The photographs (and photographers) who shaped the English country house style from the 1900s up to today

To coincide with the publication of his new book illustrated from the archives of Country Life, 'English House Style', John Goodall considers the long tradition of the magazine’s peerless interior photography.

To receive a Country Life photographer into your house in about 1900 was to invite disruption. Indeed, the experience was described by one member of the family at Audley End in 1926 as being ‘worse than burglars’.

Interior view of St Giles House in Dorset. Photograph by Paul Highnam/Country Life Picture Library

That’s partly because the magazine’s editorial team, eager to illustrate the history of interior style, began to demand that furniture in a room matched the period of its architecture.

The garden room at Compton End. The cottage was restored circa 1910 by G H Kitchin in the Arts and Crafts style. Photograph by Country Life Picture Library

As a result, the bric-a-brac of late-Victorian and Edwardian life needed to be stripped away. Alternatively, if a house was inadequately furnished, appropriate chairs and tables might be moved from room to room to illustrate successive photographs.

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The interior of Atkinson’s perfume shop at 24 Old Bond Street. Photograph by Arthur Gill / Country Life

No less disruptive, however, was the fact that photographers needed natural light to work. One Scottish chatelaine reputedly rounded a corner of her drive and was horrified by the sight of every mirror in the house laid out on the front lawn to reflect light indoors.

Pictures used in the Country Life Beautiful Rooms and Blushing Brides exhibition at the Linley Gallery April 5 – June 17 2017, Country Life photographer Alfred E. Henson up a ladder.

With the capacity for very long exposures, the quantity of light was less of a problem than the need for it to be diffused. Concentrations of light risked burning out sections of a photograph and this, in turn, demanded that windows be masked.

The central pillared hall at Belsay Castle. Each of the Ionic capitals was carved in cream coloured sandstone by a different local mason. The house was built by Sir Charles Monck between 1810-17. Photograph by A. E. Henson/Country Life Picture Library

The aesthetic ideal was of a 17th-century Dutch Old master painting, serene and timeless.

View of the main stair with its plasterwork by John Jenkins at Powderham Castle in Devon. Photograph by Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Such was the success of this photography that – despite being meticulously contrived – it has defined the popular image of the English country house. It also, as a consequence, often informs the modern arrangement of these buildings and their interiors.

The intricately carved staircase by Grinling Gibbons at Cassiobury Park. The house was built in 1546, remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries before being demolished in 1927.
Photograph by Country Life Picture Library

Country Life photographers still work in the aesthetic traditions of their predecessors, photographing interiors with natural light. Digital photography makes it possible to obtain the same effects without such levels of disruption, but the results distinguish the magazine’s pictures from any other.

Barbara Lutyens, daughter of Edwin Lutyens at Lindisfarne Castle. The 16th century castle was remodelled for Edward Hudson in 1902-3 by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Photograph by Country Life Picture Library.

This book draws together historic and modern photographs from the archive into an over-arching history of English interior style from the Middle Ages to the present day. At the present moment, when photography has been democratised to such an astonishing extent, its contents are a powerful reminder of what the professional’s eye can achieve above and beyond that of the amateur.

The Marble Saloon at Stowe House. It was designed by Giovanni Battista Borra between 1775 and 1778, with Georges-François Blondel and Vincenzo Valdre also contributing to the design. It contains sixteen red scagliola columns, supporting an entablature with carved satyrs in the metopes. This entablature is surmounted by a plaster frieze showing a procession of triumphant soldiers in high relief. The frieze supports a huge elliptical coffered dome which reaches a height of over seventeen metres. Photograph by Will Pryce / Country Life Picture Library

It proves that Country Life’s photographers continue to produce extraordinary images that rival, or even exceed, those of their predecessors.

‘English House Style from the Archives of Country Life’ by John Goodall is for sale now; click here for more detail. 

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