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Eliot's secluded chapel: The church of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire (credit: Jon Page)

This has been a vintage 12 months for revisions of Pevsner's Buildings of England. Last autumn a new North East and East Kent appeared, and a new Northamptonshire. Last spring we had Cornwall, last month Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (for the uninitiated, that's just one volume), this month Cambridgeshire and next a new South and West Somerset. The project of revising Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's work, which took him from the 1940s to the 1970s, is now well advanced, though it will be years yet before it is completed, even at the astonishing rate Yale University Press are popping them out. Indeed, some early revisions in the "new" format — tall books so well-illustrated and packed with detail that they cannot fit in the glovebox, let alone the coat pocket — themselves are now out of date. It is over 30 years since the second (South) London volume, and nearly 18 since that covering the City, and the landscapes of both have been revolutionised since.

The revisions are thorough but tactful. Much of Pevsner himself persists in them, while the often superior scholarship of the revisers subtly comes in to expand or underpin what the Master wrote. Not all of his judgments persist: and I suspect I shan't be the only one keen to see whether Pevsner's earlier praise for James Stirling's History Faculty at Cambridge survives into the revision when it appears in a few weeks. Pevsner's worship of modernism blinded him to the deficiencies of a building whose denizens would testify to its resemblance in winter to a morgue and in summer to a greenhouse: if a building cannot be used practically, what is the point of it? Pevsner also despised the Victorians but, as earlier revisions have shown, there is no perpetuation of a policy that led to thousands of fine buildings around the country being entirely ignored and their considerable aesthetic qualities disregarded.

The latest revisions offer expert assessments of buildings as diverse as Truro, Peterborough and Canterbury Cathedrals, seaside towns from Newquay to Margate, and remote Fenland villages: and it is upon the last that I want to dwell. It is precisely because Huntingdonshire is such a remote, small and allegedly insignificant county that it merits close examination. Some will tell you that Huntingdonshire does not exist, and has not since the barbaric local government reforms of the Heath government 40 years ago. Do not believe them. Huntingdonshire is a construct based on history and geography, not on the whims of a civil servant, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, that were exercised without regard for either of those factors. To Beachcomber, with his list of Huntingdonshire cabmen, it was long ago a joke: but it is also, in a way, the backbone of the nation. The Great North Road runs through it, as does the railway from King's Cross to Edinburgh. It is Huntingdonshire's good fortune that these arteries speed people through the county, and do not invite them to stop off or stay there.

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James Mackay
October 20th, 2014
9:10 PM
Simon Heffer writes: "I shan't be the only one keen to see whether Pevsner's earlier praise for James Stirling's History Faculty at Cambridge survives into the revision" He clearly needs to read, not to assume, what Pevsner actually wrote. It's on pp217/218 of the 1970 revision, these are brief extracts: "Here ... is anti-architecture." "a building which ... is actively ugly" "the glazing is of an industrial kind which is aesthetically as neutral as a tomato-frame" "The nearest [similar] building is ...[in]Manchester [of] 1911, a warehouse and only its back. ... Only the back ... is here turned front." There is more. Will Mr Heffer retract? JM

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