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.