OK, Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England isn’t a guidebook in the practical sense (it doesn’t tell you where to get a drink or rate the local hotels). But, as a series, it beats almost every genre of guidebook in its extraordinary intellectual ambition. It was probably only someone NOT born in England who could have had the chutzpah to embark on a project to get in his car and survey all the buildings of England worth surveying (that “worth surveying” carries a lot of baggage) and collect them into a gazetteer, county by county. There were parallel series later, doing the same for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but Pevsner had little active role in them.
I remember my parents keeping their row of “Pevsners” in the bookshelves, and my father occasionally coming out with a litany of their mistakes. These were usually along the lines of Pevsner praising the virtues of a small timber-framed cottage at one end of the village green – when in fact the building in question was a corrugated iron shack, painted to “blend in” with the surroundings, using some black and white paints, to mimic the beans and the in-fill. The suspicion was that the diligent professor had made his notes without actually getting out of his car (eating his sandwiches perhaps), and had been taken in by that black and white paint.
That said, taken overall, the pages of accurate observation of the all those buildings (what date they were, what “quality” (more baggage there), and – in the case of bigger ones – what went on in the inside, and who the architect was) massively outweighed those occasional egregious errors. For his day job, having left Germany in the 1930s, he was Professor of Art History at Birkbeck and was still giving regular lectures in Cambridge when I was a student (I went to a few, but I fear I remember nothing at all about them). He died in 1983 (as his Hampstead house plaque records).
Anyway, we forgot to take my parents’ old copy of Pevsner’s “Suffolk” when we went to Southwold last week. A mistake. Being there without young children meant that we looked a bit harder at the townscape than we had before, and began to wonder how the town had developed, when it started to see itself as a small seaside resort, and what the original function of some of the large buildings on the front had been (private houses or early hotels?).
When we got home, we took the book off the shelves (I now have my own little line-up of Pevsners, part-inherited, part-new). As it turned out, it wasn’t a huge help, and apart from the description of the church (“The epitome of Suffolk flushwork”!) stretched to only a couple of pages. These were big on Pevsner’s trademark confident aesthetic judgements, like them or not (“Southwold is one of the happiest and most picturesque seaside towns in England; happy, but not cheerful in the cheerio-sense, and picturesque, but not in the quaint sense of Clovelly … The inhabitants appreciate the character of the town, They keep the colours fresh and the gardens trim” … ????). But there was little on what we wanted to know, or just a few hints (“Only big hotels are missing, thanks to bombing in the war”).
That was 1961. So, we decided to try the new revised edition (Yale University Press has been publishing an updated version of the lot). First impressions were not promising. We discovered that Pevsner’s single volume on Suffolk had been split into two hefty volumes: Suffolk: East and Suffolk: West. I always dislike that. OK there is no doubt that Southwold will be in East Suffolk, but – for the rest – Sod’s Law is always going to mean that the place you want is in the other volume. In the end, we slightly reluctantly shelled out for both.
A good call. The reviser, James Bettley, has done a grand job. Southwold now gets three times as much space and the slightly patronising stuff about the “inhabitants” has gone. And it provides all the explicit detail we had been looking for (the fact, as Pevsner only touched on, that the large white house we had spotted overlooking the sea was at the heart of the early touristic development in the 1820s, sponsored by a local vicar, or that the (early eighteenth-century) Lloyd’s Bank in the Market Place had its third storey added in the mid nineteenth century, and so on). No criticism of Pevsner. He was trying to do the whole damn country. But this fills in the gaps.
And it also gives us an excuse to go back to explore, this time guide in hand. (And also, yes, before someone points it out, to visit the little local museum, when it reopens.)