Maroon, Fred J. The English Country House: A Tapestry of Ages.

Charlottesville, VA: Thomasson-Grant, 1987.

There are quite a few lavish volumes on the phenomenon of the English country house, and I’ve read most of them. It was a family home, rural retreat, setting for entertainment and political meetings, and a mark of standing in the upper classes, and while other countries have had something similar, developed over many centuries, the real “country house” is a purely English thing.

The author has graduate degrees in architecture but he makes his living as a freelance photographer, and while there is extensive text, this is unashamedly a picture book filled with full-sized color plates (though there’s also an Introduction by Mark Girouard). While he covers Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, Castle Howard, and others of the more obvious tourist Meccas, he also includes many less-known houses. There’s Gilling Castle, for instance, which has been a boy’s prep school since the 1930s, and the photo of breakfast time beneath the armorial stained glass windows is delightful. And the Palladian classic Holkham Hall, still the seat of the Earl of Leicester, has what appears to be a sprawling caravan park behind it. Haddon Hall is a surviving medieval building that sat untouched for a couple of centuries until the Duke of Rutland made its restoration his life’s work. A fascinating place. The Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House, in London, isn’t really a “country house,” but the intention behind its planning was the same.

In many great houses, the economic realities of postwar life mean that even when the family whose ancestors built the place remained in residence, it was at a much reduced scale. Living in more than a corner of a mansion is not only expensive, it endangers the finer contents of the rooms, and the earlier swarms of servants have most often been replaced by a single live-in couple and a daily cleaner or two. So there are a number of images here of middle-aged couples, the holders of ancient titles, with their adolescent children. But most of the photos are devoid of people, focusing on imposing rotundas, marble staircases, huge fireplaces, vast entry halls, statuary, antique armor, ancestral and royal portraits, and painted ceilings. Residing in a place like this, even in a small corner of it, must be like living in a museum.

If you’ve read as much in the subject as I have, you probably won’t gain many new insights from this book, but the quality of photography and the detail of the images will keep you absorbed.

Published in: on 5 May 2015 at 6:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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