Building on Pevsner

Christopher Tadgell's seven-volume Architecture In Context is astonishingly ambitious, and effortlessly even-handed

David Ekserdjian

If one did not know any better, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that “Christopher Tadgell” was a convenient nom-de-plume cloaking the identities of a substantial team of eminent architectural historians. After all, and assuming my maths is correct, these seven sturdy paperback volumes, which were originally published in hardback between 2007 and 2015 (and are indeed still available in that form at £75 each), run to a daunting 6,182 pages, with no fewer than 11,776 colour and 2,206 black-and-white illustrations.

It is vital to state at the outset that it is not just its sheer scale that makes this such an astonishingly ambitious production. Christopher Tadgell has not confined his overview of architecture to the post-antique European tradition, as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner did in An Outline of European Architecture, which was first published in 1943 and subsequently much modified and expanded. On the contrary, Architecture in Context also embraces both antiquity and the rest of the world with open arms. In that sense, and for all that the approach is profoundly different, his magnum opus is far closer to Sir Banister Fletcher’s large-scale but single-volume History of Architecture, which was first published as long ago as 1905, and then heavily revised in 1921. Banister Fletcher — as the book has come to be known — aspired to cover the entire globe, but it may come as no great surprise, in view of its venerable antiquity, if it betrays what now feels like a heavily Eurocentric bias. In stark contrast, Tadgell is effortlessly even-handed.

Anyone embarking upon an all-embracing project of this kind is virtually bound to have what may be described as a centre of gravity, the area of their chosen field of study they know best. Most encouragingly and almost miraculously, in Tadgell’s case he is celebrated for his expertise in two radically different areas, namely French architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries and the architecture of the Indian subcontinent. His contribution to Baroque and Rococo Architecture and Decoration, published as long ago as 1978, in which his co-authors were Anthony Blunt and Alastair Laing, was devoted to the former, while his History of Architecture in India of 1990 is the classic work on the latter. At the same time, it soon becomes clear that Tadgell has travelled incredibly widely over the decades to see as many of the actual buildings as humanly possible, and indeed to photograph them. This is the diametric opposite of a vision based upon an armchair — or computer screen — tour of the planet. 

The approach adopted here involves what the books themselves describe as setting the buildings in question “within their political, technological, social and cultural contexts, exploring architecture not only as the development of form but as an expression of the civilization within which it evolved”. In practice, the happy consequence is that both history and works of art, and above all paintings and sculptures, are by no means ignored in this magisterial overview. At the same time, it cannot be underlined too strongly that Tadgell’s ability to see the bigger picture is unfailingly based upon a highly detailed consideration of individual buildings and their creators. Thus, Hagia Sofia is accorded no fewer than 12 pages and 13 illustrations, while the section on Palladio rates 22 pages and a mighty 90 illustrations.

Throughout, moreover, the running text is complemented by detailed and often quite discursive commentaries on the individual illustrations. The prose is unfailingly clear-sighted, but few concessions are made to the architectural amateur, which means that the glossaries in all the volumes are a godsend for those of us who are not completely sure we can tell our abacus from our xystus (respectively “flat slab forming the top of a capital” and “originally the portico in front of a gymnasium, where exercise could be taken in poor weather; later a term designating the open area for promenading in front of a portico”, just in case you were wondering). 

Four of Tadgell’s volumes are in essence devoted to covering much the same ground as Pevsner’s Outline. Their titles — and especially their lengthy subtitles — reveal their contents, as we follow the progress of European architecture from The West: from the advent of Christendom to the eve of Reformation, by way of Reformations: From High Renaissance to Mannerism in the new West of religious contention and colonial expansion and Transformations: Baroque and Rococo in the age of absolutism and the Church Triumphant, to conclude with Modernity: Enlightenment and Revolution — ideal and unforeseen consequence. All the big names and major architectural traditions are naturally fully covered, but there is also plenty of attention paid to various lesser lights and to the likes of Spain and Portugal, not to mention Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

The three remaining volumes are Antiquity: Origins, Classicism and the New Rome; Islam: From Medina to the Maghreb and from the Indies to Istanbul; and The East: Buddhists, Hindus and the Sons of Heaven. Of these, the first is the biggest surprise — above all because its subtitle seems to suggest an initial section devoted to Mesopotamia and Egypt, to be followed by a purely European focus. Instead,  more than a hundred pages are also given over to Mesoamerica and the Andean Littoral, which includes such delights as Machu Picchu, one of the many, many destinations this reviewer longs to visit one day. That said, the other two volumes are liable to score even more highly in the thrilling surprise stakes. As a result, even those of us fortunate enough to have seen — say — the splendours of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur on Java can still go weak at the knees at the prospect of making it to Isfahan, Samarkand or Bukhara before we die.  

It would require a level of omniscience worthy of Tadgell to judge how often this particular Homer nods, and I have a powerful suspicion nobody else comes close. However, what seems plain is that the overall level of scholarship is both stunningly elevated and enviably up to date (when I knew about such matters, the drawing of Bramante’s House of Raphael in the RIBA was no longer — as Tadgell would have it — believed to be by Palladio, but there is no absolute proof either way). The only genuine error I spotted simply concerns a flipped illustration (the angel musician in the relevant reproduction of Dürer’s Feast of the Rosegarlands in Prague has become a Paul McCartney-style left-handed lutenist). It goes without saying that such a minor lapse would not be worth mentioning, were it not for the fact that I very much hope these volumes will all prove to be a sell-out, in which case the image can be reversed in the next edition. By then, if there is any justice in this world, someone involved with the honours system will have seen the light, and allowed Christopher Tadgell to take his place alongside his great precursors Pevsner and Banister Fletcher in the highly exclusive club of knighted architectural historians.   

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