maandag 22 oktober 2018

Views & Reviews Llife in an Aristocratic Country Estate A Place in the Country Chris Steele-Perkins Photography

Chris Steele-Perkins
A Place in the Country

For a long time I have been photographing England in a series of books and essays and for a long time I have wanted to photograph life in an English Country Estate. The country estate plays a huge part in the history of this country and is a staple of British fiction, both in novels and as film/TV productions. The latest being Downton Abbey, and probably the best known recent novel is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

However, the focus is resolutely on the past, yet the estates continue into the 21st century. This medieval institution has legs. I have long thought that a photographic document, over a year, of the people and activities of one such estate, from the Lord of the Manor , the family , the servants, the tenants, the gamekeepers, the activities, sports, visitors, changing seasons, of an historic country estate, would be fascinating.

Covering 25,000 acres, Holkham, in north Norfolk, has been the home of the Earls of Leicester since it was built between 1734 and 1764  and still remains in the family and is a very successful estate, continuing the older traditions of shooting and farming while embracing the newer activities of running a caravan park and hosting pop festivals. There are numerous other businesses including a hotel and a pub, restaurants and selling specialist paints. The grounds of the Hall itself, surrounded by a 12 mile wall and home to herds of deer, is open to the public most of the year, though the Hall, which is the family home and custodian of a fine collect of art, is only open on certain days.

Tom and Polly Coke (pronounced Cook) are the current Lord and Lady of the Estate and I was allowed unprecedented access to the place and the family, to photograph “a year in the life”. I was not paid and was given editorial freedom as an Artist in Residence  producing a body of work that is unique in providing an in-depth picture of a modern, family run, Great Estate. I am unaware of any other such work.

British, b. Burma 1947 Chris Steele-Perkins  moved to England with his father at the age of two. He went to school at Christ’s Hospital. At the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he studied psychology and worked for the student newspaper, graduating with honors in 1970 when he started working as a freelance photographer, moving to London in 1971. Apart from a trip to Bangladesh in 1973 he worked mainly in Britain in areas concerned with urban poverty and also sub-cultures. In 1975 he worked with EXIT, a collective dealing with social problems in British cities. This work culminated in the book Survival Programmes in 1982.  He joined the Paris-based Viva agency in 1976. In 1979, he published his first solo book, The Teds. He also edited, and purchased the images for, The Arts Council of GB”s book, About 70 Photographs.

Steele-Perkins joined Magnum in 1979 and soon began working extensively in the developing world, in particular Africa, central America and Lebanon,  as well as continuing to document Britain. He published, The Pleasure Principle, a work exploring Britain in the 80’s. In 1992 he published Afghanistan, the result of four trips over four years. After marrying his second wife, Miyako Yamada, he embarked on a long term photographic exploration of Japan publishing his first book of that work, Fuji, in 2000.  A highly personal diary of 2001, Echoes, was published in 2003, and the second of his Japanese books, Tokyo Love Hello, was published in February 2007. In contrast a black and white study of English rural life, Northern Exposures, was published in summer 2007. He is publishing a 40 year perspective on England,  “England, my England,” at the end of 2009. A study of British centenarians “Fading Light” was published in 2012.

Published on 17 March 2015

Chris Steele-Perkins – A Place in the Country

The owners of the estate, Viscount and Viscountess Coke with their children, right, Juno, centre, Hermione and Edward and left, Elizabeth

Chris Steele-Perkins’ exploration of life in an aristocratic country estate shows the oldest type of British culture trying to cope with the new. Ciaran Thapar reports.
“I liked Holkham because it had a foot in the real world,” says the Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins. “Country estates tend to be very isolated, so they could have politely told me to piss off.”
A Place in the Country covers Steele-Perkins’ twelve months photographing the 26,000-acre Norfolk home of the Coke family, whose ancestry have lived in the estate since the mid-18th century.
The book is a thoughtful, intimate nod to the traditions and beauty that define the English countryside – a part of life Steele-Perkins felt he had neglected for too long in his longstanding career as a documenter of British culture.
“I had touched on country estates around county Durham for my book Northern Exposures,” he says. “But I still always drove past the big walls of the grounds and wondered what really goes on within them.
“So I went in with a lot of curiosity, and left any expectations of clichés or stereotypes at the front gate. I made sure Lord and Lady Coke knew that, and they were very open to me being there.”
A huge autumnal oak tree sheltering hundreds of deer, cushioned by cloudy fog, dominates the cover photo. Stuck in seasonal transition, the scene is unquestionably English: it immediately roots the project in the green, dewy countryside.
The book moves between the hunts, dinners, corridors, and gardens that give Holkham its grand character, unveiling an ecosystem held in motion by the resident groups of individuals: the family, the visitors and the 200-plus members of staff. “I soon realised if I stayed with the workers – the household staff, the gamekeepers, the gardeners – I could touch every corner of life on the estate. They are all absolutely crucial to the functioning of the whole place, like the crew of a ship.”
With his shots of the more leisurely visiting public, the professional tone of the staff group portraits is inverted into laughter and movement; Pimms and lemonade, beach spades and kart-wheeling children. After all, as Steele-Perkins reiterates, Holkham is a thriving modern business as much as it is a symbol of royal antiquity.
“A lot of country houses are being taken over by the national trust, so to survive they need to adapt with the times,” he says. “At Holkham, they run the beach, rent out caravans and sell venison to a local butcher. And have you seen the website? It’s top end.”
Holkham estate thus achieves something very unique: it delicately balances traditional Britishness with a very modern entrepreneurialism. It is this adaptive quality that Steele-Perkins – himself a Burmese-born product of the commonwealth – admires most, particularly in the context of a globalising British landscape, in which outdated customs increasingly give way to new or imported cultural ingredients.
“Look at it in the larger paradigm of the country,” he says. “People don’t want to lose everything that is historically British, and at the same time don’t want to reject everything that’s new. In an ideal world, the combination of the two – new and old – produces a third quality, which is exactly what we should look forward to in a vibrant, multicultural society like ours.”
Steele-Perkins’ eye remains on Britain’s cultural evolution in his next project, The New British Family, which kicked off last year. The aim is to capture 198 group portraits of families in their homes across London, where he lives: one for each of the UN-recognised countries he believes are all represented in the capital. He records each subject’s story as he goes.
“I am learning so much about different immigrant families,” he says. It is, of course, a far cry from the acres of open lush grass and predominantly all-white faces of Norfolk, but it is still grounded in a similar fascination with the changing face of a nation.
“It feels to me that every country in the world is living here in London. It’s a historical turning point – and that is amazing.”
A Place in the Country is available to buy now. Find out how, and see more of Chris Steele-Perkins work here.

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