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.




The book, A Place in the Country, was published on October 27th 2014 by Dewi Lewis Publishing Selling for £25 hardback



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.


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23 thoughts on “Chris Steele-Perkins – A Place in the Country”

  1. Chris Steele-Perkins is a big reason why I got into photojournalism. When I was a photography student, I didn’t know what kind of photography I wanted to do. I came across his book on Afghanistan, and was blown away. Immediately, that’s what I wanted to pursue. I’ve even sent him a couple messages over the past years and he’s responded quickly and thoroughly.

    This is every bit as good as I have come to expect from him, by that I mean wonderful. I wish continued success.

    Thank you very much for sharing.

  2. This is one amazing set of photographs, Chris Steele-Perkins. “Sublime,” indeed. And I am amazed they gave you such unprecedented access and at the same time managed to keep some very proper distance, as fans of Downton Abbey would expect them to do.


    Fifteen photos from a book are not going to be an “in-depth” look at the English country estate, but some of these photographs are very good indeed: 7 and 8 are masterful. Seems to me that you’d have to look at the book to judge what the photographer is saying — whether it’s irony (toffs as shop keepers), history (preservation of country estates) , sociology (roles of the workers and the bosses). I haven’t known the work of Chris Steele-Perkins, but a quick search on the web for bios indicates that whatever he is saying in the book it’s not likely to be shallow.


  4. Great to get some feedback from you, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    HARRY, I don’t want to Justify myself,(I thank Mitch for doing a good job there) but I didn’t set out to have a go at the rich, it’s not what I do as a photographer: put the boot in, I try to report honestly and via interesting and engaged photographs, and if indeed you feel the book is an advert for the rich after having seen the book, then I think you have mis-read it, but that is your right.

    Frostfrog, I’m glad you like the work, and you are not as amazed as I was they gave me the access, this is a project I have been trying to do for 15 years or so.

    Brian and Paul – Cheers! Chris

  5. tonyhayesimages

    I really like this work (I saw the larger edit on Magnum’s website a few weeks ago) and certainly don’t see it as an advert for the rich, rather as a window on the workings of another way of life. I like the humour in some of the images too.


  6. Chris I work on a moderate size estate and am a come from a eat the rich point of view, so probably have a bit of an axe to grind. I’ve not see the book and from the pics here I’ll stick by my first comment.99 percent of the the landed gentry I have met seemed very nice and if was given all that I’d want to keep it for myself but it doesn’t make it right. Most of the estates are hardcore agri business (that is subsidised to the eyeballs) with none of the old fashioned sense of looking after the people that work for them. Ill keep an eye out for the book.

  7. Funny, I keep coming back to these images. I don’t know why I’m so curious because every time I end up feeling I just don’t enjoy the work. I keep trying to convince myself that maybe one cannot hope to like every essay we come across. Sometimes you like it or don’t and that should be OK. But I’m not sure…

  8. hharry, there are estates and there are estates. I don’t think I had the wool pulled over my eyes, but on Holkham the people seemed to enjoy working there, and I genuinely liked Tom and Polly, the owners. I guess the one you work on has a way to go.

  9. What Paul Treacy said. Gonna order the book right now. LOVE this stuff. Very British, formality, class division, whimsy, the beauty of the English countryside and estates. The group portraits are awesome, an inspiration, and I say that as a long time portrait photographer.
    Lovely stuff.

  10. I’ve been a Chris Steele-Perkins fan for a long time, and in the context of much of his other work I could recognize immediately some of the understated irony in these beautiful photographs. In addition to his being a great photographer, I am fairly certain, based on seeing him at work in a number of videos, that he is also an unassuming and soft spoken gentleman. I suspect that both personally and in his photos he has what in America we call a ‘good poker-face.’ We have in common the year of our birth (and all that implies) as well as long residence and involvement in Japan.

    At the risk of awkwardly blundering into Akaky-esque territory, with neither Akaky’s wit and humor nor his charming self-effacement, let me comment on some of the associations these photos conjure in my own mental universe. Clearly they hit a sensitive spot for hharry, and it is not hard for me to imagine where he is coming from. Actually, I have always hated and feared the rich, even if I have had some friends among them. Among my British ancestors were ones who once upon a time (i.e. in the 17th century) had titles and country estates, although their manor houses and lands, some also nearby in Norfolk, were of a far more modest scale than the estate we see here. By the late 19th and early 20th century the family was solidly middle class and the males all worked for a living, even if they also owned their own firms and still held land. Or else they served in the British Army or Navy. But weekends of grouse shooting had become occasional treats, dependent on the largesse and invitations of their betters, rather than regular entitlements. Incidentally, one could get lost in the important distinctions in English verbs for pursuing game: one ‘shoots’ grouse; one ‘stalks’ deer; and to ‘hunt’ is an activity requiring horses and hounds.

    I am not a fan of ‘Downton Abbey’ and have trouble either understanding or sympathizing with its popularity. I thought Robert Altman’s ‘Gosford Park’ was the ultimate cinematic statement on the properties, pursuits, and peccadilloes of the estate-owning class and their servants, and watching ‘Downton Abbey’ after seeing ‘Gosford Park’ is like watching ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ after seeing ‘Citizen Kane.’

    But what struck me most vividly from among all Chris Steele-Perkins’ photos from this estate is image No. 14, which shows a freshly mown (hay?) field beyond the immaculately manicured lawn in the foreground. Anyone who has been a groundskeeper or farmer will marvel at the perfection of the long straight rows of that mown field. That shows hard work, skill, and dedication. To me it is even more impressive than the clipped maze of hedges in image No. 12, since that is work I have done myself (I had a summer job in graduate school at Indiana University trimming all 16 miles of the campus’s hedges. Which also reminds me that many of the university campuses of the US, surely the envy of the world, were modeled on or inspired by English country estates, going back to Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia).

    I raise these seeming irrelevancies merely to show how much these photos resonate and awake thoughts and memories. To be aesthetically pleasing, to resonate deeply, and to create associations that have complex feelings and ideas behind them, has always seemed to me what good photography is all about. But I realize that is my hopelessly middle-brow view!

  11. Peter David Grant


    What a wonderful essay (the book looks great to, and has been added to my ever growing list of books), I love the insight this sort of work can produce.

    15 years is a long time, I will keep your dedication and example in mind as I seek to gain access for projects, thank you.


  12. Holy crap! Akakyesque! I’m an adjective!

    AKAKY_IRL: You’ve always been an adjective, guy. The adjective that always comes to my mind first is dumbass, usually followed by jerk, dolt, and buffoon, although not necessarily in that order.

    AKAKY: Thank you, I knew I could count on you for that.

    AKAKY_IRL: Just doing my job, fella. Nothing personal, understand?

    AKAKY: I understand.

    AKAKY_IRL: Putz comes to mind too, now that I think of it.

    AKAKY [opens mouth to reply and then thinks the better of it. He wanders off to contemplate the mystery of why he even speaks to AKAKY_IRL in the first place.]

  13. Thanks people for the positive feedback. Even after photographing for as long as I have you get paranoid that you are loosing your eye, or people wont get where you are coming from, but you just have to keep on doing what you think you should be doing, so JVS don’t feel inadequate, go take some new photos.

  14. Magisterial!…..the opening image is glorious and should be printed B.I.G.! :)….love the sly anarchy of the narrative and pictures…a cross between Buneul (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) and Resnais (L’Année dernière à Marienbad)….just a delirium and gorgeous…

    the ONLY criticism, or rather question that I would have for Chris is this: do you think the Veritical frames work?…they seem weaker in their treatment and frame-narrative…..Verticals are so hard to pull off (John vink is a master of Verticals)….just wondering the decision for them…

    but, cant wait to see the entire project…

    just brilliant photography! :)..

    and not political, but existential, which i prefer!


  15. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for sharing your work.
    I like your temperate and moderate perspective.
    And also I love the beautiful distance from objectives of you.
    I’ve enjoyed this work especially because I can feel your personality from this work.
    Yes, It is very brilliant!

    Best wishes,
    Kyunghee Lee

  16. Bob, I do think the verticals work otherwise i wouldn’t use them. Overall I probably shoot more verticals tan a lot of my colleagues, I enjoy working with the format. Of course I appreciate you overall comments and hope you will come round to the vertical once you have seen the book……..and Kyunghee, greetings.

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