The Buildings of England

The Buildings of England is still a landmark work of English architecture. The author was Nikolaus Pevsner, the eminent architectural historian whose ideas endure.

The Buildings of England remains the great legacy of Nikolaus Pevsner, the German-born architectural and art historian who came to love England and the nation’s buildings. How did this monumental work come about?

Nikolaus Pevsner, already an eminent scholar of art and architecture in his native Germany, emigrated to Britain in 1934. Life in England agreed with him just as the Nazis began to overshadow academic freedom in Germany. His reputation grew as his ideas of art and architectural design found expression in such works as Pioneers of the Modern Design (1936) and An Outline of European Architecture (1943). He also edited such landmark works as The Architectural Review (1942-5) and The Pelican History of Art.

During the late 1940s Pevsner began to put in place his ambitions for an architectural survey of England: county by county. Architectural history was not widely viewed as a serious field of study in Britain at this time. Pevsner collaborated with Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books. Research was begun in 1945, Pevsner was aided by two part-time research assistants and a secretary.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Pevsner held posts as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge then Professor of Art at Birkbeck College, London. For the next twenty five years what would become known as The Buildings of England slowly took shape. Each assistant would single out one county for research, then Pevsner himself would visit both counties during his Easter and summer university vacations.

The first county tour began in 1947 with Middlesex. The first guide to be published – on Cornwall – came out in 1951. The forty sixth and last, on Staffordshire, was published more than two decades later in 1974.

Pevsner and his team worked prodigiously to realise the vision. When in the field he would write a first draft of his observations at the end of each day, often on a borrowed table at the inn or hotel where he was staying. Once the tour was over, Pevsner drafted an introduction to the guide: outlining the architectural character of the county concerned and drawing on his formidable knowledge of the history of European buildings.

Each volume invited feedback from readers and a constant stream of letters pointed out anything from misprints to the occasional omission.

As the series grew and became more time consuming Pevsner found he could not complete the volumes on his own and began to share the writing with others. Even so he alone was responsible for 32 volumes, collaborating on a further 10 whilst 4 were written by others who remained faithful to Pevsner’s style.

Pevsner died on 18 August 1983, yet his tours de force The Buildings of England goes from strength to strength. The formula has proven such a success that the series’ aim is to cover not just England but Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The books have undergone revision to take into account new research, changing architectural tastes and new ideas of urban planning. Yet the goal remains to provide accessible if comprehensive guides to the buildings of Britain.

Celebrations took place to mark the 50th anniversary of the series in 2001, organised by the Buildings Book Trust. The centrepiece was a two day conference – “Pevsner’s The Buildings of England” – held at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 13-14 July.

All things Pevsner were discussed in a series of lectures. His early life and career, his criticism and ideas on architecture and art history, and his legacy not just for The Buildings of England but his overall influence on architectural study that endures to this day.