Robert Ettinger, the CEO of Ettinger, talked to Giles Kime, Country Life's Executive and Interiors Editor about Country Life’s 125 anniversary, heritage and the collaboration created to celebrate it.
Images by Country Life
Robert: How has the 125th anniversary year been for Country Life?
Giles: It’s obviously been a busy year in a good way. The celebrations of the 125th have been wrapped up with an issue that was edited by the Queen Consort, then the Duchess of Cornwall. We had an event at Claridge’s, and she came to that, which put us on the map, but what was also very exciting about that is, not only did she edit an edition of the magazine on July the 13th, but also a film was made about the whole process of her editing the magazine. And really it was a lens through which to view her and her own interests because that’s what that edition of Country Life reflected; and so, the two did go together really nicely, because it was the celebration of both her own involvement in the magazine and also the 125th anniversary.
Image by Country Life
I think what’s been exciting about it is that, rather like your business, Country Life is an example of an enterprise that has an amazing heritage, and we don’t think that it’s enough to have an amazing heritage: we are also conscious that we always need to be on the front foot, and we always need to be evolving, not necessarily the magazine itself, but what we do in terms of our focus and in terms of our collaborations. So, the edition that was edited by the Queen Consort is an example of that: of constantly doing new projects that mean that we’re in the spotlight.
I think that’s a challenge, but it is an exciting one, and I think it’s the reason why Country Life is not necessarily a magazine you would launch today; however, it is one that Mark [Hedges – Editor-in-Chief] loves to say is one of the only magazines in the world that is increasing its readership. And so, we have a challenge that everybody has, whether it’s us or you, Bentley or Johnstons of Elgin who are 225 years old this year, so 100 years older than us, but they are constantly making sure that they stay relevant.
Robert: Yes, it’s interesting because 125 years is a long time and Country Life must be one of the oldest lifestyle magazines in the UK, indeed in the world. Why do you think it’s still attractive to people? It has evolved, of course, as you said, but it’s still working, and as you say increasing the number of readers, which is a fantastic thing in today’s world of print.
Giles: I think if one was to identify a single reason for that it is what the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, said on our 120th anniversary, that what he loves about Country Life is that it celebrates things that other people often overlook. And I think because, whilst we are a weekly magazine but don’t follow the mainstream news agenda, it allows us an enormous freedom to really find subjects that aren’t necessarily at the top of the news agenda, but which people are nevertheless interested in. So, you won’t necessarily read a huge amount about other burning issues of the day, whether it is Covid or Brexit, but you will find a whole raft of different subjects covered, that are relevant to our readers, whether they are interested in the countryside, architecture, gardening or the arts, and in that sense it’s pretty unique.
Image by Country Life
Robert: That’s the nice thing about Country Life. A lot of people are saying these days that they’re avoiding listening to the news or reading the newspapers. You read Country Life - I’ve just been reading it this morning - and it is the nice things about life that do carry on, and that’s very important. When we first talked about Edward Hudson, who founded Country Life many, many years ago, I had never heard of him, and now you are starting to talk about him a lot more. Are your readers finding this interesting and coming back with questions, and wanting to know a bit more about the history of Country Life?
Giles: They are very interested; he was a visionary. With the advent of the motorcar, he saw that people’s relationship with the countryside was going to change. Before the arrival of the internal combustion engine, the only way you could explore the country was either by getting a train somewhere, post about 1840, and then you’d presumably rely on either a horse or your feet to explore the countryside.
I think he recognised that, with the rapid advancement of technology and engineering, people were going to be able to really engage with the countryside in a different way, and that there would be a demand for a magazine that celebrated the English countryside. And despite the fact that the magazine was launched, published and edited on Tavistock Street in Covent Garden, its focus was very much celebrating our countryside heritage, and so, in that sense, he was commercially very astute, but he was also a visionary. To cut a long story short, it was an overnight commercial success, and he was soon in a position to commission completely purpose-built editorial offices, printing presses, typesetters and administrative function, all incorporated into a new building, that Sir Edwin Lutyens, who at that time was very young, was asked to design.
It was like commissioning an up-and-coming architect, which was quite a brave thing to do. He then commissioned him to build a house for him in Sonning and a bit later to restore a castle on the Northumberland coast, called Lindisfarne. And the two very much shared a vision for a new country lifestyle, which relied on not necessarily having an enormous country house, but having beautiful and incredibly good quality houses, and I think that in many senses they were ahead of their time. And that really is the foundation for Country Life.
But also, what I think is interesting about it is that the DNA is pretty much unchanged 125 years later. Although obviously it looks like a different magazine, the things that it focuses on are still the same, and I think that’s again coming back to the point that every heritage brand has to address that it’s important not to lose your DNA, to absolutely stay true to your principles. Despite that we are no longer on Tavistock Street, the magazine is the same; in fact, Huon Mallalieu, who writes about antiques in the magazine, quoted The Leopard by Lampedusa the other day saying: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change’. Which I think is sort of what Country Life has done.
Robert: A few weeks ago, I was reading a very old copy of Country Life from the 1930s and a friend’s house was featured in there. In the magazine the house was called a lesser country house, which must have upset the owners because it is a pretty nice big place, but there you go! And you know, yes, it has changed a bit, but a lot of things in Country Life nowadays were in Country Life then, and these sorts of things, as you said earlier, don’t change. This isn’t about economics and politics, it’s about life in the countryside, gardens, houses and growing things, and it’s all very similar in many ways, which is great.
One thing that I find interesting is that, a bit like with Ettinger, you have quite a young readership and so is Ettinger’s. That I think surprises quite a lot of people. I think at first people might think that Ettinger customers are all sort of 50+ but they are not. And neither are Country Life readers.
Giles: Funnily enough I’ve just had a follow-up email about this subject. The most searched interior design term on Instagram and TikTok is “farmhouse interior”. I don’t really understand what the cottage core is, but the younger people do, and I just think that is an example of what people seem to want: character and authenticity. And I think that is resonating with the younger audience now. Also, post-Covid, people aren’t necessarily commuting to London five days a week, so there are opportunities to live in the countryside that weren’t there five years ago. And I think Britain has evolved. I think we will look back in ten years’ time and realise there has been a huge amount of evolution in a short space of time.
Robert: Yes, that’s true. Can you tell us about any amusing stories from the past 125 years of Country Life?
Giles: I always like the Stonehenge story. Stonehenge was advertised for sale in the pages of Country Life in 1915. And the story goes that a man called Cecil Chubb went to the auction in Salisbury and bought Stonehenge thinking his wife might like it as a gift. Unfortunately, he was mistaken, and three years later he ended up giving it to the nation.
Stonehenge, UK, image by Unsplash
Robert: That’s a great story! Going back to Country Life’s audience, the circulation of Country Life is really growing at the moment, which, as we said earlier, was unusual for a print magazine. Why do you think that is? You are managing to do what others haven’t done or aren’t able to do.
Giles: I think it’s because we are sticking to our guns, and we are carrying on doing what we have always done. I think that there is this sense amongst a lot of our audience, or generally the younger audience, that so much of the media, both traditional and new, is about confronting people’s views, and I think there is quietness and politeness about Country Life that people, particularly during Covid, found as a sort of an entry.
Robert: That makes a lot of sense. We are now working together and have developed this lovely collection for Country Life and Ettinger. What made you, Country Life, consider Ettinger to celebrate the anniversary of Country Life when you approached us?
Giles: Because we have an awful lot in common. You are not quite as old as Country Life, but you are a heritage brand that has continued to evolve. You have succeeded in managing to stay relevant in the 21st century, not just the early 20th century when you were founded.
VIEW THE FULL COLLECTION HERE