An inside view
A Richer Dust Concealed Getty Images Gallery, until 1 April It’s a little cheeky of Christopher Simon Sykes to have chosen a line from Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ as the title of a show of photographs of country houses, but A Richer Dust Concealed does happen to combine the three essential ingredients of his subject: riches, concealment from the outside world and dust.
Sykes has an unusual photographic pedigree. He made his reputation with informal pictures of rock aristocracy shot behind the scenes of the Rolling Stones’ 1975 Americas tour, but he grew up at Sledmere House among a different sort of aristocracy, whose houses he has documented in several books. The cream of those photographs has now been collected by Getty Images Gallery into an exhibition that steals behind the arras of ‘Heritage Britain’. Despite including some stunningly lit exteriors, it’s essentially an inside view of country house life — which is where the richer dust comes into play.
As all Sykes’s interiors are shot in natural light, they’re dependent on sunlight entering windows — and where sunlight enters windows, there is dust. It hovers in the upper air of the Great Staircase at Houghton Hall, coats the head of a stuffed rhino caught in a crack of light on a spooky stairwell at Eastnor Castle, and clouds the sunbeams streaming into Lismore Castle on to the tweed-capped figure of Lord Burlington, pinned to a battered chintz sofa by a slumbering dog. It does not, admittedly, dull the golden disc of sun warming the slippered feet of the 11th Duke of Devonshire as he snoozes under his newspaper in Chatsworth Library. (A photograph of the seven-strong Chatsworth cleaning staff explains why.) Not all the spaces in these pictures are lived in. There are attics, abandoned kitchens and a sinister hole under the eaves of Norton Conyers, Yorkshire, where a mad female relative was banged up in the 18th century, providing inspiration for Charlotte Brontë. But almost everywhere is full of stuff: costumed dressmaker’s dummies adorning a bedroom passage, superannuated stuffed lions barricaded behind log boxes, a forest canopy of antlers in a back corridor, a Seventies TV set dumped in a disused kitchen. Not unlike eccentric collectors in council flats, the aristocracy never throws anything away, and God forbid that anything should be renewed. There are no pictures of the lavatory that ‘makes you fear the worst’, hymned by Noël Coward in ‘The Stately Homes of England’, but it is almost certainly just out of shot, feet away from the Victorian basin at Leixlip Castle tucked under the window recess full of marble busts.
In a world where a dog is as likely to push open a pedimented and pillared door as a butler, nothing is quite as posh as it ought to be. Sykes’s levelling lens deals equally genially with the Glin gardener holding a bunch of rhubarb as with the Duke of Devonshire poking a pixie-like head between two giant banana leaves in his tropical greenhouse. You get the feeling that, for Sykes, photography is something that happens while he’s busy making other plans, yet on the way he somehow captures the ancestral spirit of ‘those homes serene and stately which only lately seem to have run to seed’. It’s this unique British ability, identified by Noël Coward, to prolong indefinitely that ‘only lately’ look of shabby decline that is so brilliantly celebrated in these pictures.