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VICTORIA STATION, LONDON, spring 1903. A short, stocky man with a red beard stands on the platform beside a pile of trunks. The first of them is marked with his name - Charles Latham Esq - and covered in a collage of labels that map out the course of the long journey ahead of him: London to Dover on the boat train, Dover to Calais by ferry, Calais to Paris, and then a change of train for the twenty-four hour journey to Turin. In Turin he will change trains once again before the final leg of his journey - another sixteen hours to Rome, via Genoa and Pisa. The second-class ticket for this long and complicated journey cost him £6. 16s. 3d.
Another trunk in the pile bears the name of Mr T. Dollinger, who will be Charles Latham's guide and interpreter in Italy. At this moment Mr Dollinger appears through clouds of steam that billow across the platform, a bowler hat on his head and a porter at his side. The train is due to depart in a few minutes and the porter is anxious to load the gentlemen's luggage. He is about to swing the final trunk up into the guard's van whenMr Latham stops him. Speaking abruptly in a broad, south London accent he points out the labels distributed evenly all over it, their red lettering spelling out the word 'fragile'. Mr Latham has every reason to be cautious. The trunk contains the tools of his trade: a large-format camera, folded down for travelling, several heavy boxes of fragile, glass-plate negatives, plate holders, a tripod and a selection of lenses. Exposure meters had been invented by this time, but Latham was of a generation that had no use for them. Long experience had taught him to estimate his exposures, using one set of calculations for sunny weather, and another for sun and cloud. There were no second chances. Glass plates were extremely heavy to carry and expensive to process, and he permitted himself only one shot of each view.
Latham is likely to have consulted a Baedeker before his departure. If so, the journey in the London to Dover boat train may have been the last time he allowed himself to be separated from his trunks, for nobody could ignore the chilling warning issued in it under the heading 'Luggage': 'As several robberies of passengers' luggage have been perpetrated in Italy without detection, it is as well that articles of great value should not be entrusted to the safe-keeping of any trunk or portmanteau, however strong and secure it may seem.'
Good fortune attended Latham and Dollinger, however. They travelled without mishap and arrived in Rome with their trunks intact. It was here that Latham began work on the magnificent collection of photographs that would eventually illustrate The Gardens of Italy, an elegant, two-volume work, published in 1905 in London by Country Life Books. Many of these beautiful photographs are reproduced once again in this book.
At the time of his Italian adventure Charles Latham had been a freelance photographer of architecture and gardens for almost thirty years, and was widely acknowledged as one of the finest photographers in the country. He worked at the cutting edge of his trade, producing pictures remarkable for their non-invasive style, their beautifully balanced composition and their almost scientific clarity. His career was reaching its apex at about the same time as Country Life Illustrated, a 'journal for all interested in country life and country pursuits', was launched in London on 8 January 1897.
This new magazine was the brainchild of Edward Hudson, the prosperous owner of Hudson & Kearns, a family business responsible for publishing a rather unsuccessful magazine called Racing Illustrated. Hudson decided to relaunch the ailing magazine, and joined forces with Sir George Riddell, a solicitor who held shares in another magazine publishing company called George Newnes Limited. The outcome of their collaboration was Country Life, a weekly magazine for a general audience, with articles on architecture and gardens, illustrated with specially commissioned photographs. Initially, Hudson relied on commercial firms to photograph the featured houses, but in 1898 Charles Latham, whose architectural photography had been much admired in such publications as J. A. Gotch's The Architecture of Renaissance England (1894) and G. H. Birch's London City Churches (1896), was offered the job of staff photographer. It was to prove an inspired appointment by Hudson, as Latham's work transformed the magazine. Through its 'Country Homes and Gardens' series, Country Life became closely associated with the creation of a superb photographic record of British country houses - the hallmark of the magazine to this day.