In the summer of 1949, Piers Court was visited by a
Country Life photographer. A postcard from Evelyn Waugh to Alfred E. Henson suggests that he liked the photographs, but for some reason the proposed feature didn't appear. And nor did the photographs themselves until 2016, when Clive Aslet published a feature in Country Life that included ten of the 30-odd photos taken that day.


What went wrong? I think it highly likely that Country Life wouldn't pay Evelyn what he wanted. At this stage in his life, Waugh was constantly hustling for money, as his letters to his agent, A.D. Peters, reveal. Though it is possible that Waugh didn't like what the Country Life editor, Christopher Hussey, had written about the pictures. Indeed, in his article Aslet suggests that: 'According to the late Alex Starkey, Henson’s successor as staff photographer at COUNTRY LIFE, the article written by the doyen of country-house historians Christopher Hussey, a former editor of the magazine, did not find favour with Waugh.'

In the summer of 2019, seventy years later, I was in negotiation with Country Life about reproducing the photoshoot. In the end CL baulked when it realised how many of the photos I intended to reproduce. But I've had a few months to think about the importance of the set, so I'm going ahead anyway. I'm leaving the prominent 'COUNTRY LIFE PICTURE LIBRARY' marking over the images, and I'm reproducing them at a small size. In this way I believe I am using a tiny amount of the information on each of the original photographs. Plus I am not taking any commercial advantage of these images. Indeed, I am giving details of the Country Life website at the end of the page so that if a reader wishes to invest in one or more of these important images, they can easily do so, and Country Life will reap the financial benefit. So I hope everyone can live with that.

Was the above photo the first one that Henson took at Piers Court? It's the first in what I think of as a digital contact sheet:


I think Henson stayed for a few days. In a letter to Nancy Mitford in April 1949, Waugh had mentioned that he was the fattest man in White's. Does that explain why he's not in any of the photographs? I suspect photographer and house owner simply steered clear of each other. On 28 July, Evelyn wrote again to Nancy: 'All last week we had the 65-year-old Country Life photographer staying and pottering round with a camera. His aim in art is to make every room look uninhabited and uninhabitable.'

Was that a considered statement or a throwaway remark? Perhaps we will reach a conclusion in due course.

According to Clive Aslet, the large-format photographs were lengthy exposures, up to an hour, in order to get the required detail. Accordingly, Henson had cards produced which read:


And also:


I think I get it:

E.W.: "I will be in the Library all afternoon. Please let me know when you wish access to the room and I will vacate it forthwith."

A.E.H.: "Thank-you, Mr Waugh. I will start in the Drawing Room, the Hall and the Dining Room, and will not need to disturb you until tomorrow morning."


As a reader of this piece has kindly pointed out to me, the photographs were not taken in the 19th Century, and so the likely exposure time would have been less than a minute. But even on that basis, what with set-up time, one can see that this could have been a fairly long process, justifying such use of the 'please do not' cards.

The newspaper on the table is an odd touch. Especially if Henson really had wanted the rooms to look uninhabited. In any case, I would have removed it in order to have the round table give clear emphasis to the stuffed owl. A stuffed owl at Piers Court? No symbols where none intended.

Actually, I've just had look at the decent reproduction of this picture in the Clive Aslet article. It's not a stuffed owl but a cast owl. And there is a book on the table as well as the newspaper. I would dearly love to know what that book was.
Brideshead? The Loved One? Scott King's Modern Europe? The latter is what it would have been if I'd had an hour to organise that photograph. Modern Europe, indeed. Victorian Balmoral, more like!

Next stop, the entrance hall.


I talk elsewhere about the paintings hanging here. A list of assets that Evelyn Waugh transferred into a trust for his children was drawn up two or three years after the visit by the photographer. So I know that the landscape above the stairs is a view of Rome by Van Vitalius, and that the two pictures aligned one above the other are The Pleasures of Travel by Thomas Musgrave Joy.

Henson may have thought that either of the narrative pics might make a
small illustration in the resulting feature, so he has taken photographs of them. First, the highwayman, making life hell for the eighteenth century traveller. That speaks to me of Waugh travelling in Abyssinia en route to Scoop.


And then the guard, coming round to inspect tickets in the nineteenth century. Perhaps not pleasure exactly, but not too painful either. The Waugh of Labels, perhaps. On the train from Paris to Marseille.


Both these painting were acquired in January 1948, so they hadn't been hanging in the hall for long, when Henson came along. It's sometimes easy to think that a photograph tells you how a room looked for a long period, but the truth is that the make-up of the rooms at Piers Court was always evolving.

I have a feeling that this painting (see below) was hung on the wall that you can't see in Henson's view of the entrance hall. Hung where the landscape has been hung in Into the Cold World by George Smith. Certainly that's where I would have hung it. The painting shows a woman having to exit the house with a young child following the death of her husband. Rather a cruel joke of Evelyn's to have a reminder to Laura hanging on the wall that, if he died, the house would go to Bron, their oldest son, and she would be dependent on her child's goodwill for house-room. Paintings are being taken down from the walls of what would have been the library at Piers Court. And that is, of course, Ellwood, opening the front door for the widow: "Mind how you go, Mrs Waugh."


Actually, let's nip back into the drawing room, because I realise that another of the photographs was made there. Another fine clock to go with the two in the general view of the room.


And the four oil paintings hung in a cluster?

Again the list of pictures to go into trust helps here. The painting on the right is The Baptism of a Jewess, which Waugh bought for £50. As he did the little picture, top-middle, which is of cows by Thomas Sydney Cooper.

Clive Aslet says that the drawing room reflects Laura's taste rather than Evelyn's, and I think this may be so, up to a point. It's Laura who had a herd of dairy cattle at Piers Court, and I can imagine Evelyn buying the Thomas Sydney Cooper for her. The above composition, with tree middle left is, is not unlike this Cooper:


But really, what Thomas Sydney Cooper did every day was paint cows, so you can take your pick from hundreds.


And the picture hanging directly below the cows is by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Best known for his nocturnal scenes of urban landscapes. I would say the following painting of Liverpool Docks is close to the one that Waugh owned:


Though again this painter produced such landscapes by the yard.


John Atkinson Grimshaw and Thomas Sydney Cooper. At your Victorian service.

Alas, I have not yet identified the large painting on the left of the group. Oh well, life would be dull if we had all the answers.

How are we doing? The drawing room and the entrance hall are photographed, via six Henson plates. Next stop the dining room.


Henson has taken two near-identical photos of this room. Here is the other:


What are the differences, then?

In both cases the table is set for two, even though Evelyn and Laura had several children. In both cases the photo has been taken at about the same time of day judging by the shadows creeping into the room bottom left. But a chair has been taken out from the wall and put at the near end of the table. And candles have been placed in the candelabrum. Not only that, but the candles have been lit. Rather an ostentatious affect, since there is enough natural light in the room without them.

The candelabrum appears on the list of items intended to be transferred into the trust in 1952. It was made by Store Mortimer and bought for 200 guineas in 1947. That's worth £8,000 in 2018. What did Evelyn do with his
Brideshead money? He bought a state of the art lighting system for Piers Court!

I think we can deduce that it's the second of these photographs that was intended for publication. I think we can hypothesise that Evelyn (ignoring the sign on his own door) entered the room, helped himself to a glass of whisky from the carafe and observed:
"Ah yes, the Store Mortimer. Stuff candles in there, Henson, and let's see it looking its best. Real, shining silver! I will accept any reasonable offer for them you know. I want your readers to know that."

What about the pictures in the room? Firstly, there is
The Flower Cart by W. A. Atkinson, which Waugh bought from Leicester Galleries for £150. In a letter to Nancy Mitford in 1950, he described it as a recent purchase. So in summer 1949 it must have been very recent.


A gentleman is out for a stroll with his wife and daughter. They come across the scene of an unfortunate spillage. The daughter feels sorry for the owner of the cart (as does a working class girl) and her father is financing (with more Brideshead money?) his daughter's wish to buy something, and by so doing to compensate the working woman for the loss of her stock. What could be simpler? What could be nobler? What could be funnier?


A street sign suggests this is the Caledonian Road in London. Not so far from Canonbury Square where He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn used to live. There was an upset cart if ever there was one. But Evelyn circa 1949 was so over that. With his smart family and his ironic Victoriana and his Brideshead largesse.

Henson has not taken a separate photo of
The Spirit of the Rainbow by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. That is not a recent purchase, Waugh bought that in the late thirties. He invested £250 in it, which is worth £16,000 today. So even before Brideshead came along, Evelyn had money to spend. And he would have been keen to have an original work by the artist who was the subject of his very first book.


I think that's enough work for one day. Alfred E Henson has been allocated the guest room and has been given a cupboard that he can use as dark room. Yes, the first thing that the bowler-hatted photographer would have asked for when he arrived at Piers Court (according to the opening para of Clive Aslet's 2016 piece) was two bottles - one gin, one whisky, both empty.

"I have two such bottles, presently full. But by close of play they will be sitting empty, ready for collection in the dining room. I bid you good-evening. By the way, I am not an early riser. The library is yours until 11am."

Next morning then. Henson takes advantage of Waugh's not yet being up to take this photograph of the downstairs toilet. As much Evelyn's private space as his library.


When I saw this photograph back in June, I was so anxious to use it, but not to infringe on copyright, that I took a tracing of it and annotated it until I had this. Which I hope preserves the essential information.


If Henson had not taken that photograph where would we be? It is essential in understanding Waugh's larger-than-life personality. It reflects the mind that came up with the fresh humour displayed all through Decline and Fall and Scoop, for example.

And now to the library. Henson would have been pleasantly surprised to discover that Evelyn had prepared things for his visit. His best books laid out on the room's central table. If Henson had wanted the room to look uninhabited, he would have put away the large books set out on the table in the centre of the room. I presume he didn't dare. I presume he didn't even come close to daring.


Again, this is a crucial photograph. It invokes two more photographic sessions that took place in the room.


John Howard Wilson used this as the frontispiece to his literary biography of Waugh. The caption reads: 'Evelyn Waugh back at his desk in his study at Piers Court, after the Second World War.'

Then, in the summer of 1955, when Officers and Gentlemen was about to come out, Waugh was again photographed. This time in the window alcove adjoining his desk. You might conclude that the intervening decade had been hard on Evelyn.


Is it the same seats in the 1949 photograph? No, it's not. Perhaps Henson swopped this comfortable armchair for a seat that looked more elegant.

You could say the lighting in the library is bit odd. There is no main light. When evening draws in, what does Evelyn do? He lights the candle on his desk. He lights another cigar. And he begins drinking. If, on occasion, he needs to refer to a book, he reads by candlelight.

It's not that there is no electric light in the house. As we'll see there is a bedside lamp by his four-poster. There is also standard lamp in the drawing room. There might even be a lamp hidden in some corner of the Library. I mean at the side of the room opposite the windows that is neither shown by this photo (see below) or the photograph taken from desk to door.


If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see that there is a piece of furniture for storing paintings, middle right. I believe Henson made use of this in photographing the following. He's moved the piece of furniture into the middle of the room, obscuring the desk, looking towards the far end of the library and its wall of books.


This painting may be the one called The Young Patient which is of the Austrian School and cost £50. I'm not exactly sure what's happening. Two men seem to be considering the case of an anxious woman. The seated man may have been looking up medical books and the standing man is now considering his diagnosis.

It's dated 1892 and may be signed Geo. Fishwell or Fismwell. I did think the above painting might be
The Connoisseurs, by Swoboda, but I think that is shown below, which again has been photographed in the library, judging by the pillar (or is it carpet?) that I see in the background right.


There is a letter to Cyril Connolly, written in 1947, that mentions that Waugh finds that the 'train' pictures hang well in the hall, and reveals he is enthusiastic about his newest acquisition, The Connoisseurs, a Viennese painting of 1850 showing the agony of a widow during expert appraisal of her old painting. I didn't see the widow at first, but that's her to the right, dressed in black being looked after by advisers. It's a sort of Charles Dickens lookalike that is pontificating about the picture itself. No wonder it caught Waugh's eye.

The Young Patient and The Connoisseurs are particularly patriarchal. As is Out into the Cold. Evelyn Waugh did like his Victorian painters to be a tad misogynistic. Or is that just a recently reconstructed male of 2019 talking?

All of which leads us to this.


This is the view that Waugh saw every time he looked up from his work, over the head of the Queen Victoria bust that sat on his desk.

Here is Waugh's painting of George III from straight in front and in colour:


Apparently, Waugh had thought about writing, 'Scribble, scribble' on a ribbon attached to the frame. I don't suppose Waugh needed Queen Victoria and George III's encouragement to write, but I can see that it would have amused him to pretend that such was the case. Everything i a joke. One has to always bear that in mind when assessing Evelyn Waugh.

The sculpture in the corner of the room by the door to the hall is a marble group by Enrico Amodori of Romeo and Juliet. Patriarchal? Misogynistic? I can't tell from this distance.

Imagine: Alfred E. Henson realises that Evelyn Waugh is in the dining room eating his breakfast. Accordingly, he sneaks out of the Library, into the hall, and walks up the stairs. He has been given permission to enter Waugh's bedroom and take a single photograph. He does so.


A bed fit for a king! Note the crucifix. And imagine Evelyn bending down in front of it to say his prayers each evening. What has he got in the lockable boxes. That may be where he keeps the envelope in which there is a naked picture of Alastair. And other memorobilia of 'Sentimental Friendships'.

Henson sighs before doing his business. If only that huge lump of dark mahogany wasn't there. If only those four heavy posts were absent. Then he could have taken a photograph that would please his editor. But what could he do?

As I alluded to at the beginning, when Waugh got the photographs he wrote a postcard to A.E. Henson which said simply:
'The photographs are excellent. Very many thanks.' E.W.

Why then did
Country Life not publish the piece? Let's go there again. Here are two possible scenarios.

One. The problem may have been in the mind of Christopher Hussey. According to Clive Aslet, Hussey lived in Scotney Castle, which he had inherited, was a disciplined figure 'whose formidable output of articles, produced from previously unstudied country houses, had made him the leading authority in his field.' Hussey had flirted with an appreciation of Modernism, while self-made Evelyn Waugh had gone the other way, filling his house with self-mocking Victoriana.

I can imagine Christopher Hussey admiring the Georgian architecture of Piers Court and then becoming dismayed as his eyes explored one room after another. The Owl figurine dominating the drawing room. The portrait of George III in the Library. The books lying on top of the table in the Library. The ostentatious lump of silver in the middle of the Dining Room table. Dear, oh dear, oh dear.

"If you had just cleared some of these surfaces, Alfred."

"I tried, God help me. Waugh wasn't having any. Besides what can you do about a four-poster bed?"

Country Life make the mistake of not pinning down Waugh to a sum for permission to reproduce the photographs they take. Once the photographs are taken and the article written, Christopher Hussey makes the mistake of thinking that Waugh will be flattered into giving permission.

E.W. "That will be a thousand pounds, please."

C.H. "Oh, I don't think there was ever any question of payment."

E.W. "In that case, I don't think there can be any possibility of these photographs appearing in your magazine."


When writing to
Country Life in the summer of 2019, I finished my approach letter by saying this: 'I’d use low res images for the essay (if given permission) and would conclude with a statement that every Waugh aficionado 'should consider owning and displaying a pair of framed photographs from 'Piers Court, 1949'. In my case, the two images being the library view with George III and Waugh's bedroom. This would be a serious and considered statement of the photographs' aesthetic interest and collectability in a Waugh context. Would it not be interesting to see if it resulted in sales of the pictures?'

I half-expect to receive a letter warning me of copyright infringement and asking me to remove the images from the site. However, I’ll be arguing that this is a case of personal research in the public interest, where there is no conceivable commercial loss on the part of
Country Life. And in such cases permission is not required.