The latest in the series of volumes drawing on the incomparable architectural coverage in the Country Life photographic library is a visual treat. Those readers who remember Marcus Binney’s pioneering articles, with Alex Starkey’s photographs, on European houses in the 1970s will know what to expect, but for others these pages will come as a revelation.

The selected houses are the crème de la crème, the best surviving houses in Europe, with spectacular plasterwork, incredible staircases, dazzling textiles and lacquer and often still possessing intact art collections. The 25 houses selected range from feudal castles to royal summer palaces, villas, lodges and pavilions, and display many regional variations, from France to Germany, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Holland, and stretching in time from the late medieval Castello di Fenis in Italy to the early20th-century Villa Kerylos at Cap Ferrat, Côte d’Azur.

All the photographs were taken by Mr Starkey, Country Life’s last staff photographer, and include many magnificent, long-exposure colour shots, unlike the earlier volumes in this series, which were entirely black and white. The gradual introduction of colour into Country Life, now taken for granted, coincided with Mr Binney’s appointment as architectural writer in 1968, and the need to range more widely to fill the weekly architectural house slot. There were fears then that the supply of suitable British houses might soon be exhausted, a judgment which, fortunately, turned out to be unduly pessimistic, as the continuing architectural pages demonstrate.

One advantage of this book over the original articles is that limitation of space in the magazine prevented the colour photographs being reproduced on a scale to do them full justice. Their quality, as published here, is now fully revealed, and is a splendid tribute to Mr Starkey’s skills, while the text is a demonstration of Mr Binney’s lucid and scholarly writing. Great Houses of Europe would win my prize for the most beautiful architectural book of the year.

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