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’.

Even so, Summerson suggested, though Pevsner said nothing about Furry Day at Helston or Baring-Gould’s amusing accident on Brown Willy, he had an impressive range of reference and ‘sees what nobody has really bothered to look at for centuries’: the church monuments by forgotten sculptors which, ‘ranged together’, brought their authors to life as artistic personalities; the Nottinghamshire pit-head baths which were, as Pevsner saw and Summerson agreed, ‘already symbolic’. ‘These guidebooks,’ he somewhat grudgingly concluded, ‘indeed are something more than an old kind of thing better done than it has been done before.’

A Celebration includes an extract from Ian Buruma’s study of anglophilia, Voltaire’s Coconuts (1999), which discusses Pevsner in terms of the clash between ‘nativism and internationalism’ – a conflict which, Buruma suggests, he embodied without ever resolving. The objections, which rumble on here and there, contain the same unresolved contradiction. The complaint is still essentially Summerson’s that Pevsner is ‘cyclopaedic’ but also that he is narrow; that he is cold and calculating and at the same time capricious and irreverent. ‘The style of the books has its quirks,’ Summerson complained: ‘an affectation (it may be) of looseness – like notes on the back of an envelope’.

Leaving aside the question of how he imagined the books could be written except by means of rapid notes, ‘looseness’ is exactly the wrong word to describe Pevsner’s prose. With the exception of the introductory essays, the texts of The Buildings of England were meant to be referred to rather than read. Perhaps this and other constraints of time and space liberated Pevsner, but however it came about he developed through the succeeding volumes a style marked by dazzling feats of compression. Colin MacInnes’s essay of 1960 on Pevsner’s English is also reprinted in A Celebration. It compares him, not very illuminatingly, with Conrad but does little to characterise him as a writer.

At the Architectural Review in the 1930s, James Richards had found editing Pevsner’s articles hard work. By the end of the war he was fluent, but his use of English retains a sense of discovery and the flexibility of a mature intellect expressing itself with the vitality of youth. Pevsner was still young in English and his pleasure in it – in bending and stretching it – is unselfconscious but palpable. As MacInnes points out, he invokes any comparison, uses any term or turn of phrase, that will convey the impression he is after, but though he is bold he is also accurate. When Ernest Proctor’s overblown altar of 1934 in St Mary’s, Penzance is described as ‘smacking a little of the Wurlitzer’, it is not only the cinema organ image that gets the effect: ‘smacking’, with its saucy seaside tang, is just right to convey exactly what is wrong with Proctor’s effort.

Pevsner takes a Jacobean pleasure in rhetorical reflexiveness. In the first London volume a footnote reads (in its entirety): ‘William Burges’s exposed iron girder as a lintel to shop front in Upper Thames Street, 1866, deserves a footnote.’ Alliteration is used for emphasis, as when he explains the guidelines for inclusion in the Nottinghamshire volume in a nicely pivoted sentence: ‘Pillar piscinas are rare and therefore listed meticulously; C19 and C20 factories are all too frequent.’ The prose is childlike when he chooses; ‘lovable’, ‘comfy’, ‘naughty’ are among his adjectives. Even more frequent are the personifications of buildings that animate his text. Sometimes he sails close to whimsy but never too close. He makes the reader feel his concern for a ‘sadly underfed’ Gothic chapel, disdain for a group of ‘shallow unambitious’ monuments, a desire not to hurt the feelings of a ‘funny but engaging’ cast-iron fountain on the green at Redditch.

There are deliberate echoes of the Germanic in some of his constructions, deployed either for the sake of brevity (‘polygonal too the apse’) or simply as a means of attaining an exact effect, as in the ‘milling-round’ trippers at Broadway. Sometimes the English is used more literally than an English writer might: ‘Middlesex,’ he writes, ‘has remained a torso. It has now no real capital.’ Occasionally a personification will compress a whole dramatic episode into a paragraph. At Linby in Nottinghamshire he describes the castellated 18th-century mill twice in 17 lines. First he suggests that as a typical picturesque ‘eye-catcher’ it is naturally ‘appealing to us’. Next he gives a history of Linby, where Watt put up his first cotton-spinning engine. Finally he turns back from the nearby churchyard with its ‘163 graves of children killed by forced labour’. From here he no longer likes the look of the mill: it reappears this time as a hypocrite, its features now ‘baronial fancy dress’. By citing the exact number of graves he turns the picturesque into its opposite.

Pevsner trained the most ordinary words to do what he wanted. Over time a reader comes to know exactly what he means by ‘large’ and ‘small’, particularly in relation to churches. Whereas ‘large’ is neutral or admiring, ‘big’, especially about something by Butterfield, is unflattering. ‘Not a small church’ raises a large question mark over the success of W.J. Hopkins’s St Eadburga’s, Worcester. The use of negatives is sparing but effective. ‘Widely unknown’ (describing a minor architect) is one of the best.

By the end of the project Pevsner felt that he was too tired and the writing just ‘scribble, scribble, scribble. If only one could be proud of the result.’ In fact, the prose never went slack or ceased to catch hold of what it needed from the language as it changed. Always more expansive in admiration than detraction, his writing became positively spaced out for a moment at the Brighton Pavilion in 1965. Here he announces, surprisingly, that the building in its combination of Rococo and Victorian ‘sends’ us. ‘We may well laugh at first, but then a feeling of intoxication will follow … There is in the end a great release in walking about this folly, and so we stop asking questions.’

One test of a style is how easy it is to parody. Pevsner’s is more difficult than it looks. It defeats A.N. Wilson in Who Was Oswald Fish?, as Simon Bradley points out in a wide-ranging essay on ‘Pevsner in Fiction, Theatre and Cinema’. Imitation even of the most laconic entries is difficult. Only Alan Hollinghurst, among Bradley’s examples, gets it nearly right. But Pevsner was if not an unconscious then an incidental stylist. The greatest understatement in The Buildings of England is unrhetorical and comes at the end of his account of his working methods in ‘Some Words on Completion’: ‘what I see is described.’ To see so much and to convey it with such precision was extraordinary, but the end was what interested him – the description and understanding of the buildings of England – not the means.

England changed over that quarter of a century and the change was expressed through buildings and what was thought about them and in the ever-questioning mind of Pevsner himself. In the 1950s the landscape was still marked by cleared and uncleared bomb sites and the Neo-Romantic note is audible in the early volumes. Sometimes it is the war itself that has reshaped the architecture, as at Holborn, where beside the ruin of Wren’s St Andrew’s Church, Teulon’s St Andrew’s Court House now looks ‘singularly humble’. Sometimes war is the emotional filter through which other ruins appear melancholy: deserted tin mines at St Day in Cornwall, for example, ‘their chimneys like so many monuments to the passing of human achievement’.

At the same time all those open spaces were opportunities for the International Style – the ‘style of the century’, as Pevsner and others thought – to take a belated hold on English soil. The Festival Hall (‘a milestone’) appears, like a badge, on the cover of the first London volume, London, except the Cities of London and Westminster, published in 1952. But by 1957, when the second London volume, covering the Cities, is published, there’s a sense of lost momentum. St Andrew’s was a dramatic ruin: the great tracts of cleared land around St Paul’s and the Barbican were simply signs of stagnation. Elsewhere ‘vast opportunities’ had already been squandered in Pevsner’s view on banal and timid architecture. Production of The Buildings of England itself had been suspended for three years. Allen Lane had found that the long print runs and low prices he had begun with were not economical. This was the way many postwar visions evaporated. Pevsner’s survived thanks to his determination to raise funding, which came, principally, from the Leverhulme Foundation and Arthur Guinness.

As the series went on, the network of which Pevsner himself was the centre grew. There was now a rising generation of art historians, some of them his pupils, and he realised that to be sure of completing the project in his lifetime he needed to draw on them more. Their enthusiasms – for industrial architecture and, increasingly, the Victorians – were both reflected and encouraged by the changing scope and emphasis of succeeding volumes. The view of the past, as well as the present, changed after 1960. At the same time, the foreboding of the 1950s was deepening into a sense that postwar architecture and, more seriously, planning had failed. Ian Nairn, Pevsner’s first co-author and the angry young man of architectural criticism, coined the term ‘subtopia’ in his special ‘Outrage’ number of the Architectural Review in 1955.

Nairn railed against the sprawl of ribbon developments, suburbs and ‘characterless buildings’ that threatened to engulf England as much as he railed against the leftover rubbish of war – the ‘things in fields’ syndrome. In 1962 he collaborated with Pevsner on the Surrey volume; it was the county in which he had grown up and which for the most part he cordially loathed as hardcore subtopia: ‘like southern California … entirely directed to serving urban man’. Readers who had thought Pevsner rude must have been aghast at Nairn.

In the towns and cities things got worse as the 1960s wore on. Alexandra Wedgwood, describing Birmingham in 1966, writes from the eye of the storm. After existing buildings the note is often ‘To be demolished.’ To her account of the plans for the new Civic Centre there is a footnote warning that they have since been ‘considerably changed’. New Street is now an ‘architectural jungle’. Optimism was still possible. Architecturally the results of redevelopment were disappointing but, Pevsner pointed out, ‘Birmingham still has her good local architects.’ By the late 1960s he was looking at the tower blocks of Manchester and wondering: ‘Do we really want these … do tenants want them? Will they not be the slums of fifty years hence?’ At Worcester in 1968 he lost his temper:

C20 Worcester was a cathedral town first and foremost, and that makes it totally incomprehensible that the Council should have permitted the act of self-mutilation which is the driving of the busiest fast-traffic road through in a place not a few yards from the cathedral. The crime is the planners’, not the architects’, and the planners would of course have been powerless without the consent of the City Council.

Worcester has a population of just under 70,000.

The one-line last paragraph is a door slammed in anger. Whether the fault was with architects or planners or politicians or all three – whether Modernism failed England or England failed Modernism – was a debate that was to continue: 17 years after Ian Nairn had published his long Observer article ‘Stop the Architects Now’, Prince Charles stood up to make his ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech. What is clear is that Buruma’s description of Pevsner as ‘a critic whose anglophilia was as blinding as his Modernism’ is simply wrong.

He didn’t get every building right. Or at least we wouldn’t say so now. He certainly praised the intentions of Holford’s St Paul’s precinct, which Buruma takes as his example, in a way that its realisation did not deserve. Regular readers get used to being dragged across the road in small towns to admire some unremarkable but well-meant low-rise by the county architect. Yet for the most part, what Pevsner (like Nairn and John Newman, who wrote the Kent volumes) singled out for praise has lasted: the ‘Span’ housing in Blackheath, the Festival Hall, the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, which is still controversial but has recently been listed – by no means a clear ‘Modernist disaster’, in Buruma’s phrase. Compare a run of theatre criticism or book reviews over the same period – the long paragraphs lavished on forgotten names, the major works not noted – and the acuity of Pevsner and Co is astonishing.

As history, too, there is little that another quarter century of research casts doubt on. We are less confident now than Pevsner was that the Gothic of the 18th century was all froth and fun. We no longer think that Butterfield was an ur-Brutalist, but Pevsner, though he could not quite admire him, had too much respect for the ‘young historians’ Paul Thompson and Nicholas Taylor who did, not to include their views alongside his own, unresolved discussions of Keble College and Rugby School. So the revisions are also continuations of arguments Pevsner started with himself.

From the outset the series was interactive. The publishers asked to have ‘errors or omissions pointed out to them in as much detail as possible’, thereby opening the floodgates to enthusiasts, experts, cranks and bores. As Bridget Cherry, Pevsner’s assistant and successor, recalled in an essay in 1983, the results were unpredictable. The owners of a house in Camden threatened to sue because the area was described as ‘still belonging to the slums’. Large errors were sometimes revealed. Occasionally a whole village went missing. Other mistakes were overlooked by everyone: one of Pevsner’s margin notes to ‘ask Gordon’ was turned in the typing into a non-existent architect, Ash Gordon, who was then credited with laying out Stevenage. Nobody wrote in to complain. By the end, however, Pevsner knew ‘to the full’ how many mistakes he had made and was ready for others to begin revising, as they continue to do.

The Buildings of England stands alongside the Dictionary of National Biography and the Authorised Version of the Bible as a monument of collaborative scholarship, yet more closely identified than any other such with one individual. As it expands to include the buildings of Scotland, Wales and Ireland and revisions of the English volumes go forward, Pevsner’s own voice is merging with others, some fresh, some pedantic, none with the extraordinary vitality and variety that he had in those early volumes. This was, however, always the intention. His son, Dieter Pevsner, shows in a touching essay on the dedications in the series how Pevsner saw himself as part of a process dependent on the many who helped personally or professionally. Volumes were dedicated to children and grandchildren but also to typists, librarians, researchers: Hampshire was for ‘the Ministry of Housing and Local Government’. One of the 1951 volumes, Nottinghamshire, was dedicated to himself, on the only occasion he was his own chauffeur: ‘the driver, who gave satisfaction’. The last volume, Staffordshire, published in 1974, came full circle. It was dedicated to Lola Pevsner and Allen Lane, ‘who helped as long as they lived and to whom volumes one and three were dedicated in 1951’. Both were now dead. Pevsner himself lived until 1983. Signing off at the end of ‘Some Words on Completion’ he allowed himself one last game with literary tropes. ‘Don’t be deceived, gentle reader,’ he concluded, ‘the first editions are only ballons d’essai; it is the second editions which count.’