Magazine article The Spectator

Scotland's Top Ten

Magazine article The Spectator

Scotland's Top Ten

Article excerpt

The Scottish Country House by James Knox, with photographs by James Fennell Thames & Hudson, £28, pp. 192, ISBN 9780500516553

It is no mean feat to produce a publication of the type that used to be described as 'a coffee-table book', devoted to the subject of great Scottish houses, and manage to find a fresh slant on a genre that has illustrated and described country houses for decades.

James Knox and his photographer, James Fennell, have succeeded in doing just that.

Whilst I might wonder if the coffee-table is still a must-have piece of furniture there is no doubt that this book is a feast for the eyes.

Images shot in natural light provide luscious accompaniment to the text which achieves an easy harmony of informative history with light-hearted family and personal references.

With dozens of houses and castles throughout Scotland to choose from, the selection of just ten must have been the first challenge for the authors. Whilst some are probably obvious (Bowhill, the House of the Binns), others are possibly less familiar (Balcaskie, Lochinch Castle), and it is a pleasure to see Dumfries House take its place in the middle of this cavalcade of superlative examples of Scottish architectural history from the early 17th to early 20th centuries. Dramatic intervention by the Prince of Wales in 2007 to prevent the sale of the house and the breakup of its contents allows us a rare chance to see, at Dumfries House, set in a bleak part of Ayrshire, a marriage between the exquisite architecture of the Adam brothers Robert and John, and an extraordinary collection of both Chippendale and Scottish rococo furniture commissioned specifically for the Bute family.

The second challenge for Knox was to create succinct text for each house. At a ratio of four pages of description to some 16 pages of lush photography he was on his mettle. An architectural historian with a nice eye for family history detail and, one suspects, more than a passing acquaintance with the owners, Knox is more than equal to the task, providing a colourful insight to the houses and their families from their early origins to the present day.

His writing is at once anecdotal (the 'ghastly paintings' at Ballindalloch turn out to be Spanish masterpieces) and a fluent description of key moments in Scottish architectural history, as in the creation of Arniston in Midlothian by William Adam, with its extraordinary stuccoed doubleheight entrance hall, for the Dundas family. …

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