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Country Life: The Garden Historians’ ‘bible’

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Front cover of June 1st, 2022 issue of 'Country Life'


I have to admit to only buying Country Life very occasionally – it’s more usually a flick through an old copy or two in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, but the magazine’s issues from the early 20th century are a rich treasure trove of evocative images of country houses and their gardens, and so a fantastic resource for garden historians.

These early issues are certainly a ‘go-to’ source for anyone interested in what Sir Roy Strong* described as “the golden dream of Edwardian England”. So much so, that garden historian Jane Brown, commenting in a 2005 article, wrote that Country Life had acquired an almost “biblical status amongst garden historians”. While, more recently, Kathryn Bradley-Hole, writing in her 2019 book, English Gardens: Illustrated from the Archives of Country Life, believes that the magazine’s weekly offerings over more than 120 years "present a unique and priceless record of the English gardening scene as it has unfolded. In that time, it has featured more than 6,000 gardens, from High Victorian formality in the early years to today’s freer styles and necessary ecological leanings”.

At the time of Country Life’s launch, horticultural journalism had long been flourishing under numerous periodicals including Amateur Gardening, Gardening Illustrated, Gardening World, the Gardeners’ Magazine, the Journal of Horticulture, The Garden, and The Gardeners’ Chronicle. Between them, these publications served the 'landed' garden owner, the professional gardener, as well as amateur gardeners of the new middle-classes with their much smaller gardens in the rapidly expanding towns and suburbs. Country Life, however, added a further significant dimension: high quality photographs.

First published in January 1897, for its first 3 1/2 years the magazine's title was Country Life Illustrated and subtitled A journal for all interested in country life and country pursuits. The word "Illustrated" emphasising its most innovative feature: the inclusion of large-scale, quality photographs. Although not strictly a gardening magazine, Country Life used many more photographs of gardens than other gardening literature of the time and, from its very outset, its impact was more visual than literary due to ‘half-tone’ photographs printed on heavy, glossy paper. Even today, it’s said to be more looked at than actually read.

'The Garden Court' at the Goddards in Surrey. Designed by Edwin Lutyens with the gardens by Gertrude Jekyll, photograph by Charles Latham. ‘Country Life’, 30 January 1904

At the time, Country Life was at the vanguard of printing technology and quickly established itself as a quality journal. It's been said that the turn of the 20th century was a golden period for the foundation of illustrated magazines, and other magazines such as The Studio, The Architectural Review and The Burlington Magazine were quick to catch-up. But of all the publications available in the UK, Country Life can claim to be the first to have undertaken this revolution in photographic illustration - while it also claims to be the only current ‘glossy’ weekly in the world.

As I spend most of my time researching late-Victorian/Edwardian garden history topics, the Country Life Picture Archive [and now digital 'free-to-view' copies available on-line (see Note)] are extremely useful. In this post, I'm therefore concentrating on it's early history with an emphasis on it's coverage of gardens.

Country Life's beginnings

The driving force behind the establishment of the new magazine was publisher Edward Hudson (1854-1933), who steered the magazine’s fortunes with passionate single-mindedness for the next 40 years. Hudson, having persuaded his father to allow him to join the family printing firm, Hudson & Kearns, after an unsuccessful stint in a solicitors' office, succeeded his father in 1890 and oversaw the transformation of the company.

Hudson’s great idea was to produce a weekly illustrated paper of the highest quality, utilising the latest developments in photography from the 1880's, and ‘half-tone’ blocks, which became available during the 1890's. These innovations quickly enabled the printing of mass-market periodicals illustrated with photographs as a commercial reality for the first time. While the advent of hand-held cameras - so much easier to use than the clunky glass-plate cameras of the past, opened up a far greater range of subject matter to their photographers.

Much of the appeal of the new magazine was due to Hudson’s exacting eye for detail and the quality of its printing. After Country Life proved a success, he even imported the latest printing presses from the US to further enhance its quality. This concern with quality of production became a hallmark of the magazine, and led to experiments in printing pages in tones of sepia, and even green while, in 1911, it published its first colour plate. Hudson himself even acted as an informal picture editor, scutinising every photograph and, according to Sir Roy Strong, was responsible for selecting some of the most haunting images of that early lost world: "the golden dreams of Edwardian England".

Like most magazines of the time, Country Lifes front cover was taken up with advertisements rather than an image, and this didn’t change until 1941. The front cover of it’s very first issue contains a somewhat strange mix of adverts, as can be seen below: a top flight wine merchant next to Cadbury’s Cocoa – and 'new raw hide riding whips' above 'Old Grans Special Toddy' whiskey.

Front page of the first issue of 'Country Life Illustrated', January 8th,1897

By the early 1900's, and with much of the UK population now living in towns and cities, Country Life’s success was mostly due to its glamorous vision of country life, appealing in particular to fashionable society. Photographs of country folk living and working were included, although the magazine seemed to have little interest in the tough reality of rural life. For its readers, the countryside was a place for beautiful country houses and gardens, weekend parties, leisure and sport, not poverty and hard work. And while the majority of its pages dealt with various country and sporting pursuits, as well as glamorous country properties for sale, according to George Plumptre, the Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme, as the 20th century began Country Life contributed hugely to the development of modern gardens becoming “its most significant shop window, illustrating on a weekly basis a series of gardens ‘old and new’”.

'Pergola at Easton Lodge, Essex', photographed for 'Country Life' in November 1907. The gardens at Easton Lodge were designed by Harold Peto for Daisy, The Countess of Warwick in 1902, and are considered one of his finest works

During Country Life’s early days, it employed two great photographers: Charles Latham (1847-1912) and Frederick Evans (1853-1943). At the time, skills in photographing architecture and interiors were still developing, but Latham - today probably the better known of the two, already had an established reputation before being taken on by Country Life, who considered themselves fortunate in securing his services. Described as a genius with the camera lens, in 1904 The New York Times described Latham as “perhaps the best-known photographic interpreter of English architecture”.

Latham was well-known for “denuding” houses and gardens of their Victorian clutter before photographing them, and his immaculate images were sometimes criticised for being romanticised being somewhat devoid of real life - and people. For example, photographs of gardens featured no tools, potting sheds, compost heaps or kitchen gardens, while houses were seemingly devoid of kitchens and even bathrooms!

Evans, already an award winning photographer, accepted a commission from Country Life in 1905 to photograph country houses, parish churches and even French chateaux. He was given the freedom to photograph his subjects as he wished, and only required to deliver his best examples for publication. Evans was a perfectionist who would wait days for just the right light to achieve the photograph he desired, and was once described by US photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, as "the greatest exponent of architectural photography" and, like Latham, "a master of manipulation". Evan’s photographs continued to appear in the magazine until around 1920.

Another huge influence on Country Life was Henry Avray Tipping (1855-1929), architect and garden designer. Writing articles for the magazine from around 1903, it was his architectural editorship, and well-researched scholarship, that brought the country house and garden centre-stage in the magazine. Tipping was also keen on gardens often writing articles about them, as well as commissioning his own at High Glanau in the 1920's in the arts & crafts style and designing the garden.

‘The Ribbon Parterre looking north at High Glanau’, ‘Country Life’, 8 June 1929. Designed by H. Avray Tipping in the 1920s

High Glanau Manor, Monmouth in Wales, today. Courtesy Helen Garrish

One of the gardens featured by Tipping in 1915 for example, was his article about Ellen Willmott's garden at Warley Place in Essex with a spread over several pages accompanied by eight photographs by the pioneering plant photographer, Reginald A. Malby (1882-1924) [on whom a future post].

Birch trees sweep down to the water's edge at Warley Place, photograph by Reginald Malby from ‘Warley Place in Spring Time’ by H. Avray Tipping, 'Country Life', May 8th 1915

Another writer with a similar impact was Sir Lawrence Weaver (1876-1930) who joined the staff in 1909 and championed Country Life’s association with the arts & crafts movement in architecture which featured so heavily in its pages. Weaver was an architectural writer who, only a year later, was appointed their Architectural Editor replacing Tipping. He wrote many articles on country houses and gardens for Country Life, especially those of Edwin Lutyens – so much so that, in 1913, the magazine was described as “the keeper of the architectural conscience of the nation”.

Lawrence also collaborated on several books with perhaps the most famous of the magazine’s text contributors, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Already an established figure in the horticultural world, Jekyll enjoyed a particularly long association with Country Life, writing more than 100 articles for the magazine over the course of some 30 years. These Garden Notes mostly featured observations from her own garden, Munstead Wood, although she also wrote about practical gardening and conservation.

A typical Jekyll border at her Munstead Wood home, with lupins and iris. 'Country Life', 1908

Front cover of ‘Gardens for Small Country Houses’ by Gertrude Jekyll & Sir Lawrence Weaver, 3rd Edition, 1914

Jekyll cleverly used her writing to publicise her horticultural work and generate income, contributing to a number of different publications over the years including William Robinson's magazines, The Garden and Gardening Illustrated - even co-editing The Garden for a couple of years. Jekyll also wrote (and co-wrote) a number of best-selling books, often published through the Country Life Library (including some with Lawrence). Her books, concerned with the principles of planting, colour grouping and garden design, had a profound influence on garden design in Britain and elsewhere. And, as one writer points out, today she would almost certainly have a “regular blog, an active instagram account, and a five-star rating on Etsy”!

Jekyll’s famed partnership with architect, Edwin Lutyens, became closely associated with Country Life in its formative years when, in 1899, Hudson met Jekyll and, through her, was introduced to Lutyens. George Plumptre writing that it was their partnership in particular that “provided the alchemy of the modern garden, a magical blend of attitude and action whose legacy became embedded in gardens of the 20th century and beyond”. And it was Country Life which reflected the development of this modern garden in its pages. For example, Country Life featured Lutyens and Jekyll's first joint commission at Orchards, the home of Jekyll’s friends, William and Julia Chance. Jane Brown commenting that this was “the first masterpiece of garden design to spring from the partnership”.

The Dutch Garden at 'Orchards', Surrey. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1897 with planting laid out by Gertrude Jekyll. Photograph first published in ‘Country Life’ in 1908

Country Life quickly became what one writer today describes as the “unofficial Jekyll & Lutyens ‘fanzine’", with several articles on Jekyll in 1899 and then many multi-page spreads on Jekyll & Lutyens collaborations in the early 1900's. A Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden became the ultimate status symbol: "equally sought after by Surrey stockbrokers and the landed gentry”. The example below shows the Deanery Garden in Berkshire, a new arts and crafts house for Hudson with a Jekyll designed garden.

Article on Deanery Garden from 'Country Life', May 9, 1903. Entitled ‘A House and a Garden’, this spread featured the house and garden designed by Lutyens and Jekyll for 'Country Life’s' owner, Edward Hudson

Inevitably, as the fashion in garden design turned away from the carpet-bedding displays of Victorian gardening, the new magazine began to build-up an unrivalled photographic library of gardens and Country Life quickly took, according to George Plumptre "a leading role in illustrating and promoting a more balanced approach to gardens”.

Country Life publishing

The Country Life magazine was produced at three separate locations: it had an editorial office at 20 & 21 Tavistock Street, where composing was done by hand and the editorial pages made up. Its office at Southampton Street in Covent Garden dealt with the publishing and advertising and, once the magazine was ready, it was taken by horse-van to Hudson & Kearnes print-works in Southwark Street over the river. Country Life was published every week on a Thursday, in time for a new phenomenon – “the weekend”. And you may recall Maggie Smith’s famous query in Downton Abbey: “What is a weekend?”! Publication of the magazine only changed to a Wednesday in 2008.

Country Life also published a series of gardening books, under the title Country Life Library, including many of Jekyll's books as well as books featuring the photographs of Charles Latham. Gardens Old and New by H. Avray Tipping with Latham's accompanying photographs was published in 1900, with Latham's own In English Homes in 1904 and The Gardens of Italy in 1905.

'Gardens Old and New: The Country House and its Garden Environment', Vol 1, 1900 by H. Avray Tipping featuring photographs by Charles Latham. Published by 'Country Life Library'

Some decades later, Country Life made another significant contribution when it championed the foundation of the National Garden Scheme and published the new charity’s first annual guidebooks.

In 1904-5, Hudson commissioned Lutyens to design new offices for the magazine itself. This was Lutyens' first major classical building, and Country Life’s home for the next 70 years - built on the site of the old office in Tavistock Street in the west end of London. The images below show, on the left, Numbers 20 and 21 Tavistock Street, the original home of Country Life – it having absorbed The Garden magazine in the early 1900's. On the right, Sir Edwin Lutyens' architectural drawing of the exterior elevation of the new Country Life building (courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh).

By 1907 things began to change. As noted by Sir Roy Strong, Country Life began to celebrate “nature as seen in the landscape…”; however, at around the same time, the type of country house and estate that featured in the pages of Country Life was being sold off or broken up – and this only accelerated after the first world war as society in the country changed forever, and the landed gentry lost much of its political power. These changes were also reflected in the magazine’s property pages as many wealthy middle-class families bought properties in the countryside. The magazine’s owners and editors quickly began to realise that it’s future lay with this expanding middle-class readership, who hankered after small country homes with a garden and a few surrounding acres of land – the type of properties reflected in the work of Lutyens and Jekyll, and not unlike Jekyll’s own Lutyens-designed home, Munstead Wood.

‘Munstead Wood – a vista’, from ‘Gardens Old and New’, vol 2. Photographed by Charles Latham, 1900

End of an Era

By the end of 1914, Country Life had, according to Sir Roy Strong, established “an immutable repertory of values and visual models” which were to remain at the core of the magazine’s editorial vision for decades. However, the idyllic country life featured in its pages came crashing down as the realities of war set in, and the magazine became filled with a variety of articles relating to the war effort. Despite this, like other publications of the time, articles on country homes and gardens survived in much the same way as they had done before the war [at the time, it was thought good for morale to keep up much of the normal content]. The magazine did not, however, shirk from reflecting the horrors of the war, while also highlighting the changing role of women in society.

Once the war had ended, most of the team which had created the magazine were still in place, including Hudson and Tipping. Country Life continued to grow in size, and by the 1920’s colour illustrations began to feature with the first colour cover in 1931.

Autochrome of Gertrude Jekyll’s garden at Munstead Wood, ‘Country Life’ 1912. Photographed by the then garden editor, Herbert Cowley

By the 1930’s and 40’s, Country Life reflected, in the words of Sir Roy Strong, “an era and society which had lost its energy” and, after the years of the second world war and the following period of austerity, it was considered “worthy and dull”. Throughout the 1960’s it was still reflecting an outdated world but it survived and, gradually, and with changes in the editorial and other staff, it finally began to catch-up to the reality of the times. By the 1980’s, the magazine had begun to appeal to a larger section of society, and not just the expanding middle classes of earlier in the century. However, as the 1990’s got underway, and with fierce competition from a variety of other publications, Country Life underwent a long needed transformation in both its appearance and contents. Younger writers were brought in “bringing a breath of fresh air to the stale pot-pourri”, as Sir Roy Strong put it, and the economic booms of those decades brought it a new generation of readers. Today, its special features and guest editors make it even more popular. For example, its 13 July, 2022 issue, guest edited by the then Duchess of Cornwall, Camila, was a sell-out (as a friend of mine found out when she tried to buy one!), and included an article by Monty Don looking at the Duchess's private garden in Wiltshire, said to be a haven of roses, wildflowers and tall trees.


Even today, it's said that Country Life’s genius is its celebration of the place that rural life has in our national consciousness. From its very first issues, Country Life provided expert coverage of country house architecture, fine art, gardens, gardening, food and drink, and even dogs, as well as celebrating the people integral to its landscape. According to Country Life itself, it tries to cover “the best bits of the British countryside from favourite dogs to country houses, country events and rural issues, as well as country sports and pursuits. It’s a diverse range of subjects – more diverse than most – but then life in the country has a great deal to offer and we would hate to miss anything.” Although, for the more general reader, one of its greatest draws is probably its many property pages.

From a gardens point of view, Country Life today still continues to champion gardens ‘old and new’, and to showcase them amid the eclectic editorial mix “that has always been the magazine’s raison d’etre.” For me however, as a garden historian, Country Life's attraction is its photographic archive of late-Victorian and Edwardian gardens in the countryside, especially those which reflect that relatively short period before the first world war that Jane Brown describes in her book Gardens of a Golden Afternoon (1982) - a lost world of the 'well-to-do' and middle classes, living charmed and glamorous lives, all wrapped up in the wonderful houses and gardens of Lutyens and Jekyll.


All images from Country Life have been accessed via free downloads from the Internet Archive at Country Life 1897-1996 : Free Texts : Free Download, Borrow and Streaming : Internet Archive

The Country Life archive of articles and photographs is certainly a treasure trove for authors. Several have written books about various aspects of British houses and gardens drawn from its issues. As well as Roy Strong's book noted below, others include:

English Gardens in the Twentieth Century from the Archives of Country Life by Tim Richardson;

The Country House Garden: From the Archives of Country Life 1897-1939 by Brent Elliott; and Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden: From the archives of Country Life by Judith Tankard.

Kathryn Bradley-Hole's 2019 book is just the latest: English Gardens: From the Archives of Country Life. Also of interest, may be John Goodall's January 2022 article Digitising Country Life's 125 years of history - Country Life


'How Country Life has influenced Britain’s best gardens, from the late-19th century to today’, article by Kathryn Bradley-Hole, Country Life website, December 2019

Country Life 1897-1997: The English Arcadia, Roy Strong, 1996How Country Life helped change the face of modern gardening', article by George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme, Country Life website, May 2022

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2 comentarios

John Cannell
John Cannell
24 sept 2022

Very interesting Paula. It must have taken ages to put together. I can't remember when I last had a good look at one, it's made me want to get one and examine it more closely.

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24 sept 2022

Another richly detailed post, Paula!

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