Lola did the driving

Inigo Thomas

Nikolaus Pevsner took an interest in cars. He considered them a form of industrial art. ‘It is only the taking of risks which makes life worth living,’ he said in the 1930s, maligning British car designers for their insufficient daring. But appreciation is one thing, driving another, and no matter how admiring or critical he was of cars and their design, Pevsner was always hopeless at the wheel. In her 2011 biography, Susie Harries says he failed his test so often that the driving school felt sufficiently guilty to discount its fee. In 1948, almost twenty years after he left Germany and arrived in Britain, he had another go and afterwards described it to his wife, Lola. ‘Tired, washed out, deflated, dizzy (only three whiskies), and not a bit happy. I made several really awful mistakes, turning in the street with brakes on … My only reaction at the moment is intense hatred against my car.’ That was how he relayed the news that he had passed his test. ‘Behind the wheel I am probably awful enough, and sometimes the gears tell me so … What wears me out is to think of so many things. I do sometimes drive with the brake on, for example. And always locking back doors, locking front door, buying bread, buying petrol, watching oil, etc, etc.’ There aren’t many drivers who admit to being that bad. So it was amazing that Pevsner would come up with an idea for a series of books that depended on driving: a county-by-county guide to the buildings of England. He found others to take the wheel, but there was a perversity in Pevsner’s choice.

Sizewell B power station
Sizewell B power station

He and his assistants would collate papers, documents and photographs on the buildings they were to visit before setting off on trips of six weeks or so, the boxes of research on the back seat, the car – there were a number of different models over the years – doubling up as the office. A caravan was eventually part of the set-up. ‘Work … has been a pleasure throughout,’ Pevsner wrote in the introduction to the first edition of Suffolk. ‘The weather was clement, the natives friendly, the scenery and the buildings a delight.’ Lola was at the wheel. ‘My wife did the driving on A-roads and farm tracks with ever equal and even skill and patience.’ The guides seem designed for two people: one reading from the book, the other taking in what’s being described as they look on. (Lola died in 1963; Pevsner’s later journeys were usually made with students from the Courtauld.)

The first edition of the Suffolk guide was published in 1961; it was revised in 1974, and has now been divided into east and west, the border the old Roman road – now the A140 – which heads north from Ipswich towards Norwich. James Bettley, who has already revised Essex, is responsible for the expansion. The Buildings of England series has left Penguin for Yale University Press, who have both overseen the third edition of the series and continued with the new volumes of Buildings of Scotland. In the stacks of the library at the Warburg Institute, in the topography section, are the three hardback editions of the Pevsner Suffolk guide. Once slim, pocketable and beige, the volumes are now black, thick, and less handy.

This may be the last print edition of the series. A digital version would expand the guides’ uses: and if you don’t have the right sort of imagination to visualise interiors or exteriors from written detail alone – I struggle – then virtual tours would help. You could zoom in on the detail described by the writing. Pevsner had hoped that his guides would eventually be used by every schoolchild in the country, but that was too ambitious: they’ve never sold as well as Pevsner and his publisher Allen Lane had hoped. One reason may be that Pevsner was too confident of his readers’ ability to reconstruct architectural reality in their imagination. In a sense, he knew it: ‘I have given you the facts,’ he said of Buildings of England. ’You must go and look at them and make up your own mind.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in