In the 1530s, Cardinal Marcello Cervini, the future Pope Marcellus II, bought Castello Cervini, a medieval monastery surrounded by chestnut trees in Tuscany’s Vivo d’Orcia estate. And while Marcellus II passed away just 22 days after ascending to the papacy in 1555, his family has retained the property for four centuries and counting. By the time the photographer Simon Watson visited, in 2002, Marcellus’s descendants Daria Cervini and her siblings had turned the castle into a summer retreat, but many tokens of the family’s past remained, and a portrait of the ill-fated pope in a crimson mozzetta kept watch over all.
Watson set about capturing what he calls the residence’s “poetic beauty,” and the results — an image of a wallpapered bedroom with a pair of twin beds awash in a blueish light, another of the arm of a pink sofa set next to a small vase of matching freshly picked flowers — are, along with his photos of 19 other homes, included in his forthcoming book, “The Lives of Others.” Paging through, one is immediately aware of why the photographer is sought out by many magazines, including T. “Aesthetic beauty is what stirs me and what always will,” says Watson, adding, “I suppose because I grew up in Dublin, I had a natural affinity for the Georgian sensibility. I spent time living in old houses with crumbling plasterwork and broken floorboards.”
Indeed, his pictures are often of homes that wear their history on their sleeves. But the images’ ease and elegance stems from much more than the physical elements within the frame, however fine. Watson is a master of light and color, and his work has earned comparisons to that of the Dutch masters. He favors natural light — as Tom Delavan, who is T’s design/interiors director, writes in the book’s foreword, “shutters are his tool of choice, canted at seemingly random angles to transform spaces into something dramatically beautiful” — and painterly hues, from saturated aquas to misty greens to deep reds.
Watson also has a keen sense of people, or rather how people might exist in a space, retreating to one favorite corner to work and another to relax. His Castello Cervini pictures don’t emphasize the property’s grandness so much as they convey a sense of intimacy and authenticity — there’s some peeling floral wallpaper that reveals the older painted trim beneath; there’s a skylit table piled with books; there’s a small, beloved teddy bear. It’s almost as though, as with Horst P. Horst’s 20th-century pictures of grand homes, Watson is merely peeking from one room into another, never wishing to intrude or disrupt the natural state of things. If you look closely, even in a picture of the home’s imposing facade, taken with the camera tilted upward, a figure peers down from an upstairs window, a seeming reminder, as the book title implies, of the lives lived inside.
Watson’s own life has been just as rich. His parents immersed him and his siblings in fine art and classical architecture from a young age. The photographer, now 51, went on to study film at a small college in his native Dublin, but soon dropped out and spent time working in cities around Europe. “Slowly, different events in my life gradually brought me to photography. My father bought me a camera when I was 15 or 16, and I’d wander around taking black-and-white pictures of anything and everything,” he says. “I also just liked the idea of being a photographer, probably for all the wrong reasons — working as an assistant and doing the odd magazine shoot here and there, maybe too many viewings of Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’ [the 1966 film in which David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer]. When one is young, one is impressionable.” In 1989, Watson moved to New York and launched what is now a three-decade career that has spanned commercial and editorial work as well as personal projects, such as his 2006 exhibition at Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, “A Lingering Presence,” which documented spaces at the concentration camp that had never been open to the public.
With “The Lives of Others,” out from Rizzoli next week, Watson presents an edit of the interiors he has been commissioned to photograph over the years, and includes many previously unpublished images. Each section opens with a vignette in which he riffs on the featured characters and spaces. Castel Gardena, a 17th-century hunting lodge in the Dolomites owned by the winemaker Andrea Franchetti, was, Watson writes, in a “glorious state of romantic disrepair,” with various animals chewing noisily in the walls and scurrying through his room at night.
But mostly the photos speak for themselves. Those of Casa Horta, the architect and furniture designer Guillermo Santomà’s surrealist Barcelona home, show a bubblegum pink dining room with plastic lawn chairs that Santomà partially melted with a blowtorch, as well as a still-life of fruit and architectural elements painted directly on the wall by the artist Marria Pratts. “When I stepped in, I immediately thought, this guy is great; this guy has got such a vivid imagination,” Watson says. Another architect with a distinctive vision, Arno Brandlhuber, fashioned Antivilla, his lake house near Potsdam, out of an old East German underwear factory, using sledgehammers to smash asymmetrical windows into the concrete walls. “It’s abrupt and Brutalist, not dissimilar to Brandlhuber himself,” says Watson. Clearly, it’s the personal details that linger with him: “The place where someone lives is a portrait of who they are,” Watson says. “You can tell their humor and their character.”