A place in the country: Holkham Hall

Holkham Hall
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Photographer Chris Steele-Perkins explores Holkham Hall in North Norfolk in his new book

Holkham Estate in Norfolk is about 26,000 acres. Lord and Lady Coke in their family kitchen with some of their children.
Holkham Estate in Norfolk is about 26,000 acres. Lord and Lady Coke in their family kitchen with some of their children.

 

Lord Thomas and Lady Polly Coke with their chidren, right, Juno, centre, Hermione and Edward and left, Elizabeth
Lord Thomas and Lady Polly Coke with their chidren, right, Juno, centre, Hermione and Edward and left, Elizabeth

Having spent a great deal of his photography career documenting life in England, Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins was determined to further his exploration by recording one of the country’s historic estates. Chris was intrigued by the houses which lay behind the high walls he often passed, and was keen to see whether truth lay in the clichés and stereotypes. Gaining access to an estate like this would not prove to be easy, but luckily the HHA was on hand to suggest some of the members we thought would be well suited to the project.

 

Gamekeepers, From Left, Austin Pinney, Steve Herrieven, Daniel Yeates-Cornwall, Head gamekeeper Kevan McCaig, Martin Joyce and Glyn Ingram.
Gamekeepers, From Left, Austin Pinney, Steve Herrieven, Daniel Yeates-Cornwall, Head gamekeeper Kevan McCaig, Martin Joyce and Glyn Ingram.

The property of choice was Holkham Hall in North Norfolk, home to the Coke family, the Earls of Leicester: Lord Coke (Tom), his wife Polly and their four children. When approached, Lord Coke realised it would be an opportunity to show an unbiased reality of life inside a country house. It also seemed like an ideal chance for a modern version of the paintings of the Hall’s staff which were undertaken by Andrew Festing in the 1990s and which hang in the Old Kitchen. What ensued was a project which lasted just over a year, with Chris staying in the house for four or five days at a time and engulfing himself in the world of the family, the staff, and their guests. The endeavour has culminated in a beautiful and poignant hardback book entitled “A Place in the Country”, and an upcoming exhibition which will be held at the Hall.

 

Cricket match in front of the Hall. Holkham vs Linconshire poachers
Cricket match in front of the Hall. Holkham vs Linconshire poachers

Holkham Hall, a Palladian style 18th-century house, was built by the first Earl of Leicester and has been continuously lived in by the Coke family since the 1750s. Chris wondered how a house of this magnitude had survived and was drawn to the young family tasked with the running of this enormous property. Despite being a traditional country house in some ways, with its staff, pheasant shoots and formal dinners, Holkham actually houses 21 different businesses and regularly hosts a wide range of events. David Horton-Fawkes, estates director for the house stated that they “don’t want to be seen as forelock-tugging servants living in the 19th century” and it is apparent that they are not. From Holkham’s beach, to its caravan site, the pub, and the occasions such as parties, concerts and sports events which take place there, Chris has managed to capture the microcosm of Holkham in 119 pages.

 

Chris stated that the estate is like a “well-run ship” and noted “it’s almost like the house is owned by the local people, it’s their country house”, this certainly comes across. Although he had some idea of what to expect, the sheer size of the estate came to a surprise to Chris who carried a map around with him, marked with coloured lines outlining the extent of the land owned. Originally Chris slept in the butlers’ quarters and eventually moved into the beautiful guestrooms. Despite understandable initial reservations about allowing a photographer into their family home, Lord Coke said that Chris “is such an easy man to have around that we barely noticed him”. Chris often dined with the family and had his own set of keys, coming and going and even taking his wife along on one occasion. The publication is a wonderful balance between photos of the building and its grounds, the events taking place, and the people who make the building into a house.

 

Chris set out to uncover the truth about the traditional English country estates that “bedevil the British imagination”. Keen to explore the stereotypes surrounding these houses, what he found was not just a house steeped in history, but a young family with innovative ideas about how to keep their heritage afloat. Holkham is not a remote house, it is very much part of its surroundings and is a hub for the local community. The publication uniquely captures life inside the house, providing a rare glimpse behind the scenes and demonstrating Holkham’s perfect balance between history and modernity.

 

The exhibition, “Behind Closed Doors: A Year in the Life of a Working Estate’, will feature a selection of key photographs taken by Chris. Opening dates: 29 March – 31 October: Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, plus 3-4 April (Good Friday and Easter Sunday).

 

Chris Steele-Perkins’ book “A Place In The Country” is published by Dewi Lewis and priced at £25.

 

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