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A Hard Seventy Years

by Stoker

An envied British institution

No, not the National Health Service. Something much more enviable. This year is the 70th anniversary of The Buildings of England series in hardback, better known as “Pevsners” after their esteemed writer and editor Herr Doctor Professor Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Note that qualifying “in hardback”; they had in fact started to come out a couple of years earlier in paperback, but they wore badly and production quickly switched to hardback, as they remain seventy years on.

But before we get into the whys and wherefores and their unique contribution to architectural history, an anecdote which cannot be resisted. Pevsner was by the 1960’s the leading architectural historian and writer in Britain; his only serious rival was John Harris, a near contemporary, but a man as different to Pevsner as could be. Suffice it to say, they disliked each other immensely. Harris got consent to view the interiors of that great but unknown then (and now) treasure house Narford Hall, in the deepest rurality of West Norfolk. Many had sought this privilege, but Harris and two companions were, after years of trying, granted admission by its forbidding chatelaine, Mrs Fountaine. They began the tour with Mrs F declaiming the importance of the collections (though, in fact, sadly reduced by sales over the years). As they toured, a maid approached Mrs F to tell her that there were a man and woman at the front door, with a clipboard. “The meter reader”, the maid surmised. Harris and friends were escorted to the front door where they found none other than Professor Pevsner in a brown coat with a clipboard, accompanied by his wife, hoping on the off chance to be admitted. Harris admitted to grinning at the Pevsners over Mrs Fountaine’s shoulder as they stood on the doorstep; and grinning even more as Harris left, to see the Pevsners and clipboard sitting by the hall drive in Mrs Pevsner’s mini-car. He later gleefully reported that Pevsner’s account in the Norfolk volume of The Buildings of England of the unseen Narford was mostly inaccurate.

But that was a rare lacuna by Pevsner. The idea of the county architectural books came to him during the Second World War when he realised that so much of architectural importance was being destroyed by bombing, and that changed economic circumstances after the war might mean threats to many more buildings, urban and rural. He put the idea of making a complete record of buildings of architectural importance, county by county, to Allen Lane, chairman and principal shareholder of Penguin Publishers, who loved it, and supported Pevsner from the off. The first counties tackled were Middlesex (now subsumed into north-west London) and Nottinghamshire, and the methodology was, and remained, for research to be carried out over the winter and then over the academic summer holiday (Pevsner was an academic at both the University of London’s Birkbeck College, and Cambridge University). Pevsner and his wife toured the chosen county, usually visiting every building which was later recorded in the guide.

It was an extraordinary feat, carried on after Mrs Pevsner’s death in 1963 which hit the Professor hard, but which did not deflect him from completing coverage of every county in 1974. (Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, north and south, followed but were not written by Pevsner, and indeed Ireland is only now nearing completion.) Pevsner wrote 32 of the guides alone, and a further 10 with others. As well as almost every architecturally significant building, with very few omissions, they contain plans and drawings of important features, and originally a modest range of black and white photographs, chosen to cover settings and county styles as well as key buildings. Recently the photographs, many taken for new editions of the guides, have appeared in colour. A few guides are now into their fourth editions, but most have only reached a second or third editions, re-edited by specialists on the particular areas. Poor Staffordshire is still only in its first edition, though a second one is due soon, and Yorkshire North Riding has just reached its second time out, sixty years after the first.

If you have any interest in British architecture – if you might be contemplating a tour of churches or houses in a particular area, or to walk the streets of London or some other great city, looking from side to side and always upwards to that true indicator of a building’s history, chimneys and roof, the relevant Pevsner is an essential companion. The great man himself had an austere, indeed terse, style of writing and descriptions are often very short, though telling. He had particular enthusiasms – churches and in particular good later Victorian churches, and modernist and brutalist architecture, neither the most popular subjects, then or now. But he was one of the first architectural historians to see the architectural merit of such buildings and as not all have survived, the earlier volumes contain records of buildings now sadly (or otherwise) lost. He, or his collaborators, managed to procure internal access to nearly every building of merit – not of course including Narford, or, sadly, that extraordinary moated medieval-cum-Georgian Oxfordshire castle, Shirburn, with its almost untouched picture collections and three libraries, recently removed and mostly sold.

Pevsner was not much of a humorist, but that stripped style meant he could say a lot without making the volumes too heavy to carry in a pocket. Not so much the later revisions. The format was revised in 1983 to bigger sizes, and a reader needs a reinforced and enlarged pocket to carry most current editions. Many revisers, thus gifted more space, cannot resist inserting a personal view on occasion, and descriptions have become much longer and detailed. Townscapes are covered more thoroughly, and of course more modern buildings of merit have been constructed and thus pummel their way onto the hallowed pages. Some readers approve these changes; a few do not, (and some do not like colour photographs, which detract from architectural purity) but the point of the guides is to be thorough and comprehensive, so the evolvement seems sensible.

A particular bugbear is county boundaries and, buyers of revised editions beware: some guides do follow old boundaries, and some adopt the new. The Yorkshire volumes are particularly confusing in this regard.

Pevsner died in 1983, an extraordinarily distinguished historian of art and architecture and especially so in his adopted country (he had fled from Germany in 1933). His great legacy is the Buildings series and long may they continue. Hopefully they will, but the series has always struggled to be financially viable, and has been subsidised from time to time, most notably by the Leverhulme Trust (thank you indeed). Soon after Sir Nikolaus’s death the publication rights were transferred to Yale University Press, and they have driven many of the recent changes to attempt to catch a larger readership. New innovations include softback town and urban- based derivatives – North Tyneside, for instance, plucked out of the Northumberland volume and given some of the finer details omitted from the county edition. Yale have also increased prices considerably – up to £60 a volume now – but adjusted for inflation this is pretty much in line with that charged for the original hardbacks. And Yale seem very committed to maintaining the imprint. Whilst not all volumes are in print at all times, the revision research has speeded up and the revised volumes continue to appear.

Perhaps a similar line will appear soon for the states of the USA, or indeed the departments of France, or Kenya. We can but hope and strengthen our pockets.

I should say that I have no commercial or other connection to the Buildings series, but have immensely enjoyed their company for over 50 years (starting with Yorkshire North Riding). And whilst I think the Yale innovations are improvements, one occasionally misses Pevsner’s terse descriptions!


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