memorabilia is part of the Binghamton University Libraries' Special Collections.

Highclere, which is still home to the Carnarvon family, stands in for the fictional Downton Abbey on TV. Beth Kilmarx, curator of rare books at Binghamton, recently made a connection between Losch’s papers and the show. She and a colleague were speculating on whether the collection contained some hidden treasures when she stumbled upon a letter addressed to Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle.

There are many parallels between reality at Highclere and the events that have unfolded on screen. The castle served as a hospital during World War I, for example, and a member of the household staff was diagnosed with a serious illness that attracted the attention of the wealthy family for whom she worked. "I don’t think she realises how serious a complaint it is," the head of staff wrote to Losch, who was traveling abroad. "She is having deep X-ray treatment at the hospital, and will have to go to London each week to continue it."

But the most significant parallel might be the romance between the head of the aristocratic family and a foreign beauty. At Downton, this is the Earl of Grantham and his American wife, Cora. At Highclere, this is Lord Porchester and Losch, who was born in Austria.

C.I. Stubbings, a sort of secretary/head of staff at Highclere (think of a female version of Downton’s Carson), remarked on the earl’s affection when she wrote to Losch in 1941. "It will be no news to tell you how much his Lordship is longing for your return," she wrote. " . . . He misses you terribly, and seems more lonely every day. . . . I don't know what will happen to him if you do not come soon!"

The marriage (the second for both) didn't survive their wartime separation, and Losch's letters to the Carnarvon Estates Company provide a view of her situation as a socialite in post-war America. At one point in 1947, she sent a four-page list of her wardrobe to Highclere with a request that items be shipped to her. The list includes five evening dresses, 11 pairs of gloves and "all French high heel shoes."

Losch and the earl remained on friendly terms throughout their lives. After the divorce, he continued to write to her as "My beloved Tillykins."

Neither ever remarried.

To view the corresponding video, click here.

About the Collection

Binghamton University's Tilly Losch Collection spans the years 1907-1975 and includes correspondence, personal memorabilia, diaries, photographs and 300 of her paintings. Among the 18 linear feet of material in this collection are letters and telegrams from actress Joan Crawford, U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits, composer Cole Porter, journalist Walter Winchell and other celebrities of the day. Losch owed her start as a choreographer to Max Reinhardt, an Austrian theatrical producer and director. In her will, she donated her papers, photographs and paintings to the Max Reinhardt Archives at Binghamton, linking her legacy to that of her former mentor. 

Last Updated: 9/17/13