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Refreshing Bath

review Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bath By Michael Forsyth. Yale University Press, 2003. £9.99

The writer Colin MacInnes spent much of the 1950s in the drinking clubs of Soho, but found time to turn out an essay or two, including one called 'The Englishness of Dr Pevsner'. Discussing the early volumes in the Buildings of England series, MacInnes hailed Pevsner as 'an English stylist of the highest orderà Dozens of Dr Pevsner's architectural evocations are like little epigrammatic poems.'

MacInnes drew attention to Pevsner's way with adjectives - 'Rarely before can a writer on architecture have kidnapped audaciously so many single adjectives not usually applied to buildings' - and supplied a long list of examples, among them: grim, papery, frantic, naughty and desperate. Pevsner is sometimes caricatured as a dry, detached cataloguer with a blinkered Modernist agenda, but this close reading shows how supple his responses could be and how personal, sometimes quirky, his BoE books were. So whenever a bulky revision of one of Pevsner's original volumes appears, or a spin-off like this paperback on Bath, MacInnes' comments come to mind, because they deal with the defining aspect of a guidebook - the author's tone of voice.

This Bath book is the second in a series on various British cities, and like the first (Manchester, AJ 6.12.03), it differs greatly in appearance from the BoE norm. With new colour photographs and archive images interwoven with the text, user-friendly maps, 'topic boxes' on such subjects as Grecian ironwork, sash windows, and building on a sloping site, it's attractive and very good value. Bath occupied 48 pages in Pevsner's old North Somerset and Bristol volume (1958), but here has 300, and the muchexpanded content is sensibly organised in three sections: 'Major Buildings' (like the Abbey and the Pump Room); 'Walks' (not 'perambulations' any more), of which there are 11; and 'Excursions' - buildings at the edge of the city, including such treats as Peter Womersley's house, Valley Spring, and Giles Gilbert Scott's basilican Church of Our Lady and St Alphege.

Michael Forsyth, who directs the postgraduate conservation of historic buildings course at Bath University, marshalls all the material in a polished, lucid way, though there is much more description and historical background than analysis or evaluation.

He acknowledges his 'debt' to Pevsner, but doesn't make it clear that Pevsner is still in parts a co-author. Phrases, sentences, and more extended passages survive from 1958, and often where they do the text has more personality. It's those adjectives again - the 'wild' Baroque of Nathaniel Ireson, the 'frolicsome' Empire Hotel - and Pevsner's willingness to offer (or imply) an opinion.

And the sense of substance, too, that comes from such analytical paragraphs as that on the Circus: 'A circus so closed to the outer world is something very different from the French equivalentà It has one architectural motif only, and this is relentlessly carried through on all sides - without accents of height or relief - a triumph of Wood's single-mindedness.'

But while Forsyth simply incorporates Pevsner, he also edits him. Just as Pevsner did, he says that the giant Ionic columns of the Royal Crescent 'are majestic, they are splendid', but omits Pevsner's rider that 'they are not domestic' and his observation that:

'The French writers on architecture in the classical C17 and C18 knew what they were talking about when they insisted on the propriÚtÚ of a facade.' At John Palmer's Christ Church he retains Pevsner's 'still Gothic only in a vague way', but not his mordant, 'Wide awful apse of 1886'. And though Pevsner thought the terraces of Great Pulteney Street were 'very long and not sufficiently pulled together', Forsyth calls it 'one of Bath's great architectural set pieces and among Britain's finest formal streets'.

So his independence from Pevsner emerges, and at times his prose becomes more characterful - 'There is something bleak and sinister about the building, which penetrates into all its details, ' he says of Beckford's Tower. But, shorn of Pevsner's enlivening adjectives, the text overall is rather bland. It certainly isn't passionate and evocative like the BoE contributions of Pevsner's one-time collaborator Ian Nairn; nor does it have the depth of feeling and didactic purposefulness of Peter Smithson's Bath:

Walks within the Walls (strangely missing from the long list of recommended reading).

It's not a book to provoke arguments, or really make readers examine their responses.

Forsyth brings the story up-to-date with Grimshaw's New Royal Bath - which (more politely than some critics) he calls 'a very high quality building of its time' - and his post-1958 entries include a full record of the developing campus of the University of Bath. Indeed, for fullness and informativeness, this volume can hardly be faulted.

Whatever the quibbles, these updated Pevsners have no comparison and, like other BoEs, Forsyth's Bath will no doubt be referred to for years to come.

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