Life is no longer black and white for girls in pearls: Charles Oulton finds 'Country Life' has ruffled feathers by dispensing with engagement photos

A FEW years ago, the daughter of a prominent businessman was desperate to have her engagement photograph in Country Life. Her father tried to oblige: for pounds 4,000 he hired a public relations firm with the brief to provide suitable clothes, make-up and jewellery, and give her the right aura.

It was a disaster. The photographer, Catherine Moubray, said the young woman was so made up that she couldn't see what she looked like. 'She was desperately nervous and she looked dreadful.'

Country Life refused to publish the result and the public relations firm, challenged by the irate father, blamed out-of-focus photographs. So the father got on to Miss Moubray. 'Absolute rubbish,' she said. 'They gave her the wrong image. I can get her in if you let me do it my way.'

So a new set of photographs was planned: the young woman was dressed in polo clothing, and placed, for the first time in her life, on a horse. It was a mare in season, as Miss Moubray, perched on a stallion, was to find. The stallion launched itself at the mare, hurling its rider to the ground, and by the time Miss Moubray had collected her senses she felt able to take only the odd picture of the subject standing beside her mare before beating a retreat to London.

But Country Life liked the photographs and the young woman was soon staring out of the frontispiece at readers, none of whom had the slightest idea about the money, strain and physical hardship that had got her there.

Girls-with-pearls have been a feature of Country Life for most of the century, but times are changing at the glossy magazine, which has a weekly circulation of 46,000. To the consternation of many readers, Jenny Greene, the editor, has dispensed with the old format of black-and-white engagement photographs of pretty young women with bare shoulders, although wedding and engagement photographs in colour do still appear.

Miss Greene now prefers to fill that slot with colour pictures of people that interest her. So on 18 June, readers were introduced to the Earl of Selborne and his golden retriever, for no obvious reason other than his position as chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and his home at Temple Manor, Selborne; or, in the 27 August issue, Count Umberto Caproni di Taliedo, of Milan, who found his way on to the page by virtue of his membership of the British Falconry Club. He looks splendidin his tweed suit, with a peregrine falcon on his fist, but he isn't a Camilla or a Samantha, and that is bothering some people.

It is certainly bothering Rosalind Mann, a photographer whose name has been synonymous with the frontispiece for 30 years. She made her reputation by scouring society pages and writing to likely candidates to suggest a sitting. When the photographs were taken, she asked the women if they would like to appear in Country Life. Most did. Now her black-and-white portraits go elsewhere.

'Quite a lot of people have been very upset about it,' she said. 'I told Jenny Greene three years ago that fewer people were having engagement photographs, but I was wrong. Girls are more serious- minded now, but they still like an engagement photograph, and many still like the idea of appearing in Country Life.'

Miss Greene, who is leaving in January, said she had wanted to scrap the old format when she took up the editorship five years ago.

'It took me a long time because there were other things to do, but when Rosalind Mann said the engagement photograph was dying out, it coincided with my wish to end them,' she said. 'Instead, I wanted to have photographs of people whose lifestyle the magazine mirrored.'

So out went girls-with-pearls such as Grace Everett, the last to appear on the frontispiece in black and white, and, two weeks later, in came the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Despite this, royals make only fleeting appearances, as they have throughout the magazine's 97-year history. A four-year-old child clutching a rabbit, as long as the child is connected, is just as likely to appear on the frontispiece, as happened on 25 June.

Mind you, it still helps to know the right people. In this case, the rabbit was Lopperty, and the woman was Lady Marina Moore, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Drogheda. The photograph was taken by Derry Moore, one of the few photographers trusted by Miss Greene to get people's titles right.

Her confidence is scarcely surprising. When away from the camera, Derry Moore reverts to his real name: the Earl of Drogheda.

(Photographs omitted)