Saturday, 31 January 2015

Perambulations with Pevsner

Pevsner (n): an authoritative but quirky architectural handbook, any one in the series of county-by-county guides, properly entitled The Buildings of England; eponymously so called after founding editor, Nikolaus Pevsner.

It’s not the least of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s achievements that he is possibly the only man in English publishing history to have given his name not just to one reference book (no mere Bradshaw, Brewer, Burke or Crockford he) but to a whole family of reference books; most were written by himself, and all bear his imprint if not actually his imprimatur. Pevsner completed the first series of The Buildings of England in 1974, and died in 1988; but new editions and editions of new sub-series, such as Buildings of Scotland, (and Wales and Ireland) continue to appear.

The first county book appeared in 1951; Pevsner aimed to publish two a year. In the succeeding sixty years many have been revised, sometimes two or three times, and now a third generation of architectural historians is at work, led by Simon Bradley, the present series editor, who has just published a revised, enlarged Cambridgeshire to acclaim. I was given it at Christmas and have been reading and admiring it ever since. It has to be admitted, though: Pevsners are no longer as portable as they used to be. I bought my first, Bedfordshire, in 1974, and could carry it around in the pocket of my mac. In those days I cycled everywhere, having no car, and rather resembled the chap in Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, taking off my cycle clips in awkward reverence – a manoeuvre that could almost count as a genuflection, if the church looked the sort of place where such a thing was expected. Sir Ninian Comper used to say that a church should bring you to your knees on entering; nowadays, just carrying around a Pevsner might do the same for you. Let me illustrate my point.

The original volume, Cornwall (BE1), was a paperback – as they all were at first. Penguin used to publish them, and Pevsner always acknowledged his debt to Sir Allen Lane for supporting the project from its earliest days. (Nowadays, the series is published by Yale). Cornwall measured 7 by 4½ inches, had 251 pages and weighed 7½ oz.; my Bedfordshire (1968, hardback by then) had grown a half-inch taller, boasted 414 pages and weighed 13oz.; Simon Bradley’s new Cambridgeshire (2014) by contrast, is nearly 9 x 5ins, has 790 pages and weighs 2lbs.

An expanding series, therefore, but the remarkable thing is that the format has stayed unchanged since 1951. Maps of the county, with every town and village marked and grid-referenced; an introduction providing pre-historical, topographical and architectural overviews of the county; next the gazetteer, with every church mentioned, no matter how briefly, and  other buildings of significance identified. For larger towns Pevsner provides architectural walking routes he calls ‘Perambulations’. In the middle of each book a swatch of photographs – grey and grainy at first, high definition colour now –  illustrating the architectural and decorative highlights described in the text . Pevsner made a point of seeing everything he described, so his descriptions alternate between rapid-fire architectural shorthand and pithy tut-tuts of praise or disappointment. Thus, from Cornwall, and on the same page, for Portreath he says simply,

The Church of ST MARY, by Wightwick, 1841, is rather depressing, with pointed windows and a bellcote.

For Poughill he seems to have transcribed his notes almost as he must have scribbled them down (his record was nineteen churches visited in a single day):

ST OLAF. A Danish dedication. Nave of four bays; N aisle with arcades of Cornish granite standard section, but shorter than usual (late C14?); S aisle with thicker projection l. and r. of each of the standard hollows (cf. St Veep); quatrefoil decoration of the abaci.

For Pevsner it was important to instruct readers how to ‘read’ a building, so he wasn’t afraid to use technical terms. But he always included at the end, along with an index of artists and architects and an index of places, a glossary. This glossary, expanded like the series, is now available as an app.

Pevsner didn’t drive. Cornwall is dedicated to ‘TO LOLA, who drove the car’. Lola was his wife. Later on, eager young researchers used to chauffeur him; some in time co-edited counties with him or indeed became editors of the later revisions. He inspired great affection and loyalty. Simon Bradley doesn’t drive either. While working on Cambridgeshire he was given rooms at St John’s College, and in his Foreword duly acknowledges that ‘Not the least of the amenities provided by St John’s for this non-driving author was a pass for the college bicycle sheds.’ He thanks his family and friends for ferrying him out to ‘Areas of Cambridgeshire beyond the practicable reach of pedals or public transport’ (much of rural Cambs. is far beyond the bounds of any bus route) and ends by thanking ‘Bridge Cycles of Magdalene Street for repairs and advice’.

I’m glad to applaud a new book that follows a great tradition, a tradition one can say confidently was begun by a single man. Pevsner was beguilingly eccentric in some ways, dauntingly precise and systematic in others. He came to love England: nobody knew it better, architecturally speaking, than Pevsner did. He described himself, in writing the Buildings of England, as an outsider, but saw this as an advantage. In the Foreword to Herefordshire (BE25, 1963; the midpoint of the series) he defended his decision to write most of the series himself because

 the outsider keeping in mind the whole of England and perhaps even something of the continent seems to me to have overriding advantages …. It is not that I want to hog the whole enterprise [a few lines later it’s a ‘crazy enterprise’]. On the contrary, I want to live to see it completed, and I am only anxious to preserve a certain unity of approach and treatment.

He did; and his successors have gone on preserving it in a manner he would have applauded. So, even if the books no longer fit in our pockets, we still have many reasons to be grateful to Pevsner - the man and the eponym.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: Pevsners including the first, Cornwall, (1951) and Cambridge, (3rd, ed. 2014).

I have blogged elsewhere about Pevsner, on the Kempe Trust website:


  1. Did I read somewhere that he used to set out from home for a distant county after the weekend with five packets of sandwiches, one for each day of the week ahead. By Friday, they must have been like leather!

  2. According to Susie Harries (Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life), Lola Pevsner made the day's sandwiches as they waited for the hotel breakfast to be ready. They were awake early even though Pevsner had usually been up until midnight, writing up his notes for the day, and effectively turning them into the text of whichever book it was that they were working on. There's another legend, that Pevsner's favourite food was pasta, on the grounds that it slipped down quickly so that he could be away from the dining table and on his way to the next building. This is almost certainly a myth.

  3. I’m grateful to Martin and to Philip for these additions to my knowledge about Pevsner! Even if apocryphal, they affirm (I’d like to hope) my description of him as both beguilingly eccentric and dauntingly systematic.

  4. Adrian – A lovely blog, and one with a happy outcome for me. I have searched the World Bookfinder and the Cambridge University Library for guides to – or books on – the west Kent churches of Warehorne and Kenardington, and found . . . nothing. So clearly what I need is Pevsner And I’ve ordered West Kent and the Weald, which – as they say – is just the ticket (and a nice pocket edition with its original cover!) What a lucky man was Pevsner, to have a life project.

  5. Your volume on North Kent and the Weald, Peter, is the work of John Newman, who was one of the assistants who began as Pevsner’s driver. Between 1969 and today he has been one of the most prolific contributors to the Buildings of England series, and much of the consistency of the second and third generation Pevsners is owing to him.

  6. It's a delight to read this on a cold dark night in south London, picturing the cycle clips, the sandwiches, the fens, the grey church towers against the big grey skies. There are many differences between Pevsner and Geoffrey Elton, but some of the similarities are intriguing. Elton [from Tübingen and Prague] found English history and the Tudors rather as Pevsner [from Leipzig and Göttingen] found English architecture and churches. Thank you, Adrian!

    1. I am grateful to learn, Tom, about these similarities between Ben Elton’s uncle and Pevsner. I recall Elton’s 'England Under the Tudors’ as our A level text book at school: hardback, heavy and covered by a grey dust-wrapper with red lettering. Although both P and E became eminent and eloquent interpreters of aspects of England to the English (and respected academics with strong footholds in Cambridge), I suppose the difference between them is that Pevsner was never quite the establishment figure that Elton became. I see there are interesting online discussions about what Elton would have thought of ‘Wolf Hall’ and its interpretation of Cromwell.