Sykes, Christopher Simon. The Golden Age of the Country House.

NY: Mayflower Books, 1980.

The English country house was a major social institution among the upper classes for a couple of centuries, up to World War I, when society and national political and economic life changed rapidly and dramatically. Because the aristocracy basically ran things, weekend parties at the country house had political consequences, too.

And the real heyday of the country house happens to coincide neatly with the invention and spread of photography, just before 1850. This volume nicely captures the experience and the people up to 1939, whether posed on grand staircases and lounging at lawn parties, or showing off horses and motorcars and even personal airplanes. (It’s nice to have lots of money and no income tax.) Some of the British aristocracy also were avid amateur photographers themselves. And since the upper classes set the fashion, there’s also a lot here for the student of costume and design. (The kids look uniformly uncomfortable.) The text is rather minimal but it explains satisfactorily who these people are you’re looking at and how they relate to one another — dukes and barons and honourables, mostly, with their wives and children, and the occasional visiting prime minister. (Lloyd George playing tennis awkwardly in a full business suit.) A lovely book.

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