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 Bront