Country houses in the UK date back as far as the medieval period, when England had a population of just a few million and whole swathes of land were preserved for the king’s stag hunting. Yet, despite many country houses serving as exquisite architectural time capsules of centuries long past, they continue to fascinate and inspire us well into the 21st century. The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet offers a fresh and authoritative account of this enduringly popular building type, revealing the captivating stories behind individual houses such as Belvoir Castle, Chatsworth House and Strawberry Hill, as well as their architects and occupants.
Building historian and illustrator Bethan Scorey had the unique task of creating architecturally accurate yet strikingly beautiful illustrations for the jacket and chapter headings of The Story of the Country House. We asked Bethan to tell us more about her sources of inspiration for the project, her creative process, and what advice she has for those interested in developing their skills in book illustration.
1. Let’s start where all readers of The Story of the Country House will start – the absolutely stunning cover!
Can you give us any insights into the process of working on illustrations for a book jacket, and if creating cover art as opposed to a print or postcard presented any new challenges?
I absolutely loved working on the cover. I was given a lot of freedom by the team to come up with a few concepts that they could choose from. Initially we liked the idea of having an array of houses from different periods on the cover but in the end the strongest concept was the final one. The brief was to depict the country house as a world of its own, and I think this cover does that by showing the activity contained within the walls. It was important to us that the whole household was represented, including the staff and even the animals! I chose a Restoration style house because the narrow proportions suited the portrait cover.
Usually, I’m the only person who sees my illustrations until they’re complete, so working with a team where each party has their own criteria and concerns was a new challenge. For example, the jacket designer was thinking about where to place text and the marketing team was thinking about which concept was most striking and would draw people to the book. There were lots of sketches and iterations going back and forth, but that just made it even more satisfying when we landed on a final version.
2. Are your illustrations for the book based on real buildings? Which was your favourite to research and create and why?
None of the illustrations are based on real buildings, instead I was given the challenge of inventing a building to represent each chapter, and in some cases, we wanted gardens too. The illustrations could be described as amalgamations of the examples discussed in each chapter and of architectural features typical of each period. I’m a building historian as well as an illustrator, so I know how to read historic buildings, and I would describe this as ‘writing’ historic buildings, a skill I didn’t know I had!
I’m from Cardiff, which has plenty of Victorian Gothic Revival buildings, so it was no surprise that the illustration for Chapter 8 came very quickly to me. Other chapters were trickier and required a lot more research. I’d say the biggest challenge was the illustration for the final chapter, ‘Now’, as it was tough to choose a style which characterises the present, without the benefit of hindsight. Clive kindly sent me some examples of his favourite contemporary country houses and architectural practices for inspiration, and the illustration ended up being one of my favourites.
3. How do you balance creating interesting illustrations in your own original style whilst representing historic houses as accurately as possible?
I trained as an architect, so my first experience of drawing buildings was creating very accurate architectural drawings, sometimes with Computer Aided Design software. Naturally, my illustrations have a sense of accuracy to this day. I suppose that’s what sets my illustrations apart from others who work more freely. I absolutely love illustrations of buildings where they are wonky and playful, but I can never bring myself to miss out a detail or illustrate something that doesn’t look structurally sound!
When representing a real building I always want to honour the architect; the building isn’t my creation, the creative part is choosing how to represent it. I think of my illustrations as digital collages, as I layer colours and textures that I’ve created, sometimes by hand. I also like experimenting with angles and viewpoints and I enjoy playing with aerial views, especially of gardens; I really love seventeenth century birds eye paintings of country houses.
4. Why do you think people in the 21st century continue to be fascinated by the history of and stories behind country houses across Britain?
I think the size of country houses and their gardens appeals to people as there’s definitely a sense of wonder and escapism when you explore one, especially as no two are the same. Clive’s writing perfectly captures that feeling of adventure you get when you visit a country house.
I think they have longevity because we are constantly re-assessing country houses and drawing out new stories, for example there has been far more focus on the lives and contribution of household staff in recent decades. We don’t just celebrate country houses at face value anymore; instead, good curation and storytelling helps people to understand how a country house came to be and where the capital to build it came from.
5. What advice would you give to illustrators who are interested in developing their skills in book illustration?
I would advise illustrators to draw what they know and what they really love, and the right projects will come your way. There are so many illustrators out there, but if your illustrations have substance they will stand out. There are books about everything, and if there’s no book out there to match your illustrations, then even more reason to create one. For example, my unique selling point as an illustrator is that I depict buildings and that I bring my expertise as an architectural historian to my practice. This project required someone who could invent historically accurate buildings for each chapter, but also someone with a clear style and experience of illustrating buildings, so I’d put myself in a perfect position to take on this commission. And it was my dream project!
When it comes to actually creating illustrations for a book my best advice would be to trust in the process of exchanging ideas, sketches, and feedback. It certainly felt strange to send simple black and white sketches in the early stages as I didn’t feel that they were up to my standard. But you can’t hold early sketches to the standards of your final illustrations. The key here is to understand the distinction between the early sketches, which are supposed to help you and the team decide on the contents of the illustrations, and the final ones, where you can let loose and really put your stamp on them.
6. Can you tell us about any other current or upcoming projects you are excited about?
I’m working on a collection of illustrations of buildings at St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff. It’s an open-air museum just over one hundred acres in size where buildings from every corner of Wales have been re-erected, or in some cases recreated. They range in date from the iron age roundhouses to the 1940s post-war prefabs and there are buildings of every type. They will make for a very varied and colourful collection and there are over seventy, so they will keep me busy for a while. St Fagans is my workplace and it’s where my interest in historic buildings began; it’s also the subject of my PhD, which I’m currently working on, so it feels like a very timely project. I’m also excited to see if any opportunities arise from this book cover, as I’d love to illustrate more country houses!
See more of Bethan’s beautiful illustrations and pick up your own copy of The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People by Clive Aslet.
Bethan Scorey is a building historian and illustrator from Cardiff. Her work celebrates the historic architecture and gardens of Wales and beyond through research, writing and colourful illustrations. She is currently a PhD candidate researching the history of an Elizabethan country house called St Fagans Castle.
She also works at St Fagans National History Museum, an open-air museum full of historic buildings of all types and ages brought from across Wales. Bethan brings her expertise to her illustrations, from choosing which buildings to depict to capturing every tiny detail.