I was first employed by Country Life in 1953 and retired in 1987. I became their last staff photographer, succeeding the great Alfred E. Henson. The magazine’s offices were in Covent Garden, which was then an extremely busy flower and vegetable market where time had almost stood still since Hogarth depicted it – noisy, rough and slightly intimidating. Loading my car among the chaos outside the office always called for a bribe of half-a-crown to a rogue known as Winkle. Our office was on his ‘patch’ and he prevented ‘accidents’ such as punctures or knocks from the market’s wooden pushcarts, still then in use…
Bedlam outside, our office inside was Lutyens at his very best; the Editor’s sanctum was regal, Dutch flower paintings, chandeliers and superb antique furniture. My little darkroom was a large but beautifully finished cupboard.
Henson and I overlapped briefly and he taught me how to handle formidable butlers and housekeepers. This was crucial as photographers in a Stately Home were very bad news for the servants. Henson knew nothing about colour photography which was only just starting to be used in the magazine. In his day the magazine was entirely in black and white. I had to learn by myself how to cope with the, then, extremely slow film.
Exterior colour photography, unless it was windy, was fairly easy. Dimly-lit rooms inside, however, proved much more difficult as wide-angle lenses inevitably have to be ‘stopped’ right down on large format cameras. For full exposure, I did not need the proverbial ‘f/64 at a fortnight’. However, f/64 at an hour-and-a-half was not uncommon. This picture of Hatfield (Drawing Room) needed 60 minutes at least.
Lunchtime was the obvious answer. I locked all the doors, removed the lens cap and retreated to the dining room. By the time the coffee came I guessed the image would be ‘cooked’.
These formidable technical problems with early colour film – of slow speed and unstable colour balance ? gradually disappeared, and in the 60s and 70s colour printing became the norm in Country Life. Today digital technology has turned black and white photography into an almost forgotten craft.
Of all the houses I’ve photographed over the years, my most cherished memory was that of Erddig with Philip Yorke – the highly eccentric owner – before its restoration; It’s haunting madness still makes me laugh!
Another big change in the magazine during my working career involved travelling abroad to find great houses and palaces outside the United Kingdom for the magazine’s scholarly features. This trend was started by Marcus Binney in the 60s. When he was a boy he had travelled a great deal with his father and was extremely knowledgeable about Europe.
Marcus was intensely eager to visit and write about the many great continental houses, and John Cornforth, who was then Architectural Editor, was worried about running out of homegrown houses good enough to be featured in colour each week. Nowadays Jeremy Musson and his co-writers regularly travel worldwide on such quests.
From the 60s onwards, my partner, Veronica Hitchcock, and I were encouraged by successive editors to spend our holidays in far-flung countries in search of unusual and unspoiled subjects to furnish the magazine’s Summer and Winter Travel Issues. The arrangement suited both parties: not only did it prevent us from just flopping on tropical beaches, but it gave the magazine its main cover feature.
During my years at Country Life I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, most of Europe, and went to places as far afield as Iran and Sri Lanka. The Country Life Library reflects the work that I and other photographers, did for the magazine, Some of the photographers, like Charles Latham, Frederick Evans and A.E. Henson, were of international distinction, From Chatsworth (which took me five weeks to photograph) to tiny garden grottos, from winners at Cruft’s Dog Shows to the latest Aston Martin at Motor Shows, Country Life’s Photographic Library has them all, and they are available to public access at any time.