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This Earth, this realm, this architecture

The Buildings of England: The Pevsner Architectural Guides; Nikolaus Pevsner (Founding Editor); Yale University Press

January 04, 2004|Paul Kennedy | Paul Kennedy is the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of history at Yale University and the author of several books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" and "Preparing for the Twenty-first Century."

Rising at 6 a.m. after a few hours' sleep, Pevsner and his assistant would set off on a planned tour of, say, Devonshire, with the rear seat of their rickety automobile full of books and notes. Pevsner's aim was to cover some 15 villages or small towns in a day. As they approached the town church, he would begin a running commentary on its architecture, then on to the monuments, brasses, pulpits and rood screens within, before marching off to inspect and remark upon the local manor house, the 16th century pub, the 18th century folly and so on. Arriving at nightfall at a grubby bed-and-breakfast, Pevsner would write up the notes and add comments, while his frequently exhausted assistant made telephone calls to ensure access to the next day's list of buildings. This would go on for seven days a week over the several months.

His productivity was phenomenal. In 1951 Penguin published his volumes on the counties of Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex (not at all geographically adjacent, it might be noted, and the car was in frequent need of repair). The next year there followed volumes on North Devon, South Devon and "London: Except the Cities of London and Westminster." In 1953 there came Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and County Durham. Three years, nine volumes. He then slowed down to an average of two per year, but by the mid-'60s it was back to three. As his energies faded, Pevsner was joined in his authorship by other scholars of English architecture, such as John Newman and Ian Nairn. The last few volumes of "The Buildings of England" are written entirely by a collaborator or pupil but always in the Pevsner style; earlier volumes were then expanded, again by his colleagues and friends. In 1976, on receiving an honorary degree at the University of Pennsylvania at America's bicentennial, he challenged American scholars to produce "The Buildings of the United States," a challenge that has been undertaken by the Society of Architectural Historians (eight volumes have been published of the 58 planned). He died in 1983 as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, having changed the way an entire nation thought about its buildings, its landscape, its past.

What was the "Pevsner style"? In so many of his entries -- perhaps because he liked to do 15 parishes a day -- it was terse, clipped, abbreviated: A nondescript Wesleyan chapel on the Lancashire moors would be described as "Built 1767. Uninteresting." It was also very technical, although to his credit he always provided a glossary, which I consulted often in my early years of becoming a Pevsnerite. What, after all, are strainer arches, triple chamfers or intersected ogee curves, all of which figure in his account of Wells Cathedral? But Pevsner's prose could also be heavenly, lyrical, almost Shakespearean, sometimes a bit Wodehouseian. Here is the early, pre-technical part of his description of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire:

"Haddon Hall is the English castle par excellence, not the forbidding fortress on an unassailable crag, but the large, rambling, safe, grey, lovable house of knights and their ladies, the unreasonable dream-castle of those who think of the Middle Ages as a time of chivalry and valour and noble feelings. None other in England is so complete and convincing. It is set in gentle green surroundings, with woods above and lush fields and the meandering river below. The river in its winding course enhances the charms of the West as well as the South side. The slope up to the house on the West is steep but not high, and grassy not rocky. The towers and turrets and crenellations look exactly as if they were taken out of the background of some [15th century] illuminated manuscript." And so on.

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