Thursday, January 14, 2010

'ateful and 'ideous

"One of the imbalances, indeed injustices, of Country Life is that while authors on the staff have had their names at the top of country house articles since 1942, the staff photographers only started to receive acknowledgement at the end of the articles in 1970. As a result of this far too little is known about them. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Charles Latham, who, as founder of the Country Life tradition of architectural photography, had an extraordinary wide influence on the way people in England were to look at buildings....

"Latham was a brilliant photographer, and took many of the photographs of City churches, country house and gardens for Country Life and for us. His talent went with a red beard and an entire absence of the letter H. Once he went to take photographs of a fine house which had been ruined inside by Victorian meddling. Latham hobbled into the room, stared around and said to the owner, " 'ateful and 'ideous. I'm glad I kept my cab." Then he stumped out."

It was the phrase "Victorian meddling" that first caught my eye in John Cornforth's marvelous The Search for a Style: Country Life and Architecture, 1897 - 1935. I'm still in the grip of a mini Lutyens enthusiasm, and it was that phrase that got me thinking about my ambivalence about the liming of the Deanery Garden woodwork: I know I like the effect, would not have had the courage to order it done. Where, I wonder, is the line between improvement and meddling?

I have no ambivalence about the alterations Lutyens made to the rooms you see here: a drawing room and bedroom belonging to Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life, at 15 Queen Anne's Gate, an eighteenth-century house in London. Lutyens can be a bit grand and austere, though never forbidding, and in these understated rooms he is at his most intimate.

There is no way of knowing what the drawing room was like before the alterations: the original replaced by a convincing and aesthetically pleasing version of the eighteenth century, so perhaps it is this circumstance together with the fact they are Lutyens' amendments that prevents offence.

It seems that Lutyens based the design of the bed on that in Carpaccio's Dream of St. Ursula.

Photos of drawing room and bedroom from London Interiors: From the Archive of Country Life, John Cornforth, Aurum Press 2000, and The Search for a Style: Country Life and Architecture, John Cornforth, W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Quotation from The Search for a Style: Country Life and Architecture, John Cornforth, W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Photographers unknown.


  1. I may add that to my first appointment rejoinders- Honestly I have never been able to be'ateful but I have seen 'ideous in my early years on the job! I agree about the tampering-I do think each generation has to stamp-change and do things(time will tell which was best) I treated myself to the Cornforth book you reference her right after Christmas.How amazing is that Carpaccio room- I imagine that canopy run to be fabric-do you think it is wood?

  2. I think the line between improvement and meddling is whether you want to live in a museum or your house.

  3. Columnist - I agree. I remember when I was a graduate student I questioned the concept of authenticity in historic preservation, really just for the sake of discussion, and the instructor was so offended and became so offensive I dropped the class.

    Little Augury - fabric, though painted with all the stiffness of wood. The Search for a Style is an excellent book.

    Thank you, both.

  4. I SPY: Hudson was at one time the owner of the famous "Loop Chairs" as seen in these rooms. See links for the whole story.

  5. I think "meddling" frequently happens and, oftentimes, for the better. It is, after all, the interpretation of the artist (painter, photographer, etc.) who has been assigned to translate.

    It is rather well known, for example, that the images captured by photographer, Julius Shulman, were instrumental in ushering in California Modernism and helping to shape the careers of influential 20th century architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and John Lautner. I think it would be fair to say that history considers him modernism’s most eloquent ambassador and it was his individualistic styling and staging (meddling if you will) that presented a uniquely different perspective and appreciation.

  6. Charles Latham sounds like an interesting old codger. I notice that illustrators are not always credited either. Pity!
    To stay alive, buildings have to be transformed through time but respectfully by those who are in tune with the aesthetics of the place - not those bent just on up-dating. For having worked on historic reproductions, I can say that many don't want to budge from their ideas about a period which are often wrapped up in misconceptions!

  7. I've posted a subject related to the Carpaccio painting and linked up to your post!