England’s Lost Houses: Photographs from the Country Life Picture Library
An exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum from 21 June to 21 September 2002
Sponsored by Christie's
It is estimated that as many as 1,700 English country houses were lost during the 20th century, about one in six of those standing in 1900. The roll call of fallen giants includes 110 magnificent buildings recorded in the pages of Country Life magazine. The houses are gone but the haunting photographs remain, and this exhibition will feature twelve of the most important houses to be recorded by Country Life photographers that have subsequently been demolished or lost important interiors. The exhibition is accompanied by a major new Country Life publication,'England's Lost Houses' by Giles Worsley.
For centuries the country house had lain at the heart of England's political and social system. By 1914 that had changed. Landowners had lost political power, and at the same time a prolonged agricultural slump and collapsing land prices put many under severe financial pressure. This was made worse by death duties and rising income tax. The financial burden of owning and maintaining a county house meant that numerous families, either unable or unwilling to struggle on, sold up. Many of their houses found other uses but all too often they were demolished.
The Country Life photographs featuring in this exhibition form a vital record, often the only record, of those lost houses. But they are more than just documentary records. Country Life's photographs were a vital influence in changing tastes and in attitudes towards country houses in the 20th century. They are also often in their own right works of great beauty, and this exhibition is a tribute to those generations of photographers, many now little more than names, who served Country Life.
Whilst charting the unhappy history of the country house in the 20th century, this exhibition will also strike an optimistic note; after all it is now some 30 years since the last great house was deliberately destroyed. With the wave of demolitions a receding memory, this is a chance to assess the losses, and attempt to answer the question, why were so many destroyed?
Exhibition guide available on request