The architectural conscience of the nation
Country Life UK|January 05, 2022
Michael Hall, a former Architectural Editor and Deputy Editor of COUNTRY LIFE, looks back at the magazine’s formation of its architectural coverage from 1897 to 1939
Michael Hall

FROM the moment I walked into the office at COUNTRY LIFE in May 1989 for my first day as its new Architectural Writer, I was made aware that I was joining an august tradition. Over the desk of the then Architectural Editor Giles Worsley were pinned the intimidating words ‘COUNTRY LIFE is the keeper of the architectural conscience of the nation’, written by the Liberal politician Lord Runciman in 1913, when the magazine was already 16 years old. Although COUNTRY LIFE had, in the 1970s, left its purpose-built office in Covent Garden for a tower block on the South Bank, the Architectural Editor still used one of the armchairs that the architect of its old home, Edwin Lutyens, had designed for it in 1905. On my desk, sandwiched between shelves stuffed with the ‘Buildings of England’ and the thick volumes of The Complete Peerage, I found a welcoming gift from the senior Architectural Writer, John Cornforth —a copy of his recently published book The Search for a Style: ‘Country Life’ and Architecture 1897–1935, which he had inscribed ‘Welcome to the Boys’ Brigade’. The joke was—perhaps unintentionally—pointed: COUNTRY LIFE had appointed its first female editor, Jenny Greene, only three years before, but it was not to hire its first female Architectural Writer, Mary Miers, until 1998.

Cornforth’s book, the first scholarly account of the magazine’s architectural coverage, had been prompted by a project initiated by Miss Greene, the cataloguing of its enormous photographic archive, much of it then still in the form of glass-plate negatives. I arrived at a time when the magazine was showing a revived interest in its own history. It was only recently that academic attention had turned to the late-Victorian and Edwardian culture out of which COUNTRY LIFE had emerged, thanks in part to The Last Country Houses, published in 1982 by Clive Aslet, who had joined the magazine as an Architectural Writer in 1977 and, in 1993, was to succeed Miss Greene as Editor.

In the run-up to the magazine’s celebration in 1997 of its centenary, he launched a series of picture books based on the photographic archive. Researching the text for the first title, The English Country House: From the Archives of ‘Country Life’ 1897–1939, published in 1994, soon made me realise how quickly the magazine’s weekly article on a country house had taken shape. In the late 1980s I was inducted into a way of planning and writing those articles that had been set more than 60 years before.

Nobody who picked up a copy of an early issue of the magazine would have guessed that it was to achieve a reputation for scholarly articles on historic architecture or well-informed criticism of contemporary buildings—subjects that went hand in hand, as the magazine’s coverage of the former was intended to influence modern designers. When he founded COUNTRY LIFE in 1897 in collaboration with the publisher George Newnes, Edward Hudson knew what he wanted, but didn’t know how to achieve it. As the owner of a printing company, he was able to impose high production values from the start, but, although he wanted it to be a celebration of the beauties and values of the British countryside, he was neither an editor nor a writer.

The early articles on houses were by freelance writers with no special expertise. The first issue included—together with features on golf, the rules of association football and the Princess of Wales’s dogs—a brief article on moated medieval Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire. Its two photographs were accompanied by a page of evocative, but uninformative text by John Leyland: ‘Among all the counties of Great Britain there are few shires more famous for princely mansions and quaint old houses of old-lineaged English gentlemen than that of Warwick […] mailed knights have dwelt within their walls, fugitives in troublous times have fed to their secret chambers, cavaliers have knocked at oaken doors.’

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