Pevsner’s Monument

Nikolaus Pevsner was the man who catalogued England. His project is well worth another read

Insofar as we have a distinct culture in this country, perhaps its most visible and obvious manifestation is in our buildings. For a long time we seemed to care very little about them, and almost not to recognise them as works of art in their own right, worthy of conservation. The legacy, and evidence, of earlier ages was routinely swept aside by later ones. Had the Great Fire not razed the City of London the Georgians would probably have done so or, failing them, the Victorians. Similarly, and within painful living memory, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s removed much of the surviving pre-20th century architecture of our towns that the Luftwaffe had inadvertently spared. It seemed, for a time, that an idea of progress and preparedness for the future was contingent upon a visible elimination of the past.

The Victorians, in their ruthless restorations of churches and their imposition of their interpretation of the medieval upon the real thing, largely got away with their vandalism. There is the odd barb in the literature of the time lamenting the wreckage of ancient art — Samuel Butler has a few things to say about it in The Way of All Flesh — but as an age they were so certain of the moral force of their own cultural superiority that they felt that anything they created must inevitably be more beautiful, more valuable and more useful than what it replaced. At least, for all their faults, the Victorians built with a solidity and sense of permanence that gave some justification to their view. They even, occasionally, built quite beautifully. It was their buildings, notably, that were in the line of fire when the modernists and brutalists moved in half a century or so ago. The modernists and brutalists had as much conviction as the Victorians that what they were doing was the ultimate in architecture. Unlike the Victorians, sadly, they usually happened to be wrong.

This, at least, did not go unopposed. Sir John Betjeman put himself at the forefront of campaigns to save the Euston Arch and, shortly afterwards, the Coal Exchange. Both of those failed, because of the ruthlessness of governments and the determination that progress was progress and never philistinism. Betjeman was, however, successful with St Pancras Station and its integral Midland Hotel, now both so beautifully restored as to look better, one imagines, than they did when George Gilbert Scott built them. But assisting him in these projects was one whom he had, by then, mocked and teased for nearly 30 years, Nikolaus Pevsner.

One suspects Betjeman, who left Oxford without a degree, resented Pevsner’s orthodox erudition and intellectualism: buildings are there, after all, to be appreciated by the senses, not by the intellect. His habit of referring to Pevsner as “Herr Professor Doktor” says it all. What might have rankled more is that Pevsner undertook a project that Betjeman could have been forgiven for thinking ought to have had his own name on it: the Buildings of England series, begun for Allen Lane in the late 1940s and whose coverage, county by county, was not complete until the mid-1970s. This is Pevsner’s monument: and one that Betjeman, for all his qualities, lacked the discipline and objectivity even to begin to aspire to write.

The tense relationship between the two men, their work together to save old buildings, and the way in which Pevsner built his enduring monument are all dealt with in meticulous detail in Susie Harries’s exhaustive and highly readable Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, just published by Chatto. It should shame England that it took a dispossessed German Jew of Russian extraction, who had sought asylum here from Nazi persecution, to make this catalogue of our buildings. Once the catalogue was in place it put planning authorities, landlords and property developers on notice that the aesthetics of their building and its place in the landscape and in the culture had been formally noted. A combination of that and the system of listing buildings has not entirely eliminated the destruction of fine architecture — but it has gone a great way to help the cause. A listing in Pevsner, even if not by the statutory authority, is by way of a challenge to those with the power to destroy it. The whole project was a statement, coming after the assault on towns and cities in the Blitz, that what survived and was valuable required recognition and preservation. That the English themselves, with notable exceptions such as Betjeman and his followers, seemed to care less about this than the immigrant Herr Professor Doktor must, we hope, now be a thing of the past.

Although Pevsner died in 1983, the series that bears his name, and which will be forever synonymous with him, continues under the aegis of Yale University Press. Not only have the original volumes been revised, but they have, since the mid-1980s, been revised in a larger format and packed with far more detail than was possible at the time of the first editions.

One of the most astonishing facts to emerge from Harries’s biography is that Pevsner allocated only a month to the fieldwork for each county. Although he had researched the buildings extensively before he got there, and had assistants, this still left him relatively little time to cover large geographical areas. A comparison of the modern volumes with their predecessors highlights the scanty nature of some of the original description and commentary.

The latest volume, on Cheshire, published last month, is not perhaps the best example of this, since the old Cheshire was one of the more detailed volumes, written with the assistance of Edward Hubbard. However if one looks at the original Berkshire, it is a shadow of the revision, which includes a section on Windsor Castle about a third of the length of the whole of the original book.

There is no excuse not to value our buildings now. The new volume on Cheshire has elaborate introductions of the various periods of architecture in the county, the geology of the area and the building materials. It brings in scores more buildings that Pevsner had not deemed interesting enough, and many built since he completed his volume. It reminds us how varied English life is even within a small geographical area: Cheshire has its industrial area, its Surrey of the North full of footballers and their wives, its dairy plain and even its sub-Pennine area.  It allows us to assess and understand the buildings all around us, and alerts us to aspects of their beauty that might be hard otherwise to discern. And if we become a people that truly learns to love the everyday spectacle of its architectural heritage, then we may even become a country that learns to love its own culture.

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