Halls and Hovels

Colin Richmond

  • The Architecture of Medieval Britain by Colin Platt, with photographs by Anthony Kersting
    Yale, 325 pp, £29.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 300 04953 6

This is a big book: 29 x 25 centimetres, 372 photographs (between a third and a half of them coloured, a large number of them full-page), a densely written, authoritative and properly referenced text, close on 1200 informative footnotes. As one has come to expect from Yale, the volume is value for money. Despite the quality of the text, this is first and foremost a picture book. And what pictures those of Mr Kersting are. If one needs to be seduced into visiting Cleeve, or Wells, or Norbury, or St Mawes, or Astbury, or Abbey Dore, or Caerphilly, or Kells, or Caerlaverock, or Threave, these photographs make such places (among numerous others) irresistible. Mr Kersting is superb, and Mr Platt comes close to matching him. My reservations stem principally from the difficulties inherent in a book of this type: not all buildings which were interesting, or remarkable, or intriguing, or marvellous, have survived; not all surviving buildings are interesting or, for that matter, beautiful. Most castles, for instance, are ugly; almost all Norman buildings, especially Norman cathedrals, are large and little else. The aesthetics of Heritage History come into play here. Caernarvon Castle is an imperial monstrosity; the nave of Durham Cathedral is colonial brutalism pure and simple. Yet time, forgetfulness and the demands of tourism, have turned them into Art; and their history has been rendered anodyne. The pictures in books such as this one do no service to that history. Still, if these pictures do seduce, they may also impel the smitten to discover more about the object of desire. For the intellectually curious the footnotes are a more than adequate bibliography.

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