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Keeper of the flame

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Bridget Cherry, editor of The Buildings of England, and of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, started as Nikolaus Pevsner's research assistant 30 years ago. Like many of his researchers and collaborators, she was a recruit from the Courtauld, where she did her postgraduate degree in the history of art, and where he sometimes lectured. Her first task was updating his original texts, but in a fairly non-interventionist way. 'A lot of elements were sacrosanct,' she recalls. 'We were not re-writing Pevsner's text. Nowadays we look at them much more critically'.

Today Cherry, with updated Buildings of England editions on Surrey, Devon, and Wiltshire to her name, as well as new volumes on London South and London North-West, is in the Pevsner driving seat. As 'editor' of all four series since 1991, she is guardian of the standards Sir Nikolaus set, though not of all his stylistic preferences and prejudices. Today's approach to selecting what goes in is much more 'pluralistic', reflecting increasing public interest in, for instance, industrial and agricultural buildings, as well as twentieth-century buildings in a variety of styles.

She also has the unenviable task of trying to reconcile comprehensiveness (which means volumes two or three times as big as Pevsner's early paperbacks) and affordability (recent editions have been priced at £30 or £35). In this respect, London Docklands: An Architectural Guide could just be the breakthrough she has been looking for. It is a paperback and - though in the modified 'tall' pocket format first adopted in 1983 for her London: South - is, with 320 pages, slim enough to be genuinely pocketable. It rests on research paid for by the lddc, and is a timely advance offering of the full London: East to be published in 1999 or 2000. A second paperback is due out in June: City of London Churches by Simon Bradley, using material from the recent London 1: the City of London.

'Docklands' could also be answer the problem of trying to keep up with the pace of urban change. A volume on Central Manchester, taking in its post-bomb city centre and with research contributing to a full-scale new edition for Lancashire or Greater Manchester, is an attractive possibility. Likewise central Birmingham. Typically, having waxed enthusiastic for a moment, Cherry hedges. 'We'll have to see how the Docklands volume sells. And it depends on getting sponsorship. Any ideas?'

For, though the Pevsner volumes are published by Penguin, their survival rests on a division of labour, or rather of funding. The book prices just about cover basic costs; the research is almost all paid for by others. The Buildings Books Trust, set up in 1994, raises some research funds; the Scottish series has its own research funding. Current and forthcoming London volumes have been funded by the City of London, the lddc and a consortium of City of Westminster interests. Other authors have to find their own research funding: 'Ways and means,' says Cherry. 'Sometimes they do it for love'.

Nonetheless, the 'buildings' series has come a long way since Cherry took over 'England' after Pevsner's death in 1983. Then Penguin, though valuing the series as a prestige publication, feared its loss-making propensities; Cherry had yet to establish her own reputation; and the mammoth task of handling and updating the fruits of research was still via paper files and index cards. Cherry struggled to get her first word processor. Now the operation is properly computerised. 'We couldn't have managed without it,' she says. 'It's revolutionised the way we work.'

Relations with Penguin have also been transformed: 'They regard us with much greater confidence', largely because sponsorship via the Books Trust removes the crippling cost of funding research. The strategy is to go for relatively short print-runs, and reprint as stocks run out. Three months after 3000 copies of Simon Bradley's City of London were printed it is already reprinting, with minor amendments. 'London always sells well,' says Cherry.

Cherry is now recognised as an authority in her own right, serving on such bodies as the Soane Museum trustees and the Heritage of London Trust. She is an English Heritage commissioner, and sits on its London and historic buildings and areas committees, as well as (crucially) its post-war listing committee.

She had originally hoped to write all the new London volumes herself, 'but that clearly hasn't happened'. 'South' came out in 1983, 'North West' in 1991, her 'North' comes out this October, and she shares authorship of 'East' with Elizabeth Williamson, who has recycled much of it into the Docklands volume. But Cherry could not both run the operation and do a thorough revision of 'Cities of London and Westminster' - hence the recruitment of Bradley to write two separate, locally sponsored volumes.

All these titles, incidentally, credit Nikolaus Pevsner as co-author, though his name now comes second. But won't there come a time when Sir Nikolaus's content is so diluted that the joint by-line can no longer be justified? Yes, says Cherry, but Pevsner is the name that sells the series. The answer will probably be to replace the by-line with a sub- title, such as The Pevsner Guides. Grappling with the pace of redevelopment, shortage of research funds and slipping publication dates are not problems that will disappear, but the future of the 'Pevsners' is no longer in doubt. London Docklands, pages 27-42

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