Pevsner and Local History – a Changed Relationship

10 Aug

By Dr Kate Tiller

The latest, 2015 version of the Suffolk ‘Pevsner’ has recently arrived on my bookshelves. Placing it alongside the first edition (1961) and the second (1975), it is clear not just how valuable this staple reference has been for local historians but also how much it and local history have developed since the series began. Pevsner’s Buildings of England is a rare phenomenon, a projected national series of county volumes that was actually completed. Begun in 1951, with volumes for Cornwall, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, and finishing with Staffordshire, published in 1974, its 46 volumes offer a place by place description of what the architectural historian and series begetter and editor, Nikolaus Pevsner, saw as the significant buildings of each locality.

PevsnerPevsner’s purpose was tenacious, his style inimitable and his words spare. To complete coverage firm limits were set. As he wrote in the foreword of the Suffolk first edition, ‘Users must here be warned what not to expect in the following pages’. Time available, the extent and quality of the information already known for local buildings, what types and periods of building he judged important, and a clear dash of personal preference, determined matters. Armed with notes compiled by research assistants over the preceding year to 18 months, he set out to visit each county. In August 1957, driven by his wife, Pevsner embarked on a tour of Suffolk of impressive intensity. The coverage was typical of first edition Buildings of England volumes; all churches (except those after c.1830, of which a selection on grounds of architectural interest was made); all castles, manor houses, country houses and town houses ‘which I consider worthy of inclusion’. There were some selected farmhouses, most church fittings, but not all post-Reformation brasses or monuments. Of later architectural periods, he concludes that the Victorian age ‘has not changed Suffolk much’ whilst ‘for the C20 in Suffolk one can be almost silent’. The result was a book of 516 pages with an emphasis on earlier periods and buildings of higher social status and architectural formality.

In 1974 Pevsner visited the last building in the initial sequence, the Old Rectory at Sheen, Staffordshire. In the subsequent county volume he added some reflections on completion of the series, noting how he and his assistants now knew much more (perhaps too much?) in preparing a county. He singles out ‘lists of jazzy cinemas of the twenties, lists of vernacular cottages arranged by plan types, lists of early industrial premises’. A generation of younger architectural historians had entered the field and were writing at (questionable?) length. Buildings listing and the Victorian Society pressed the claims of more and different buildings to be noticed. Architectural taste had altered, the appearance of recent and current buildings had changed, and gaps and errors in the first editions had been notified. Revised second editions were already in preparation and, at the point of the remarkable achievement of completing the initial series, Pevsner wrote, ‘Don’t be deceived, gentle reader, the first editions are only ballons d’essai; it is the second editions which count’.

For Suffolk, a second edition, at 555 pages just 39 longer than the first, followed in 1975. It was very much a revision of the 1961 account, not revisiting the county as whole but noting in two pages changes in the intervening years, with some buildings lost and some discovered, and including major recent developments, among them the Greater London Council’s Expanding Towns projects which had added several thousand new houses and numerous factories to market towns in West Suffolk. It is with the third edition of 2015 that we can see how the Pevsner series is now taking on a whole other scale, reflecting as well as contributing to the growing scope of local history.

Now in two volumes, East Suffolk (677 pages) and West Suffolk (635 pages), James Bettley’s revision emphatically ceases to be a pocket guide. Although it adds to, rather than removes, Pevsner’s original voice and includes some pithy adjectives and judgements which I like to think he would have approved of, this is a step change in coverage and approach. The county was revisited, over a six year period. Losses, additions and reuses of buildings are included. Local research is taken into account, as are fresh understandings made possible by newly accessible techniques notably, in a county of much timber-framing, dendrochronology.

Vernacular building is one of the great additions to the ‘new Pevsner’, that local architecture in local materials, by and for local people so significant to local history. When it comes to the more formal designs of local architects, coverage is also much extended, crediting those whom Bettley describes as ‘collectively responsible for a major body of work that has tended to be overlooked by national studies’. With changed perceptions of which local buildings are significant the twentieth century is fully embraced. Pevsner-like, Bettley concludes, that its impact has been felt less in Suffolk than in many counties, ‘the main change being that the cottages are lived in not by farmworkers but by professionals, and are in better condition (as are the parish churches) than ever before’. Nevertheless he details significant new builds and re-uses, from individual and large-scale housing developments to schools, religious, public and commercial buildings. These include ‘the ARC shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds (2007-9) on the site of the town’s cattle market, with new streets of traditional scale, using traditional materials but in a contemporary way, leading to a public square with civic auditorium and the emphatically non-traditional, curved, aluminium-clad Debenhams store’.

Not only does the Suffolk Pevsner now take in a much wider range of individual buildings, using local and other studies to identify and interpret them, but the volumes have extended introductions, overviews that encourage particular buildings and places to be understood in comparative context. The entries for towns and some villages are also prefaced, by brief outlines of their chief characteristics, sometimes complemented by scaled maps of the settlement and its main buildings. So the architecture is succinctly related to times of prosperity and decline, and to influences from ownership to commerce, transport or administration, a linkage to gladden the local historian’s heart. It is a measure of Nikolaus Pevsner’s achievement that this great project is reaching a third edition and expanding to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Recent developments make it bigger and more expensive, but more than ever an essential and rewarding reference for local historians, for whom buildings of all kinds are key evidence.

Kate Tiller is a Fellow of Kellogg College.

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