Mark Fiennes

Distinguished photographer known for his work in architecture and interiors

Tuesday 04 January 2005 01:00 GMT

Mark Fiennes, photographer: born Dalton, Northumberland 11 November 1933; married 1962 Jini Lash (died 1993; four sons, two daughters), 1996 Caroline Evans; died Clare, Suffolk 30 December 2004.

Mark Fiennes, the distinguished photographer, was best known for his work in the field of architecture and interiors. Fiennes was, however, a photographer of extraordinary versatility, whose work - featured in 2003 in a major retrospective at the Menier Gallery in London - reflected his sensitivity to places and people, his perennial sense of humour and, not least, an ingrained dislike of pomposity and hierarchy that gave many of his pictures a cutting edge of social comment.

Having taken up professional photography when he was nearly 40, Mark Fiennes achieved success as the illustrator of innumerable articles in Country Life magazine and of no fewer than 25 books, including a collaboration with Norma Major on a history of Chequers (Chequers: the Prime Minister's country house and its history, 1996). He craved new challenges and was working on several projects at the time of his death, including an exhibition of the work of the architect Norman Foster to be shown at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston later this year.

Mark Fiennes was born at Dalton, Northumberland in 1933, the eldest of five children of the industrialist Maurice Fiennes, who was later knighted by Harold Wilson for his services to the export of British heavy engineering products, and of his wife Sylvia. Fiennes's mother was a strong influence, a keen horsewoman with a sense of style in dress and décor that her son inherited.

At the age of eight, Fiennes was sent away to preparatory school and then to Eton, an experience he recalled with distaste many decades later. Excelling neither academically nor as a sportsman, he found Eton abhorrent, a place memorable largely for sheer discomfort.

He became seriously ill with glomerulonephritis (a disease of the kidneys) towards the end of his time there and the consultant Robert Platt (later Lord Platt) gave him only a few years to live. In the hope of prolonging his life, his parents sent him to Australia and New Zealand, where he worked on sheep farms and subsequently cattle stations. Fiennes warmed to farm life and his health was restored - a spell working on a Texas ranch followed.

Returning to England, Fiennes resolved to become a farmer and took on the tenancy of a farm on the estate of the Earl of Stradbroke in Suffolk. It was in Suffolk that he met Jennifer (Jini) Lash, the daughter of an army officer, whom he married in 1962. Jini (whom her fellow writer Dodie Smith remembered as "almost too interesting to be true") had already published two of her five novels and the marriage rekindled Mark Fiennes's artistic instincts. He had been a keen photographer while still a schoolboy and made 8mm movie films of his travels. For a time he considered pursuing a career as a film cameraman.

With a growing family to support (their first son, Ralph, was born late in 1962 and five more children followed, along with a foster son), Fiennes embarked on an odyssey of restoring and reselling houses as a source of income. The family moved to Shaftesbury in Dorset in 1969, briefly to the west coast of Ireland, then to Kilkenny, thence to Wiltshire, before settling in London - which Jini Fiennes disliked - in the late Seventies.

Finally concentrating on his photography, Mark Fiennes launched a fruitful collaboration with the Irish writer Peter Somerville-Large (four of whose books he illustrated) and began an association with Country Life that extended into the early 1990s. His skill at photographing historic houses (and charming their sometimes difficult owners) led to some exceptionally prestigious commissions.

Among the books Fiennes illustrated were tomes on Spencer House (Spencer House, 1993), Dorneywood (Dorneywood, 1992), 10 Downing Street (10 Downing Street: the illustrated history, 1999), Clarence House (Clarence House, 1996) and the post-fire restoration of Windsor Castle (Windsor Castle: restoration of the state rooms, 1997). The National Trust became a regular client and Fiennes's pictures also featured in guidebooks to some of England's greatest cathedrals. Among major architectural books with Fiennes illustrations was a scholarly monograph Greene & Greene: the work of the California Arts & Crafts brothers by Edward Bosley in 2000. A number of commissions came from the art publisher Phaidon. Writers relished working with him, feeling that he understood buildings and had a real passion for architecture. Perhaps Fiennes's interest and aptitude in the construction of things helped - his sons were presented with stunningly detailed model aircraft.

Jini Fiennes died of cancer in 1993, after a long illness. While working with Norma Major on her book about Chequers, Mark Fiennes met the floral artist Caroline Evans. The couple married in 1996. It was an exceptionally happy union, although coinciding with several difficult years in terms of his work. The termination of the Country Life association was a blow, but an undaunted Fiennes energetically relaunched his career.

The exhibition of his work held at the Menier Gallery late in 2003, to coincide with his 70th birthday, attracted keen critical interest, not least on account of the sheer range of the images on display - toffs at the races, gypsies at an Irish horse fair, an exotically tattooed tiler crawling over a Suffolk roof, among others. A series of evening parties held at the gallery brought together family, friends and professional collaborators and reflected the range of Fiennes's professional connections and the warmth of his personal friendships and family ties.

After his second marriage, Fiennes moved to Clare in Suffolk where he and Caroline restored a listed timber-framed house and created an exquisite garden, while retaining a small working base in London. He involved himself energetically in local affairs, taking on the post of secretary to the Clare Society and becoming an active supporter of the campaign to stop the further expansion of Stansted airport. Totally unpretentious, friendly and generous to all, he was well liked in the town. Fiennes loved Suffolk and delighted in finding churches that he had never visited, planning further visits to photograph them.

During 2003 he made an extended tour of Europe, with his wife as his driver, photographing Foster and Partners projects for the forthcoming American exhibition. A retrospective exhibition on the work of the Suffolk-based architect Raymond Erith, "Raymond Erith: progressive classicist", recently shown at Sir John Soane's Museum in London, featured a set of Fiennes's colour pictures of Erith's buildings, also used to illustrate the catalogue.

Fiennes was proud of the achievements of his children, the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, Martha and Sophie, both film-makers, Magnus, a musician, and Jake, a conservation manager on a big East Anglian estate. "Biologically, I am 50 per cent of the equation," he declared, contemplating a creative brood. His own creative achievement remains the tangible memorial of a life resplendent in the warmth and generosity of spirit he himself valued so highly.

Kenneth Powell

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in