Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 8 August 2015

What does Pevsner say?


A visit to any building in England, for anyone with a more than casual interest in architecture, is practically unthinkable without the companionship of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. His monumental county-by-county series The Buildings of England is a massively thorough work of scholarship, yet the individual volumes are accessible to the general reader and, equally importantly, the first editions are small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. They are indispensable cornucopias of knowledge. How many thousand times has the question ‘What does Pevsner say?’ been posed while looking around a church, country house or high street? 

Pevsner, who edited the whole series and wrote the great majority of the individual volumes, was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1902, but left in 1933 to escape the persecution of the Jews. He’d converted to Christianity in 1921, but of course this cut no ice with the Nazis. He came to England, his wife and three children following in 1936. He and his wife committed what must be one of the most extraordinary parental misjudgements when they sent their children (aged 15, 13 and seven) to Germany for a holiday with relations - in August 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of  the Second World War.  This would be unfortunate enough for any children, but as the children of a Jew (even though Mrs Pevsner wasn’t Jewish) the situation was far more serious, for, as far as the Nazis were concerned, the children were Jewish too. Fortunately the younger two escaped back to England almost immediately, but the eldest was trapped in Germany, and spent the whole of the war there living with her mother’s sister, in constant fear of discovery. I’m glad to be able to say that the story had a happy end.

Pevsner was interred as an enemy alien for part of 1940, which seems an almost equally extraordinary misjudgement given that he’d been forced to leave Germany and had every reason to hate its government. Nevertheless,  he remained grateful to Britain if somewhat ambivalent about being British; I think that in some ways he always felt that he was really German. Despite this, after the war he stayed in England and  dedicated the rest of his life to the country’s art and architecture. When he was invited to give the Reith lectures on BBC radio in 1955 he chose as his subject ‘The Englishness of English Art’, as if to make a declaration as to where his professional interests, and maybe his loyalties lay, and from the end of the war until the end of his life much of his enormous energy and industry went into the study of English buildings and propagating and popularising the results. His knighthood in 1969 set the seal on his achievements and status.

He started work on the books that were to become The Buildings of England soon after the war, and the first volume, Cornwall, was published in 1951, perhaps giving the impression that the country was going to be covered systematically, following the arrangement of a standard road atlas with Devon coming next, then Dorset and so on. In fact the volumes appeared in apparently random order; Nottinghamshire was second, then Middlesex, jumping from one end of the country to another in a crazy cartographical cakewalk. The first volumes were published by Penguin in paperback, and cost just three shillings and sixpence (17.5.p), an absolute bargain considering the work, detail and scholarship that went into them. (An average Penguin paperback novel cost two shillings in the early 50s.) The learned but readable introduction to each volume beautifully summed up the architectural character of the county, but the bulk of the books was made up of the gazetteer, a place-by-place listing of all the significant buildings, from prehistoric stone circles to concrete tower blocks, giving you all (or nearly all) the facts. If you wanted to know when something was built, or who designed it, or to read a perceptive description of its main features and an opinion on its artistic success, Pevsner was the place to look.

The only slightly disappointing feature of the books was the central 64-page section of monochrome photographs, which were too few, too small and too grey; presumably the books couldn’t have been published economically had they been better illustrated. Even so, Penguin endured (in Pevsner’s words) ‘substantial losses’ in publishing the series, and financial support from charitable foundations had to be found. (The more recently published volumes have improved the illustrations.)

Astonishingly, the entire country was covered in 46 volumes in only 23 years, an average of two books per year. Pevsner wrote 32 of them himself and co-wrote another ten; all this while he was simultaneously editing other series of books, not to mention holding down a day job as lecturer and professor. Naturally, he had research assistants and secretaries, but even so one can only quail at the thought of his workload. He wasn’t paid handsomely, either, and at least to begin with he had to pay his secretary and for some of his expenses out of his salary. He was able to dedicate only a single month to the fieldwork for each county, initially being driven round by his wife in a 1933 Wolseley Hornet borrowed from Penguin, using a special allocation of petrol coupons. He visited almost every building he described; this is such an outrageous statement that I’m going to repeat it: he visited almost every building he described, and remember that he wrote or co-wrote the volumes on every county except Gloucestershire and Kent. While no doubt sometimes ‘visiting’ meant no  more than a quick glance at the facade out of the car window,  no one else can have come close to visiting a higher proportion of England’s architectural heritage, nor is anyone ever likely to.

The final volume of the first editions was Staffordshire, published in 1974, when he was 72. The very last building he visited for the series was Victorian architect William Butterfield’s parsonage at Sheen; he makes no acknowledgement of this fact in his description beyond allowing himself to be a little more verbose than such a relatively undistinguished building would usually require. What were his feelings as he completed this final stage of his journey? Relief that a task that had absorbed him for more than a quarter of a century was at an end? Or regret?

The first editions were written in a terrific rush and inevitably contained many mistakes and omissions; he described them as ‘only ballons d’essai’, (initial experiments), and stated that ‘it is the second editions which count.’ The second editions started appearing in 1965, long before the series was complete. He didn’t write these himself, but such is his powerful contribution to the format and philosophy of the series that even the volumes written by others are still commonly known as ‘Pevsners’. The process of revising the first editions (and early second editions, which are themselves badly in need of updating) is still only about three-quarters complete.  How much longer have I got to wait for an update to Hertfordshire?

The Buildings of England volumes have been joined by those covering Wales, Scotland and Ireland, now officially collectively known as the Pevsner Architectural Guides, and are published by the Yale University Press. Regrettably, they’re no longer pocket-sized; since 1984 all the extra information that’s been crammed into the new editions has made them thicker and taller. They might fit into a winter coat pocket, but jacket pockets will struggle to accommodate them. I’ve taken to keeping the newer  volumes at home for reference and storing the old ones in the car for use in the field. They haven’t got pocket money prices any more either, though £35 per book (an exactly two hundredfold increase since 1951) is still outstanding value when the wealth of information they contain is considered.

One of the charms of the books is that, while they are obviously mostly factual, Pevsner’s personality (and those of the other authors) is allowed to intrude occasionally, so they are not merely dry catalogues. My favourite example of this comes in Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, which is dedicated ‘To the inventor of the iced lolly.’ He is not averse to expressing forthright subjective opinions about the buildings, sometimes entertainingly, occasionally even wittily. He doesn’t flinch from calling the Faculty of History at Cambridge ‘actively ugly’, and says of the door of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral that it’s ‘decidedly frightening’ (‘It might be the introduction to some cruel Mexican ritual’). Even when he’s critical he makes you want to go and see for yourself. But much more often he’s infectiously enthusiastic about the buildings he describes, and often he describes them in meticulous, clear-eyed detail. I’ve spent many happy hours walking around cathedrals, letting what Pevsner says guide me. I think that one of the great pleasures of an architectural perambulation (a word much favoured by Pevsner) is finding that I share his opinion of the merits (or the dating or authorship) of a building. In fact, the only thing more enjoyable than agreeing with him is discovering that I disagree with what Pevsner says, for then I feel, however fancifully, that I am engaging in an intelligent, lively dialogue with him.

Pevsner (who died in 1983) has had his detractors. John Betjeman for many years edited the Shell County Guides and believed that this series was in competition with Pevsner’s (in retrospect it’s easy to see that they aren’t rivals at all, but complement each other beautifully). Betjeman took to calling him ‘Herr Doktor Professor’, presumably to emphasise his unEnglishness and the supposed academic dryness of his work. More seriously, the Pevsners have been criticised for seeing each building in isolation and not paying enough attention to their context. What these critics don’t explain is how room could be found for such information in the already tightly packed text.

In Britain we perhaps take the books for granted; the architectural information is always at our fingertips. Whenever I’m looking round a foreign building, I desperately want Pevsner to be my guide, to be at my side allowing me to look knowledgably, to see through his eyes. But there is no equivalent of Pevsner anywhere else in the world (not even in his native Germany). Guidebooks exist, of course, but they’re of widely differing quality and rarely as comprehensive. We should celebrate our good fortune that whenever we have a question about our rich architectural heritage, we can always easily discover what Pevsner says.

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