6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 45

Embarras de richesses

Hugh Massingberd

GREAT HOUSES OF EUROPE by Marcus Binney Aurum, £40, pp. 192, ISBN 1854108492 HISTORIC FAMILY HOMES AND GARDENS FROM THE AIR Norman Hudson & Co, £25, pp. 189, ISBN 095314268X Could the bottom have fallen out of the coffee-table book market? There seem to be fewer of them around — or, at least, rather more of them displayed in the remainder shops — and even my scrutiny with a magnifying glass of the interior shots in those compellingly awful lifestyle features yields little in the way of glossy picture books. Or perhaps it is just that no one has asked me to write the text for one lately.

Not that the prose content was ever a

priority of the package. I soon learnt my place in the pecking order when I noticed at a book fair that the dummy specimen of the illustrated volume on offer to the trade contained merely several lavish spreads of colour photographs and a few captions set in Latin script. As a sop to authorial vanity, the scribbler's moniker tends to be given principal billing, but there is never any doubt that the snapper is the star of the show.

So, in the pick of this summer's country-house coffee-table treats, fascinating as Marcus Binney's grand tour of the Great Houses of Europe may be and amusing as their owners' accounts are in Historic Family Homes and Gardens from the Air, it is the quality of the photography by Alex Starkey and Skyscan respectively that really matters. Starkey, Country Life's last staff photographer, who retired in 1989, was a master of lighting interiors. Binney, who accompanied him on assignment for the magazine, is both instructive and entertaining about his colleague's working methods. Starkey's trick was 'to use large sheets of white paper to reflect light into rooms — laid out across the floor and draped over furniture and casement windows'.

When Starkey complained, 'I can't even get a reading on the bloody meter,' a long exposure would ensue. Once, at Schloss Ellingen, Mrs Binney was sent down the grand staircase to fetch Starkey a Kit-Kat 'with the assurance she wouldn't show in the exposure as she walked down and back up again'. The results are breathtaking in their beauty: works of art in themselves. Browsing through this celebration of 25 Continental gems still well furnished or with their decoration schemes intact, I found myself echoing the sentiments of Frederick William IV of Prussia after a trip to the Rhine: 'On passing all those thousand divine castles and cliffs and mountains and currents, I was weary with bliss.'

Although gobsmacked by such stupendous interiors as the baroque ballroom in the Palazzo Albrizzi in Venice, with its tableaux vivants of putti cavorting — 'regardless of the calls of gravity', as Binney observes — amid the loose folds of a tent roof, I began to feel oppressed by the overwhelming ornateness. The exquisite chaste elegance of the Chateau de Montgeoffroy in the Loire Valley came as a joyous relief.

For those, like myself, never quite at ease 'abroad', Historic Family Homes and Gardens from the Air provides comfort and reassurance. Despite the strange absence of God's Own County of Lincolnshire, this is an original and impressive coverage of Great Britain, including some pleasingly lesser-known seats such as Belmont, Cothay, Eyarn, Fasque, Hamptvyorth, Leighton, Pashley, Rode, Sand and Tissington. All too often, aerial photography books consist of tedious studies of fullon roofscapes, but the advantage of Skyscan's ingenious balloon camera unit is that it gives a decent bird's-eye view of the facades of the building in relation to its setting. The remarkable revival of formal

gardens is especially well covered, with recent work at Alnwick, Cawdor and Stanway and many other places shown in all its splendour.

The owners' commentaries are enlivened by some welcome shafts of trenchancy and light touches. Peter PrideauxBrune of Prideaux Place, Cornwall, for instance, writes of his family seat that it

stands as a robust rebuke to the mediocrity of the planning officer and all his works ... Do not look here for Palladio, William Kent or even Le Corbusier, for you will find only a deeply original and indigenous England where an ancient family quietly continues.

Clare Throckmorton of Coughton Court, Warwickshire, tells a story of one of her ancestors admonishing an undernursemaid who had failed to prevent one of her charges drowning in a slop pail: 'Nell, if you do that again, you'll have to go.' David Lowsley-Williams of Chavenage in the Cotswolds rejoices in holding 30 wedding receptions there a year, but confides that 'the only downside' is having to deal with 30 brides' mothers. And there is a hauntingly melancholy grace note from the Duke of Northumberland, who remarks that it is hard at Alnwick, 'when our dogs are let out on to the grass of the inner bailey for their last pee of the evening, not to think of the 3,000 Scottish prisoners of war who died here'.