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New Revised Pevsner

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A lack of reverence makes this revised Pevsner one of the best in the series, writes Robert Harbison

The Buildings of England: Worcestershire, by Alan Brooks and Nikolaus Pevsner. Yale. 846pp. £29.95

Worcestershire is one of the very best of the revised Pevsner Architectural Guides. The infectious enthusiasm of author Alan Brooks frequently breaks through, although he doesn’t depart dramatically from the tone of the series. Brooks has the temerity (not shared by all revisers) to rethink even Nikolaus Pevsner’s descriptions of medieval churches, one of the sacrosanct elements of the guides. I yield to no one in my gratitude to Pevsner, but I am not a great fan of his minute anatomies of medieval buildings. However, in Brooks’ revision this detail is given new point and stops being tedious. The best thing about the new volume, though, is what has happened to the 19th and early 20th centuries. It isn’t exactly unexpected that Brooks’ sense of history differs from Pevsner’s, and not simply because he writes out of the moment we’re living in now, though that is part of it. This moment is, among other things, one in which old barns, lovingly restored and studied, are not really farm buildings any more, and in which old gardens, reconstructed in their lost form (17th-century Dutch, say) by bodies like the National Trust, are not gardens in the old sense but viewable objects, places of contemplation perhaps, but also crowd-pullers. About gardens in general, Brooks is more alert than
Pevsner was, as most new contributors to the series have been.
On the 19th century, the new Worcestershire volume is quite special. From a wonderfully heated discussion of a minor Victorian church in Kidderminster to the fantastically serious account of Bodley and Garner’s Hewell Grange, now an open prison with a Great Hall covered in Bavarian frescoes, Brooks gives that century equal space with the earlier ones and integrates it forward and back. For him the 19th century is part of a continuum, not an interruption or violation. There’s a nice moment in the old parish church at Kidderminster when Brooks speaks enthusiastically about a chapel added by
George Gilbert Scott – a chapel Pevsner mistook for 16th century. The point is that to
Brooks, it isn’t surprising that the contribution of a 19th-century architect should take its place next to what came before, while for Pevsner it was an intrusion or defacement.

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