What’s changed in 120 years of Country Life? Everything and nothing

Former Editor Clive Aslet has been connected with Country Life for all of his working life. Here, he explains how the magazine has managed not only to survive, but to prosper despite an ever-evolving cultural and political landscape.

For 120 years, Country Life has defied logic. Search the world and you will find no other magazine quite like it and nobody, these days, would dream of launching one based on its winning formula, yet it endures. At a time when the presses are ceasing to roll for many long-established titles, we continue to sell strongly, speaking out on British culture and causes we hold dear. We’re proud to be different. Eccentric? Yes, we admit it.

It’s often said that Country Life doesn’t change. Certainly, the spirit has remained consistent. The DNA was set early: long, scholarly articles on country houses and gardens, promotion of rural sports, an assumption that to live in an architecturally distinguished home surrounded by your own acres represents the summit of human existence and the famous Frontispiece. Did Edward Hudson, the printer who founded the magazine in 1897, know exactly how the child he brought into the world would turn out? I doubt it.

The family firm, Hudson and Kearns, established in 1831, had some downtime on its presses and Hudson thought a magazine would take up the slack. The first, Racing Illustrated, was a flop and, after a year, he folded it into his new publication, Country Life Illustrated. The first issue did contain images of a country house – Baddesley Clinton, in Warwickshire – yet still smelt strongly of the turf and kennels.

It was soon set on its feet. Within a few years, the country house had become central, if not paramount – the sun around which articles on gardens, collecting, sport, farming and the quiddities of rural life orbited like planets. Estate agents provided some of the all-important advertising.

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However, journalism works according to Darwinian principles, in which only the fittest survive. An organism that reproduces itself every week evolves to meet the demands and opportunities of its environment and the changing times. By the 1910s, beautifully illustrated articles on aristocratic mansions were complemented by ones on the Small Country House. These homes were not so small by today’s standards, but represented a new building type intended to accommodate the barristers, retired colonial officials, senior civil servants and City types of the recently emerged upper middle class. Supplements informed readers of the latest technology.

The advertisements – rarely bound with the magazine, but occasionally to be found in library sets – make compelling reading. Particular favourites are: ‘For every home the “Geeko” telephone. The Servant Problem solved by attaching these Telephones to your Electric Bells’; ‘The “Zero” Store Cooling and Ice Making Machine (‘Can be driven by Electric Motor, Steam, Gas or Oil Engine’)’; the British Portable Vacuum Cleaner operated by a maid – the astonished footman looks on, relieved that he now longer has to carry out the rugs for beating; and ‘Puccini endorses the Pianola’.

Gadgets that must have been an expensive curiosity became a necessary feature of many people’s existence, as they struggled to adapt to a different scale of life after the war. Spotting an opportunity, Hudson launched Homes and Gardens, from the Country Life stable, in 1919. We shouldn’t be surprised that Country Life embraced new domestic ideas – it had been, from the start, a progressive publication.

I know the claim may seem extravagant, but here is one of the paradoxes: a magazine that would now be identified with traditionalism and small ‘c’ conservatism initially reflected a way of life that was, like itself, hot off the press. Although it wrote about the great houses of the aristocracy, with their parks and grousemoors, the interest was principally historical and aesthetic.

Landed estates were struggling then. Farming would not fully climb out of the Great Agricultural Depression until the Second World War. One consequence was that landowners were willing to sell building plots to the coming men, who wanted a rural idyll, not a millstone around their necks, and Country Life told them how to achieve it. So far, so Arts-and-Crafts – a movement that was both radical and nostalgic. Early Country Life wrote extensively on new country houses, but studiously avoided those of the plutocracy – or, in modern parlance, bling.

Hudson, like his friend Edwin Lutyens, whose work he did so much to promote, was a practical romantic; much as he liked rose-gardening in Berkshire and his Northumbrian castle, he liked his Rolls-Royce, too. The magazine championed the early motorist, explaining how expensive but susceptible motors could be accommodated in the motor stable, complete with mechanic’s pit, of a country house.

Hudson fully subscribed to the Edwardian golf craze – the magazine is said to have been born on the golf course at Walton Heath during a game played with the Liberal-supporting newspaper proprietor Sir George Newnes and Lloyd George’s confidant George, later Lord Riddell, with not a Conservative in sight. (Riddell was also a newspaper man, being the owner of the News of the World.)

Country Life brought news, although its world was different and specific. It closely reported the adaptations required of country people by the First World War, promoted the work of war artists and took centre stage in the debate on the form that war memorials should take. It could cope with the 1920s – it survived the General Strike, rather liked the tweedy, albeit Conservative Stanley Baldwin and admired the fashions of the Jazz Age – but a wobble came in the 1930s when the International Style arrived.

Civilisation seemed to be at a crossroads and tradition was being increasingly rejected as a guiding light. After taking such a close interest in the First World War, an editorial decision was made to close its eyes to the Second. Don’t look to Country Life for an angle on the Swinging Sixties, either – there was other work to do, the magazine having become identified with the struggle of country house owners to soldier on, despite rot, damp, taxes and the cost of heating oil. It became detached from the mainstream of British culture.

Country Life re-engaged with national debates through the conservation movement in the 1970s. The fortunes of the country house reached a nadir after the oil crisis of 1974, although, eventually, the tide turned. In the 1980s, Country Life was no longer a Canute, but a Neptune bestriding the waves of Thatcherite prosperity, criticising excesses and celebrating triumphs. With the ‘Treasure Houses of Britain’ exhibition, shown in Washington DC, the country house became an international brand.

This was the great age of restorations by the National Trust, its eye guided and purse loosened by Architectural Editor John Cornforth, and of the most heroic campaigns of Save Britain’s Heritage, founded by Cornforth’s successor Marcus Binney and others in 1975.

Eventually, the old-fashioned machines were superseded by web offset and the magazine burst into colour. This change was followed by another shock for Ultras, many of them – as I, the new Editor, discovered from my postbag – living in the conservative states in the USA, when the No People rule was lifted in 1993. Previously, the magazine had portrayed the world as one that had been hit by a neutron bomb: buildings and gardens had been left standing, but all trace of living humanity was expunged.

An early beneficiary of this new policy was the Living National Treasures series, celebrating crafts that enrich British life – my favourite being the vicar who moved house on a bicycle (a specialist skill, I admit). Another leap of faith, amply justified, was a cartoon strip in the shape of Annie Tempest’s Tottering-by-Gently.

Change came to the ‘girls in pearls’. Early Frontispieces didn’t feature girls so much as people of note or Society ladies, often mothers, dandling children, who had no doubt just been presented to them by Nanny. By the 1980s, the tradition had long been to show engagement photographs, taken by a select stable of photographers, who sent them in to be considered for publication.

Our problem was the rise of the portable camera. By the 1980s, the tradition of the studio photograph was on its last legs; no one seemed to want those rather stilted photographs any more. During her editorship, Jenny Greene experimented with pictures of (older) women of achievement, even men, but her efforts did not answer. However, politically incorrect it may be to say so, readers wanted to look at young women.

As for engagements, they come later, if at all. Girls in their twenties are much more likely to be riding across the Atlas Mountains for charity, founding a business or pursuing a career in the Arts. The page was updated – modestly, one might have thought – but each incursion into the modern world, however tentative, was greeted as a landmark in social evolution: the first girl in jeans, the first bellybutton piercing, the first Doc Martens, Madonna’s cook – each was splashed across the newspapers. And there was the first nipple, in the first issue of our centenary year, 1997; in a fashion shoot by John Swannell, the model wore nothing but pearls. Pulses were set racing in White’s.

My time as Editor (1993–2006), was one of remorseless gloom for the countryside: rising rural crime, scant services, farming beset by BSE, foot-and-mouth, bird flu and the rest, a hunting ban interminably debated and then passed into law – these external factors were accompanied by a shift in mood music away from country-house exuberance towards metrosexual Minimalism and Cool Britannia. War (open and covert) was waged against tradition by New Labour.

The curtain has fallen on that era and lifted on another, presenting new challenges for my successor, Mark Hedges. He has to combine being ‘keeper of the nation’s architectural conscience’ and of editorial standards with more daring imagery, etiquette questions that resonate nationally, exclusives that only a magazine of this calibre can command and television programmes that don’t shy away from squeamish issues.

However, architecturally, 1,000 flowers still bloom, the country-house dream will never die, Country Life will always be a byword for taste and politicians still need to be prodded about what matters. Brexit will be tedious, but it brings a reassessment of what it means to be British.

A new morning – weather as yet unknown – will assuredly dawn for the countryside over the next couple of years and loyal readers can expect Country Life to make its voice heard. The magazine will face the issues of the day as they affect our world, as it always has. To borrow the wisdom of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.’