Positively Spaced Out

Rosemary Hill

  • The Buildings of England: A Celebration Compiled to Mark 50 Years of the Pevsner Architectural Guides edited by Simon Bradley and Bridget Cherry
    Penguin Collectors’ Society, 128 pp, £9.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 9527401 3 3

The first three volumes of The Buildings of England appeared in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. The last, Staffordshire, was published in 1974, on the eve of the miners’ strike and the three-day week. Nikolaus Pevsner, begetter, editor and principal author of the series, had travelled thousands of miles over those years. England and its buildings had also come a long way. To read the first editions as they were never meant to be read, chronologically, is to follow two stories. One is the tale of postwar optimism in which nostalgia, the quest for a once and future landscape, turns to ambivalence and, at times, bitterness and disillusionment. The other is a chapter of Pevsner’s own intellectual biography as historian, critic and, as he is less often considered, writer.

He was born in Leipzig in 1902 into a non-religious Jewish family and came to England first in 1930, while he was working at Göttingen University, and again three years later to lecture at the Courtauld. Already an anglophile, though a slightly quizzical one, he left Germany for good in 1935. He came to live with friends in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where he was joined by his wife, Lola, and their children. The next year he published the first of his books to be written in English, Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius. His parents stayed in Germany where, in 1940, soon after his father’s death, his mother killed herself to escape the camps. Pevsner and his family were to remain permanently in this country.

The idea for The Buildings of England had occurred to him on his first visit, when he felt the lack of an architectural guide similar to the Georg Dehio’s Handbücher series. Before the war he had put the proposal to Cambridge University Press, who declined to involve themselves with guidebooks. Not until 1945, by which time he was teaching history of art at Birkbeck, was he able to take it up again with the support of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin. After two years’ preliminary research, Pevsner and his wife set off with a permit for 30 gallons of petrol to tour Middlesex in a borrowed Wolseley Hornet.

At first most of the work was done with the help of fellow refugees: Lola, who drove the Wolseley; three art historians, who worked as researchers preparing preliminary notes; and the typographer and designer Hans Schmoller. Yet from the beginning Pevsner had a nose for the English specialists best able to help him. Cultivated clergymen, cataloguers of dovecots, the devoted biographers of local architects and minor stained-glass artists populate the acknowledgments, from R.W. Wailes, expert on the windmills of Nottinghamshire in 1951, to Rosemary Cook, who rubbed the brass of Sir Edward Grey for the Staffordshire volume.

So as the series developed it took on some of the colouring of the local antiquarian tradition. It was a successor not only to Dehio but also to Britton and Brayley’s early 19th-century series, The Beauties of England and Wales, which is sometimes cited in the texts. Pevsner on occasion referred to the volumes as ‘topography’, and it is as such, rather than as architectural history, that libraries usually catalogue them. English antiquarianism, however, moves at a stately pace and encourages only one or two bees per bonnet. The Pevsnerian approach was different.

In a witty essay, Michael Taylor, who drove Pevsner round Warwickshire, recalls the experience as stimulating and slightly nightmarish, ‘like viewing a video of a thousand years … of history … fast-forwarded’. Pevsner ‘robbed the word “specialist” of its meaning by being a specialist on everything’: not ‘dry and precise’ but ‘precise and enthusiastic’ he worked ‘as if quietly but very surely possessed’. In the time it took to publish all 46 volumes of The Buildings of England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments managed to produce an Inventory of Dorset.

A Celebration understandably dwells on the success of the venture. Of the comparable postwar publishing projects it alone has stayed the course and despite occasional financial crises continues to flourish and grow into revised and expanded editions. ‘Well worth a place in your rucksack,’ the Daily Mirror enthused in a review of two of the 1951 volumes, Nottinghamshire and Cornwall. In less out-doorsy, more self-consciously cultivated circles the new guides, with their unmistakably foreign approach, got a mixed reception. John Summerson, reviewing them for the New Statesman, felt a need to bring his readers, and indeed himself, round to the idea. ‘Books on the English counties’ had, as he said, ‘come rather thick since the war’. The others, of varying quality, tended to be more anecdotal, more English, the literary equivalent of the Neo-Romantic painting that flourished at the same time. They had no thought of the ‘cyclopaedic completeness’ Pevsner proposed. The ‘unforgivable coldness’ of the new Penguin books would, Summerson warned, repel many people, coming from a man who ‘cannot and must not love any one county in the way one is supposed to love a county before writing about it’.

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