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Growth of the pocket book of buildings; LOCALHISTORY Pevsner's once pocket-sized bible of local history and architecture is still gaining ground, in popularity and size.

Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England is one of the monumental literary achievements of the 20th century.

Over the course of more than 20 years (from 1951 to 1974) Pevsner published 50 or so volumes devoted to the buildings of each of the English counties, from Cornwall to Northumberland.

Sometimes with, and sometimes without editorial assistance, Sir Nikolaus recorded, described and (when occasionally he thought appropriate) roundly condemned everything from an Anglo-Saxon church to a 1960s shopping centre.

Each successive volume became, at a stroke, a bible for local history and architecture, and the indispensable thing to have in one's glove compartment, knapsack or pocket.

In those early days the books, cheaply produced in paperback by Penguin, fitted all three. Nowadays either pockets have shrunk or the books have got bigger.

Yet at the same time as The Buildings of England became priceless companions for thousands of readers, there were plenty of others who found them entirely indigestible. Like Marmite, a Pevsner was something you swore by, or at.

Take the following description of the world famous Iron Bridge in Shropshire: "Two concentric arches with a filigree of connecting members.

In the spandrels a circle and an ogee-arched panel, a little awkwardly placed side by side."

Ideally one would have Sir Nikolaus himself in the glove compartment to explain exactly what he means.

There's an additional gripe, that the very details that make a building come alive for the casual visitor - the historical connections, the people who lived there, its use and contents - are matters of excrescent irrelevance to Pevsner. History exists only so far as it can be uncovered by precise architectural observation.

The Pevsner industry has changed much since the first series was completed in 1974. Sir Nikolaus himself has gone to investigate buildings in a higher realm, paperback has been replaced by hardback, Penguin by Yale, and the enterprise has crossed the borders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland too.

Additionally a new series arrived - markedly cheaper than the county volumes - to cover individual cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Sheffield.

The writing here is a little less taut and unyielding, with more space to reflect on the histories of buildings and their context.

As for the initial county volumes, they are steadily being expanded and up-dated, with funding for new research provided by the Buildings Books Trust. These new volumes are larger in format than their predecessors, have illustrations in colour and twice as many pages.

Bigger glove compartments are now required.

Our West Midlands counties have been slow recruits to the new format. Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Staffordshire remain in their original versions, the oldest of which (Herefordshire) is now 43-years-old.

The first to be re-born is the Shropshire volume.

There's no doubt that the new Shropshire Pevsner is more encompassing and even more indispensable than its predecessor. The town of Ludlow, for example, now runs to 37 pages, compared to 13 pages in the earlier format, and Bridgnorth has grown from five pages to 11 pages.

Among the new arrivals, of course, is Telford, which was no more than a planner's dream when Pevsner was here in 1958. Now it occupies 37 pages and has swallowed up once independent entries such as Ironbridge, Madeley Court and Wellington. Indeed, the latter has been marginally upgraded in terms of its architectural merit. It is now only "disappointingly poor" rather than (in Pevsner's words) "depressingly poor. By the third edition Wellington might be quite nice.

It's also clear that the new editors are more than aware of the old criticisms, that Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in an intellectual bubble, divorced from all issues of history and context. Boscobel House, for example, is one of those places that tourists go to because of its connections with King Charles II. Such a link is only darkly hinted at in the original volume. "With its associations" warns Pevsner tersely, "Boscobel is sure to have its crowds of visitors. Architecturally it is of little interest either externally or internally."

Sir Nikolaus, it would seem, was not fond of crowds. The new edition comes clean, admits to the royal connection, and embraces Boscobel as a friend.

Such historical background is not simply interesting to the casual visitor, it is essential to the understanding of a building. It's vital to know, for instance, that Stokesay Castle - one of the county's architectural gems - was built by "one of the wealthiest wool merchants of his day" and not simply (as Pevsner put it) "the son of a clothier". Likewise it is useful to be told how much the buildings of Buildwas Abbey reflect the Cistercian ideals of reserve and austerity, a matter considered beyond the master's brief. I note with alarm, however, how the abbey church at Buildwas has shrunk in the 48 years between editions. It was 180ft long in Pevsner's day and is now only 163ft. If no one wants the extra 17ft I would like to claim it for our back garden.

The majority of the new research and writing for Shropshire, I guess, is by John Newman, though three other individuals are named as contributors. Newman preserves the tone of the original volume, retaining where possible Pevsner's acerbic (or enthusiastic) comments, and then interleaving additional information and description. It is John Newman's not entirely enviable task to react to and judge the newer buildings which have dropped on Shropshire in the last half-century.

Much of that new build is inevitably in the "brash, glistening bulk" (as Newman describes it) of central Telford. Newman remains wisely detached from much of this' it may be too early to pronounce judgement or to serve notice of eviction. The photographer, however, is more reticent still. Only four buildings from 20th century Shropshire are illustrated, and all of them are in Shrewsbury, not Telford.

Still, not all has been lost from the intrusion of the 20th century. Back in 1958 Pevsner lamented the fact that the Jacobean Rowley's House in Shrewsbury had been ruined by "bus bustle and car and lorry noise".

"Shrewsbury has treated it cruelly," he adds. That wrong has partly been righted in the intervening years, with the removal (in 1982) of the garage and bus station, allowing Rowley's House to stand in more or less glorious isolation.

As for the replacement bus station, I know it to be one of the most grim and unwelcoming in the Midlands, but as far as I can see the new Pevsner turns a blind eye to it.

CAPTION(S):

Ironbridge, (left) described by Pevsner as: "Two concentric arches with a filigree of connecting members. In the spandrels a circle and an ogee-arched panel, a little awkwardly placed side by side." Ludlow (right) in the new Shropshire Pevsner now runs to 37 pages, compared to 13' Boscobel House, Shropshire, a big attraction with visitors because of its royal connections with King Charles II
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 13, 2007
Words:1150
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