How Chequers has changed — and stayed the same — in a century, as pictured in Country Life

We take a look at Chequers is now, and as it was 103 years ago, when Country Life visited following the decision by its previous owner to donate the country house to the nation.

Every Tuesday afternoon, we take a look back at an article from Country Life’s treasure trove of architectural treasures from the archive. Today, we look at some of the images from a series of pieces written about Chequers, the official country residence of the British Prime Minister. 

Chequers is the subject of a two-part piece by John Goodall in the May 6 and 13 editions of Country Life magazine. In October of 1917, it had similar treatment — albeit over three parts — by Avray Tipping, who told the tale of the house following the news that it was to be donated to the nation by Sir Arthur Lee and his wife, Ruth. The handover would not take place until 1921; ever since then the house has been the official country residence of the sitting prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Chequers has been the official country residence of prime ministers of Britain for a century.

Sir Arthur and Lady Ruth who had spent several years (and a small fortune) restoring the house to its original grandeur — and undoing work carried out a century beforehand which had transformed the original house with a series of Gothic flourishes which Tipping clearly disapproved of.

©Country Life Picture Library

Victorian Gothic architecture has a healthy following now and buildings such as George Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras are venerated. Yet Tipping clearly felt about it as many now feel about the concrete blocks of the late 20th century.

His view was by no means unusual at the time. Its architects were charged with hatred of beauty, and Oxford’s Keble College was labelled the ‘ugliest building in the world’. Yet even in this opening to his piece, he admits that the future may view things differently. Plus ça change

Chequers is to be the future country home of British Prime Ministers. Such is the generous and patriotic resolve of its present owners. Sir Arthur and Lady Lee came to this most delightful Buckinghamshire seat some ten years ago, and at once began conservative reparations. The principle on which they were broadly projected and admirably executed was to give back to the house, within and without, the full character and flavour of the times when it originated, while modern habits of life should find scope and gratification.

©Country Life Picture Library

Mainly built under Elizabeth, it had, as we know from family documents, escaped with scarce any alteration until a hundred years ago much money was spent in obliterating its history and its beauty under a pervading coat of mock medieval frippery, so pleasing to its perpetrators that the unhappy place was described in 1823 as ‘lately fitted up in the Gothic style with exquisite taste.’

What this exquisite taste was like future ages may still learn through the medium of photography. Such presentment will have documentary value for a future history of the rise and fall of Art, but the relegation of the stuff itself to the rubbish heap is not likely ever to be regretted. It is well to preserve examples of every phase of architecture and decoration. There is always the best of a bad lot.

©Country Life Picture Library

Nor must we forget that man is habitually unappreciative and destructive of what the next preceding generation has done, although later on it may again be valued. The Strawberry Hill manner may, therefore, have future devotees, but they should have left for them complete creations in that taste and not palimpsests set over a truer style.

For the Gothic of 1820 was not a true style. That surely may be stated, not as a passing whim, but as a permanent principle. It imitated in paltry and superficial fashion the forms of an age of which it ignored the spirit, the purpose and the methods. It was third-rate theatricalism; not well considered creation or copying.

So Chequers is well without it, for it has been replaced, as the illustrations show, by a careful return to sixteenth and seventeenth century models wherever the original fabric called for such owing to wreckage and defacement. Wholehearted has been the attention and affection which Sir Arthur and Lady Lee have bestowed on every department and detail that make up the full entity of this complex work of art.

Colonel Sir Arthur Lee and Lady Lee outside Chequers, pictured in 1917. ©Country Life Picture Library