Monday 27 November 2017

In a Nutshell

The other day a couple of pleasingly small books on a charity shop shelf caught my eye (I'm always drawn to small books). They were Nutshell Books, from a series of compact factual volumes published by Collins in and around the Sixties. I bought An Outline of English Architecture, took off the murky photographic dust jacket to reveal the pleasing volume shown in the picture, and began to dip into its pages.
  It's a book that exactly fits its title, and the outlining is done con brio by one Edmund Vale,  a writer with a lively style and a nice turn of phrase. Here he is on the fall of the hard-line antiquarian Camden Society following their restoration of St Sepulchre's in Cambridge:

'They began by pulling down the clerestory, a 15th-century restoration of the Norman original but in contemporary Perpendicular. The little windows were replaced in 19th-century Norman. When it came to putting the clock back in the chancel, they could not resist replacing the Communion table with a supposed near replica of what must have served the pious founders – a fixed stone altar. But parishioners returning to their revived place of worship mistook this touch of architectural virtu for a doctrinal outrage. The Society was sued at law for Popery, convicted, and ordered to remove the rock of offence.
 The Camden Society never recovered from this blow to their prestige. But they had succeeded in lifting a vogue which had begun as a genteel folly  – a sort of whimsical counterblast to the awful solemnity of neo-classicism – into an even more flourishing solemnity which, in turn, infused its stylistic influence into buildings of every description.'

 The running titles are pretty good too – Surprising Discovery (of Ancient Greek architecture), New Post-Roman Speedways, Vogue of the Queen Anne-ites, Dissolution of the Servant Class, But the Romans Got There First... Reading this little volume is rather like reading Osbert Lancaster or John Betjeman. But who was Edmund Vale?
 He was, I discover, a prolific author of books on the English countryside and English buildings, among other things – the kind of writer who had a ready market between the wars and in the immediate postwar years. There's a Facebook page devoted to him, curated by his grandson – here's the link. I'll be looking out for more of his books.
 An Outline of English Architecture is illustrated with a few photographs and small line drawings. Nowadays a book like this would consist mostly of photographic illustrations, with the words limited to little more than captions. It might, I suppose, be more practically useful, but it wouldn't be a tenth as enjoyable as Edmund Vale's little Nutshell Book.


  1. That man really does write well. And 'Nutshell' is just the right term for the series, isn't it? Nowadays it would be 'Idiot's guide to.....' or similar.

  2. It would indeed Newman, and wld probably live down to its title.