Wednesday 24 July 2019

Pevsner: 'cursing in common'

I'm finding it hard to tear myself away from Ferdinand Mount's English Voices – very much my kind of book. One of its many delights is a superb essay on that great honorary Englishman Nikolaus Pevsner. Ostensibly a review of the second edition of Pevsner's Berkshire, it begins by defending Pevsner against those (very much including John Betjeman) who caricatured him as 'dry-eyed and thin-lipped, the archetypal Prussian pedant'. Mount quotes Pevsner's foreword to the first edition of Berkshire:
'Berkshire was the first English county I had to travel and describe after my wife had died. She had driven me through nearly all the preceding counties, had done all the day-to-day planning, and more and more also visited the buildings. Four eyes are better than two, and her eyes were quicker than mine. I fear this volume will have suffered from that private circumstance. The journey could not have the zest, the fun, the cursing in common which all belonged to so well tried a partnership.'
Hardly the tone of a cold-hearted Prussian pedant.
  Mount is not blind to Pevsner's shortcomings – 'the occasional over-laconic or dismissive entry with its dread interposed semi-colon: "Nave perp; dull" and the hasty, unanswered question: "Can this be eighteenth-century?"' Any regular user of first-edition Pevsners will be all too familiar with those. And yet the sheer scale of Pevsner's achievement in describing the notable buildings of every English county continues to amaze, and to disarm criticism. Besides, the later editions have filled out Pevsner's descriptions – filled them out and then some. As the new editions have continued to appear over the years they have grown bigger and bigger, to the point where they no longer serve as the portable pocket books they were originally intended to be. This gigantism has been greatly to the advantage of serious students of England's buildings, but equally to the detriment of those of us who like to wander around the country with a handy guide in our pocket.
  Pevsner completed his grand project in 1974 with the publication of Buildings of England: Staffordshire. This includes Some Words on Completion of The Buildings of England, in which he looks back over the series and acknowledges the shortcomings of the first editions – 'Don't be deceived, gentle reader, the first editions are only ballons d'essai; it is the second editions which count.' Yes indeed, though he surely didn't envisage the doorstop scale of more recent volumes.
  Looking back over the changes of the 23 years in which the series was written – including changes in architectural taste – he notes some practical matters. In the Fifties it was still possible to drop in on a modest hotel at the end of a day's exploration and check in for the night. By the Sixties that was fast becoming impossible, as hotels seemed to be always fully booked, largely with business travellers, and so all trips had to be planned in advance. And it was also the case that in the Fifties nearly all C of E churches were open all day, but by the Sixties and Seventies huge numbers of these churches were kept locked, with no key under the mat and often no indication of how the key was to be obtained. 'The time wasted on hunting,' he writes, 'may be more than the time needed for viewing the church. If this development goes on, it means that the work I have done could in future no longer be done in the same time.' Well, quite. And it also means frustration for many a church crawler with Pevsner in hand – or pocket.

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