Britain’s most beautiful rooms, captured by Country Life for 120 years

John Goodall explains how Country Life’s earliest photographers pioneered the art of capturing Britain's most beautiful rooms. To celebrate our 120th anniversary, highlights will be on show at Linley from April 6 until June 17.

‘It was worse than burglars,’ recalled the Hon Mrs Ruck, describing the visit of the Country Life photographer Alfred E. Henson to Audley End, Essex, in 1926.

When photographing a house, Henson took control of everything. On arrival, he would imperiously silence the butler with a long list of demands for chemicals, a stepladder, a mop, a bucket and a strict timetable for refreshment. Then, he would create a temporary darkroom somewhere inside the building for the development of his glass plates.

Constrained by the weather and the availability of natural light, he crafted interior photographs with brilliant technical skill, sticking printed signs on doors to prevent disturbance and waiting hours for the optimum moment. In addition, however, he ruthlessly reordered the furnishings of rooms, introducing or removing chairs, tables and potted plants.

england's most beautiful rooms

By nailing sheets over the windows of Rufford Hall, Cheshire, the photographer Arthur Henderson diffused the fall of natural light to create the perfect internal shot

This organisation of rooms — what we would now think of as styling — was done with a clear purpose at the exacting direction of the architectural editor Christopher Hussey, who began work for the magazine in 1920. Hussey not only wanted beautiful images of houses—which the magazine had already been publishing for more than 20 years — but ones that made aesthetic sense of the interiors they recorded.

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He wanted Country Life to trace the evolution of British taste through the creation of intellectually and aesthetically coherent illustrations. To this end, he demanded that Georgian or Tudor rooms display furniture appropriate to their period, not Victorian bric-a-brac.

Modern owners of country houses hopefully find the visits of Country Life photographers today more congenial than the Hon Mrs Ruck. Certainly, times have changed. Even by the 1970s, the desire to reorder interiors was subsiding, to be replaced by an interest in recording houses as homes with eclectic collections.

“The quality of Country Life’s architectural and interior illustrations eclipses all competition”

The magazine, meanwhile, gradually switched to colour, although it was remarkably slow to adopt this technological shift throughout its pages; as late as 1992, there were still occasional architectural articles illustrated in black and white. More recently, photography itself has passed through a digital revolution that has transformed its practice.

Country Life photographers still seek to make aesthetic sense of the interiors they work on in order to show them to best advantage. They once again rely today almost exclusively on natural light. This helps capture the spirit of rooms and distinguishes Country Life’s photography from the brightly lit interiors beloved by so many magazines.

For these reasons, and because of the painstaking care with which our photographers work, the quality of Country Life’s architectural and interior illustrations eclipses all competition. Week by week, our photography continues to trace the changing face of domestic architecture across the full extent of the British Isles, both historic and newly completed.

As the magazine celebrates its 120th birthday, it’s impossible to imagine a richer or more magnificent source for tracing the history of British interior taste than our archive.

England's most beautiful rooms

The 1930s entrance hall of Eltham Palace was created for Stephen and Virginia Courtauld by the Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer. The walls are covered in veneer that is inlaid with imagery. Visible here are a Roman, a Viking and views of Italy. This photograph was published in 1937 and has been used for the modern re-creation of the space

England's most beautiful rooms

The hall at Deanery Garden, the house built by Edwin Lutyens in 1901 for the founder of Country Life, Edward Hudson. This 1903 photograph of the main hall exemplifies his tastes and those of the magazine in its early years. The timber framing of the interior underlines the popularity of vernacular Tudor architecture as a British style. Here, the oak framing is thrown into contrast with infill blocks of chalk. The Arts-and-Crafts movement delighted in such contrasts of natural materials crafted by hand. Hudson was a keen collector of 17th-century furniture and this view shows some choice pieces. The photograph is naturally illuminated in the manner of a Vermeer painting, a Dutch master also greatly admired at this time

England's most beautiful rooms

In 1902, Country Life adopted and briefly ran a London magazine called The King, in which this photograph of the conservatory of 75, South Audley Street was published. The furnishings—cane chairs, woven floor matting and oriental fabrics as well as the exotic plants—illustrate the commercial reach of the British Empire. The mirrors set in an arcaded trellis to the rear reflect the billowing fabric that shades the interior and the bow of the house

England's most beautiful rooms

The living room at Bentley, Sussex, photographed in 1940. This Modernist house was built with a foundation and chimneystack of brick; otherwise, it was constructed of timber and glass. The walls are covered in walnut veneer with sliding panels and a cork floor. It was designed by the architect Serge Chermayeff in 1939 as his own home

England's most beautiful rooms

Set on a moor, Gribloch House, Stirlingshire, was completed in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. The house was designed by Basil Spence, with some assistance from the New York architect Perry Duncan. The oval hall shown here is the pivot of the house plan, its unsupported stair curving through a tall window with spectacular views. Despite the Modernist character of the design, the architecture has a strongly neo-Classical flavour. The interior, designed by John Hill of Messrs Green and Abbott, was decorated with strong colours, a reaction against the 1930s fashion for off-white. This photograph was published in 1951

England's most beautiful rooms

From the early 20th century—and fired by American example—bathroom arrangements in Britain grew steadily more sophisticated. This shower cage at Ardkinglas, Argyllshire, was installed by Lorimer in 1906 and still survives in the house; the tiles are different shades of green and white. The cage was evidently regarded as a technological wonder when this photograph was taken in 1911. Curiously, however, it was never published

England's most beautiful rooms

The Tudor barn at Feeringbury, Essex, photographed in 2012. Rather than strip out the industrial additions made to this building in the 20th century—such as the two silos visible here—the present owners incorporated the ancient and the modern fabric into the converted building to create a stylish new home. The project was overseen by Hudson Architects and much of the work was done by the owner, Ben Coode-Adams

England's most beautiful rooms

The 18th-century dining room at Wimborne St Giles, Dorset, fell prey to dry rot in the 20th century. As a result, sections of the panelling and plasterwork had to be removed. The interior has recently been restored in a way that makes apparent the damage, with paintings and furnishings placed over the stripped brick-work. Even the broken cord of the central chandelier remains. The overall effect is both distinctive and striking as this view, taken in 2016 illustrates. Photograph by Paul Highnam

England's most beautiful rooms

A vision of the 2000s: the entertainment room at Aynhoe Park in 2008, hung with a collection of contemporary photographs. In the past decade, it has become increasingly common to find rooms in historic country houses dedicated to contemporary art. The five-fold Venetian mirror was commissioned for the room. Photograph by Paul Barker

‘Beautiful Rooms & Blushing Brides: 120 Years Of Country Life Photography’ features interiors and frontispiece photography from April 6 until June 17 at Linley Belgravia, 60, Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8LP (020–7730 7300;