The forty-six volumes in Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series were originally intended as guides you could slip into your pocket. I don’t think I’ve ever actually carried one around in that fashion, not even the early, comparatively slender ones, and to do so with any of the more recent revised editions would require a poacher’s jacket and very sturdy shoulders. Nevertheless, they are for me the ultimate handbooks: enjoyable to handle, with flexible hard covers suggesting resilience; enticing to behold, with their restrained design redolent of serious purpose; and utterly engrossing in the mass of information within.
If you’re not fairly keen on buildings, you might struggle to share this view. I gather that even some who count architecture amongst their interests find Pevsner a little dry. I can see what they mean – but is this really a criticism? Being a little dry, it seems to me, is an essential characteristic of the series; being a little dry is its job. If it weren’t dry, it might be quite enjoyable, it might even veer towards being utterly delightful, like the Shell Guides – but then it most definitely wouldn’t be Pevsner. And we really couldn’t do without him.
Imagine driving past an intriguing pair of gates, glimpsing a fine building through the trees, being unable to stop to investigate – and then arriving home and having no means of looking up the place. Or imagine planning a journey and not having Pevsner to hand to check what might be worth looking at en route. How many times has one passed a house or a church, quite close to home, realized how little one knows about it and reached for Pevsner on one’s return to provide the necessary information?
If your bookshelves are full of the early editions – the first three were published in 1951 – it has to be said that disappointment is a possibility. What they made up for in portability, they sometimes lacked in content. Pevsner was fa
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