The Dowager Countess of Grantham (pictured) shares the stories behind her favourite photos
1848: I must have been six years old when this portrait was painted. Goodness knows where Papa found the money to pay the painter, because although he was a baronet he was not a wealthy man at all. I don’t know why my granddaughters imagine I am opposed to female emancipation, because anyone can plainly see here that I am teaching my dolly to read
1860: When my husband Patrick took this photograph I never dreamed it would be published. Such décolletage! But now it’s 1927 and anything goes – and anyway, I am rather proud of it. I can perhaps see why some noble gentlemen – such as Lord Hepworth, who was notoriously badly behaved – sometimes appeared to forget I was married at all
1874: As a traditionalist I do think a woman’s place is in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there. I let my sense of fun run away with me when I met Prince Igor Kuragin at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. I was 32 and about to elope in this photo. Thank goodness the prince’s wife found out and sent me back to my husband. Years later, I met dear Igor again, but he had fallen on hard times – the Russian Revolution, you know
1910: Patrick and I had two children, Rosamund and Robert – this is me with Robert and his wife Lady Cora. I was a devoted mother… in my own way. The children would be washed, starched and ironed by the servants and sent to spend an hour with me – and it was an hour every day. I saw less of them when Patrick and I were travelling, which we did a lot. Patrick died about six years after Robert married his American heiress in 1890. I can’t say I approved, but Cora’s money was required to save the estate – and then the couple really did fall in love. I am prepared to concede that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose of pumping blood
1912: Here I am with my granddaughter Lady Mary. She’s quite an English rose, I suppose – but let me draw your attention to the sublime roses here, from my own garden. For many years I won the Downton Village Flower Show, although one year I arranged for Mr Molesley, my butler’s father, to win, because the poor man looked so disappointed to come second
1916: I do so approve of candlelight. It flatters a lady’s complexion and some ladies, such as my dear friend Isobel, do require it. (I am still not quite used to the idea that Isobel, having married Lord Merton, is now a baroness.) Candles are a rarity in many homes nowadays, owing to the popularity of gas lamps and electric light bulbs – but I couldn’t have electricity in my house. I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapours seeping about!
1920: I can pay Lady Cora’s mother Martha no greater compliment than this: when I am with this native of New York, I am reminded of the virtues of the English. And that is all I have to say about this photograph, thank you
1927: I thought I’d never be able to rise again after I curtsied to greet the King and Queen at Downton. Here are my granddaughter Lady Edith and I getting ready to meet them. I have not lived this long without picking up a few rules. One is to never complain, and never explain. Another is to take everything as a compliment. And treat life as a series of problems to be solved, first one and then the next and then the next, until at last we die. Which I haven’t yet
Adapted from the Dowager Countess’s own words, by Christopher Stevens. With apologies to Julian Fellowes and Maggie Smith.