Photo gallery: A year captured through lens at Holkham

G.B. ENGLAND. Holkham Estate. North Norfolk. Gamekeepers out lamping for rabbit.

G.B. ENGLAND. Holkham Estate. North Norfolk. Gamekeepers out lamping for rabbit. - Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins

A photographer fascinated by the world behind the walls of English country estates spent a year at Holkham, capturing the inner workings of a stately home poised between tradition and innovation, writes ROWAN MANTELL.

G.B. ENGLAND. Holkham Estate, Norfolk. The Landscape team in the rear gardens of Holkham Hall. From

G.B. ENGLAND. Holkham Estate, Norfolk. The Landscape team in the rear gardens of Holkham Hall. From left to right.Jonathan Taylor, Glen Joyce, Steven Barnes, Tim Marshall (Department Head), Simon Bosley, Carl Blading, Paul Matthews, Freddie Futter, David Dixon, Daniel Beresford, Nicky Beck, David Collier. - Credit: © Chris Steele-Perkins/MAGNUM

Photographer Chris Steele-Perkins has worked in war-zones and among the aftermath of natural disasters around the world. He has taken pictures documenting poverty in Britain, famine in Africa and the sex industry in South Korea.

But his latest project features the idyllic countryside and grand architecture of a Norfolk estate.

Chris, whose pictures and exhibitions have won many awards over a career spanning five decades, spent a year documenting life in and around Holkham Hall on the north Norfolk coast.

Instead of the squalor of an African slum, or the tension of an Afghan camp he discovered a life of aristocratic dinners and exquisite furnishings, gamekeepers and staff quarters, modern agriculture and old attitudes, cricket matches and shooting parties.

'It's been on my agenda to do something on an English country estate for over 10 years,' said Chris. 'I have been interested in photographing the England that I don't really know or understand, as a process of exploration.'

He began, 40 years ago, by documenting the life and style of teddy boys in a book called The Teds which is still in print. He continued through photographs of urban squats, northern coalfields and carers tending to relatives at home, to pictures of people who have lived beyond their 100th birthday.

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As he searched for an English country estate which might allow him in, he came across Holkham.

'It was important to me that there was a family in place, and they seemed to have a foot in the past and in the present, which attracted me,' explained Chris, 'So I wrote them a letter and quite to my surprise, got a letter back saying let's talk about it. So I went up and met Tom Coke.'(Viscount Coke, heir to the estate and son of the seventh Earl of Leicester.)

Viscount Coke runs the estate and he and his wife and four children moved into stunning Holkham Hall after Lord and Lady Leicester retired to a smaller home on the estate.

Chris spent a year travelling back and forth to Holkham to take the pictures for his latest book. A Place in the Country is the culmination of a year spent learning the rhythms of life at Holkham, and working out how to capture them in images.

He was particularly impressed by the sense of community on the estate and at the heart of the book are pictures of the teams of people who keep everything running.

Chris has photographed handymen and housekeepers, gamekeepers and guests, as well as the Coke family themselves, in semi-formal poses, creating an image of each group as an integral part of the estate.

The maintenance team appear at the windows of the building they are repairing; gardeners stand within the topiary of the parterre; the Coke family are grouped around a gilt and marble table beneath a vast painting.

'It was a different world,' said Chris. 'I was given a little lesson in etiquette before I started – how to pronounce names, how to address members of the family.'

He was impressed by the sense of community within the long walls bounding the estate, and interested by the deference that still exists, with staff referring to the Cokes as his lordship and her ladyship.

'It's a bit like being on a large ship – the hierarchies that have to be in place and the old tradition of respect to Lord Coke.'

He was also surprised by the business-like way in which the estate was managed.

'Looking at it as a business it seemed effective and well-run. A lot of these places are in the hands of English Heritage or the National Trust after the families have lost their grip on them.

'It's amazing that through all the years they haven't had a drunkard, gambling heir who has lost the estate!' laughed Chris.

Instead, he uncovered an organisation marrying the history and tradition of its past with modern agriculture, conservation, concerts and tourism.

As he got to know Holkham he was invited to stay in a guest room in the main house when he visited.

These extraordinary rooms are furnished with antiques and serviced by the household staff in much the same way as the private family rooms.

'You are sleeping in this room that's got a bigger footprint than my whole house!' said Chris.

He has been looking to photograph the inner workings of an English country estate from several years before the age of television's Downton Abbey, but the book comes out at a time when there is another resurgence of popular interest in stately homes and country estates.

He hopes his book reveals the meshing of past and present, with the aristocratic family and their staff overseeing pop concerts, house tours and a caravan site as well as hosting formal dinners and shoots and living alongside an astonishing inventory of art and architecture.

Chris said other photography books focussing on Holkham might be pictures of empty rooms with lists of paintings. His is populated with the teams of people ensuring the history lives on.

His next project continues his quest to explore aspects of England which are foreign to him.

Moving on from his first book, documenting a mid-century youth tribe, to his latest exploring an archetypical English stately home, he is contacting families who have arrived in London from around the world.

Realising there could be people from every nation on earth, living in the capital, he is in the process of interviewing and photographing families from more than 200 countries, in their London homes.

Chris has travelled the world interpreting foreign places and situations through his pictures. Some of his favourite moments of his year photographing Holkham involved roaming the estate with the gamekeepers, gradually discovering the quiet beauty of the Norfolk landscape, between assignments in the mountains of Japan.

In Holkham he found a world which was as foreign to him, within a familiar English setting, and his pictures roam the hierarchies of the estate, its past and present, as well as the hall and land.

A Place in the Country by Chris Steel-Perkins is published this month by Dewi Lewis Publishing, and costs £25.

? An exhibition of the photography is planned at Holkham at the start of the 2015 season.