The latest update to Pevsner brings the 21st century update ‘tantalisingly close to completion’

The work of updating Nikolas Pevsner and Ian Nairn's magnum opus on the buildings of England continues with a volume focusing on West Sussex. John Goodall takes a look.

The process of revising the entire ‘Buildings of England’ series, familiarly known as Pevsners, is now coming tantalisingly close to completion with‘The Buildings of England. Sussex: West’. This volume on West Sussex covers only one part of what originally appeared in 1965 as a survey of the entire county (with its eastern half), by Ian Nairn and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.

Their work has now been expanded by a team of three authors (including, in Jeremy Musson, a former architectural editor of Country Life) and a further three specialist contributors.

It follows a now-familiar format, with longer and updated texts, numerous additional figures and an expanded collection of colour photographs. The counterpart revised volume — Sussex: East with Brighton and Hove — was published in 2013.

A review of any revised Pevsner might offer corrections or criticisms of particular entries. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of the series. These books essentially present the interested reader or traveller with a succinct starting point from which to engage with the architecture they encounter.

‘We need [Pevsner’s] accurate lists and descriptions, but, to do anything with them, we also need Nairn’s passion’

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In this case, for example, an entry of fewer than 10 pages on Arundel Castle compresses a millennium of architectural history from the 11th-century gatehouse to the Collector Earl’s Garden of 2008.They also serve as a reminder of the extraordinary richness of architecture in Britain that we all too often take for granted.

As the introduction acknowledges, the co-author of the original volume, the late Ian Nairn, was a critic and journalist. He responded emotionally to buildings as well as landscape and celebrated the unspoilt. Pevsner was driven more by a determination to record and describe. It was a difference of focus, indeed, that eventually caused Nairn to abandon his involvement with the series.

The front hall at Arundel Castle. ©June Buck/Country Life

In their approach to the revision, the authors of this volume have necessarily, inevitably and correctly sided with Pevsner. Apart from anything else, it’s not really possible to revise a reaction. The introduction acknowledges the poetry of Nairn’s writing and the assurance of his judgement, but, ultimately, regrets his focus on ‘architectural worth’ rather than judging buildings according to what is rather oddly described as ‘an established art historical hierarchy’.

Nevertheless, there is an irony here. We need accurate lists and descriptions, but, to do anything with them, we also need Nairn’s passion. Let’s hope this revision can help feed that fire.

‘The Buildings of England. Sussex: West’ by Sir Nikolas Pevsner, Ian Nairn, Elizabeth Williamson, Tim Hudson and Jeremy Musson is published by Yale £35.