Magazine article The Spectator

Bring Back the People and the Dogs

Magazine article The Spectator

Bring Back the People and the Dogs

Article excerpt

ENGLISH MANOR HOUSES by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and Christopher Simon Sykes Laurence King, 40, pp. 236, ISBN 1865669221

The latest product of the fruitful Massingberd-Sykes partnership deals with 40 country houses of moderate size, dating, for the most part, from the Middle Ages to the early 17th century. Some of these houses have been continuously occupied by the same family, but many were abandoned by their owners when they moved off to grander or more up-to-date houses in the 18th century. They became farmhouses, or were left to decay. The years around 1900 were the great years of rediscovery, when old manor houses were bought and lovingly restored by sympathetic new owners, or the original families moved back into them, as they have continued to do. The fashion for all things Georgian has put such houses a little in the shade, but only a little, for they are lovable and livable-in places. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, with his eye for architecture and strong feeling for the qualities and vicissitudes of families, tells their individual stories with style and perception. Christopher Sykes's photographs have stimulated me to reflect on the history of country house illustration.

When I first started to work for Country Life in the 1950s, the photographs illustrating its country house articles were taken according to rigid and long-established principles. In each room the photographer (supplied with sketch plans on which viewpoints were marked with arrows, for he was seldom there with the writer of the article) cleared out the foreground and weeded out and rearranged the furniture. The room was carefully lit so that there were no dark corners; the ideal was an even, overall light and dramatic effects of sun or shade were avoided. Flower arrangements in large numbers were virtually compulsory, and a few books or ornaments were allowed to remain, tastefully disposed on chimney-- pieces or table-tops; but the owners' personal belongings were ruthlessly cleared away. The owners themselves were, of course, never to be seen; very occasionally, and with great daring, their dog was left in front of a fireplace, which was never allowed to have a fire in it. Outside gracious emptiness reigned under permanently sunny skies: entrance courts in which nobody arrived, gardens in which nobody walked, stable yards into which nobody rode, parks in which, if animals grazed at all, they did so as inconspicuously as possible. As architectural records the resulting photographs were invaluable; as evidence as to how the houses were lived in they had no value at all, and indeed were positively misleading.

Since then a more atmospheric school of country house photography has gradually developed, and it is to this that Christopher Sykes belongs. There may have been a little skilful rearrangement in some of his photographs, but on the whole they show the houses as they are lived in, from the attics to the back yard and not just in their showier parts. In 50 years' time they will vividly evoke the anti-minimalist life style of a particular class of owners in the years around the millennium. Moreover, as the interiors are all photographed by daylight, they are full of the light and shade that is part of their individual character. This can have disadvantages for architectural historians; chiaroscuro can almost efface details of decoration. But the book is not produced for architectural historians, and as compensation even for them are other details of plasterwork or carving modelled by daylight with the greatest beauty. …

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