The end of Pevsner

The monumental work of maintaining a live record of the architecture of the UK and Ireland is in danger of being abandoned


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I was given my first copy of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England in the summer of 1967 when I was going off to boarding school. My kind Aunt Margaret gave me the Wiltshire volume, which had been published in 1963. My first weekend I cycled off to see the church at Clyffe Pypard, which strictly was out-of-bounds, with Pevsner in my pocket.

I have been accompanied by copies of Pevsner and his fatter successors on trips to churches, towns and, more recently, modern buildings ever since, although, truth-to-tell, as they have become bigger and more comprehensive, they have become more like works of reference to be consulted at home, rather than used as guidebooks in one’s pocket.

I remember vividly when the first series came to an end with the publication of Oxfordshire and Staffordshire in 1974. Oxfordshire was mostly done by Jennifer Sherwood, an architectural historian who was working in the Royal Library at Windsor, since Pevsner was essentially a Cambridge man, a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge and still delivering annual lectures in the history faculty (not history of art).

I attended one of his lectures as an undergraduate and recall a thin man in a suit, intellectually precise and historically rigorous, with pre-war lantern slides, my only encounter with him. I realise now that he may already have been suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s from which he died in 1983.

I feel that my life has been in some ways defined by the existence of Pevsner, growing older with the transmogrification of the Buildings of England from an essentially one-man enterprise, originally compiled during the Easter or summer vacation by Pevsner being driven round county-by-county by his wife after preliminary notes had been compiled by two émigré assistants, into a much bigger and more ambitious enterprise with multiple authors and more scholarly entries.

The paperback volumes started being revised almost from the beginning, not least by comments from readers which Pevsner and his publisher encouraged — originally on the title verso and later at the end of the preface. The first revised edition of London appeared as early as 1962 and when Staffordshire appeared, he added in “Some Words on Completion of the Buildings of England” (a characteristically dry conclusion to a heroic enterprise) that, so far as he was concerned, “the first editions are only ballons d’essai; it is the second editions which count”.

Bridget Cherry, who became Pevsner’s research assistant in 1968 and took over as series editor following his death in 1983, revised Surrey in 1971, Wiltshire in 1975, Hertfordshire in 1977 and began to revise London, starting in 1983 with London 2: South. Elizabeth Williamson joined her in 1975 to revise Derbyshire in 1978.

Pevsner’s deliberately terse and telegraphic entries, sometimes not much more than notational records of what he had observed expanded into accounts of every major building type, including non-conformist chapels which had been neglected in the first editions, more on High Victorian churches and art deco cinemas which he never liked, and more industrial and vernacular buildings, although the range of early editions was already impressive in their inclusion of post-war buildings which Pevsner admired — low-key functionalist school buildings by architects working for local authorities more than work by the likes of Denys Lasdun and James Stirling.

The Buildings of Scotland was established in 1978 with the publication of Lothian, The Buildings of Wales in 1979 with Powys, and The Buildings of Ireland also in 1979 with North-West Ulster. The growth of the enterprise in the 1970s represented the way that Pevsner had trained a generation of architectural historians by employing them as assistants and drivers, including John Newman who left teaching classics at Tonbridge School to work for Pevsner, did the two volumes on Kent which he described as more “racy” than the average Pevsner, and in 1966 was employed to teach architectural history at the Courtauld Institute, training the next generation of Pevsnerites in the highest standards of scholarly accuracy.

In many ways, the biggest production change came in 2002 when publication was taken over from Penguin by Yale University Press who moved into a house in Bedford Square where the Pevsner team have been lodged in its attic. Bridget Cherry retired and two younger architectural historians took over — Simon Bradley, fresh from a PhD on the Gothic Revival, and Charles O’Brien, who had worked for the National Trust. The rate of production increased. The quality of photography improved (not difficult). New authors were co-opted to work on the revised editions and a series of City Guides has been produced in a more user-friendly format. The new editions have become increasingly impeccable in their scholarship.

A first edition of London Vol. One, 1957

In June 2024, the second revised edition of Staffordshire will appear, 800 pages long instead of 376, its text completely re-written by Christopher Wakeling, for many years an extra-mural lecturer at Keele University and expert on non-conformist chapels, who died last October. This will complete the planned revised series. The Buildings of Wales was completed with the publication of a revised Powys in 2013 and The Buildings of Scotland with the revised Lothian which has just appeared in January. Only Ireland remains substantially incomplete, with a particular need for a volume on Belfast.

This completes the task that the editors set themselves when they were awarded generous, long-term funding by the Paul Mellon Centre in 2011. They have now left working full-time as authors and editors. The office is at risk of being closed down. It is assumed existing volumes will remain in print, but there will be no staff to oversee revisions either in print or, now more appropriately, if the entries were online.

Half of me admires the apparent conclusion of a Sisyphean task. But there are many other things that still need to be done. The entries need to be put online, either by subscription through libraries like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or, more freely, like the Survey of London. Additions, revisions and corrections could then be made much faster, maybe by volunteers, as with much of Wikipedia. There could be a “Comment is Free” section to harness the expertise of local enthusiasts.

Ireland still needs to be completed. London has so entirely changed since the publication of London 2: South that its six volumes desperately need to be re-written, its new buildings properly documented and the scale of its destruction analysed. Remember that Tate Modern was still a working power station when London 2: South was published.

The buildings of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are not static, fixed at a moment in time, but constantly evolving. Churches are being re-used, new houses constructed, Welsh chapels turned into holiday homes. Tall buildings increasingly disfigure the skyline of regional cities as in London. Over the next decade, the built environment will be under pressure as planning controls are relaxed.

Since the Second World War, the Pevsner architectural guides have documented architectural change. They have helped the public to understand and appreciate buildings of all sorts and provided the backbone of the interpretation of British architecture. We cannot afford to lose them as a live record.

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