The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)
‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.


Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

Aristocratic tenants of the National Trust; Shugborough House, Staffordshire

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The news that the area of Shugborough House open to the public is to ‘double in size’ with the inclusion of the Lichfield family apartment, is a reminder of just how advantageous some of the deals were for the owners who gave their houses to the National Trust.  The Trust today is perhaps almost best known for its country houses which form an important part of its work.  However the houses were not simply museums but, due to the often very generous terms under which the families ‘gifted’ the houses, they were often able to stay on in private apartments.

When founded in 1895, the original aims of the National Trust were very much focussed on the preservation of countryside with houses only coming later. The first house the NT acquired was Barrington Court, Somerset in 1907 but the unexpectedly high cost of maintenance and repairs meant that another wasn’t acquired for over 30 years.  With the first crisis period of the country house in the 1930s, leading to many demolitions, there was a growing realisation that the National Trust was well placed to rescue some of the threatened homes.  In 1936 they set up a ‘Country House Committee’ in response to the suggestion of Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian at the 1934 AGM that the NT should be able to accept the gift of country houses, with endowments in land or capital, free of tax. This new regime was then given legislative powers through the National Trust Act of 1937 with Lothian then providing the first donation of one of his four great houses, Blickling Hall with its 4,760 acres, in 1940. To help guide them, Country Life magazine was asked to draw up a list of those properties (which totalled 60 larger and 600 smaller houses) which ought to be saved for the nation.

Having created the legislative backing the NT was well placed in the second period of crisis in the immediate post-war period when the tireless, if not faultless, Secretary of the Committee, James Lees-Milne, travelled up and down the country persuading owners to part with their inheritance.  He was helped by the pernicious, and still highly damaging, death duties which, since 1904 had risen from 8% (for estates valued at over £1m) to 50% by 1934, leading to massive sales of land and contents to fund the demands of the ever-grasping Exchequer.  The multiple sets of duties levelled against the aristocratic families who had sometimes lost father and then son in WWI (and who had been particularly vulnerable as they were often officers and so first over the top) meant estates were inherited by an uncle with no deep connection to a house and estate who would happily sell up.  However, for some who were loathe to simply sell, the National Trust seemed to offer an attractive alternative where someone else would pay the maintenance bills whilst they were still able to live in the house.

The degree to which the family remained in the house was sometimes simply down to how well the family had negotiated with the NT and dependent on the chips they had to bargain with.  For some such as Lord Faringdon at Buscot Park where he retains ownership of the contents, this is powerful position as the house would be severely diminished without the collection of furniture and art.  For others such as Throckmorton family at Coughton Court and the Dashwoods at the glorious West Wycombe Park, long leases (250-300 years) ensure their continued presence.  For some, the pre-eminent importance of the house gave them the edge with Sackvilles at Knole, an Elizabethan treasure-house, living in a large section of the house and still owning vital parts of the house and the entire 1000-acre parkland.  At other houses, the family remain living in the almost the whole house but with almost all the rooms open to the public such as at Anthony where the Carew-Pole family have just a small kitchen and sitting room as their own.  For others such as the Hyde-Parkers at Melford Hall they were retained by the NT as the paid administrators of their own family home which is almost completely open.  Other families like the Lucy’s at Charlecote Park have just a private wing or simply a flat in a wing such as the Drewe’s at Castle Drogo.

For the grade-I listed Shugborough House, begun in 1695, the elegant enlargement and magnificent plasterwork and decoration by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart between 1760-70, ensured that the house would always be on the list of ‘major’ houses to be saved.  When the then Lord Lichfield gave the house and 900-acre estate to the NT in 1966 in lieu of death duties the agreement regarding the house only included the state rooms on the ground floor and a small section of the first floor with the rest was leased as private apartment for the family.  The rooms to now be opened include the Boudoir with original real silver leaf wallpaper dating from 1794, and the impressive Bird room which was Lord Lichfield’s private drawing room.  The 6th Earl of Lichfield has now surrendered the lease allowing Staffordshire County Council, who run the house on behalf of the NT, to include the rest of the ground and entire upper floors.

It may seem like a strange anachronism to have the donor family still living and enjoying the family seat (although they pay rent) whilst having the National Trust pick up most of the bills for maintenance. However, the family add a rich layer of history and their commitment to the care of the houses is second-to-none with their residence helping the houses avoid the awful fate highlighted by Philip Kerr that ‘nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums’.

Full press release: ‘Shugborough mansion is set to double in size‘ [Shugborough Hall]

Superb post by Fugitive Ink on ‘James Lees-Milne and the National Trust‘ [fugitiveink.wordpress.com]

Thanks to Andrew for original link.