The Pevsner Architectural Guides were begun in 1951 by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) with the aim of providing an up-to-date portable guide to the most significant buildings in every part of the country, suitable for both general reader and specialist. The success of the volumes covering The Buildings of England led to the extension of the series to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Each volume provides an introductory overview of the architecture of the area, followed by a descriptive gazetteer arranged alphabetically by place. Whilst cathedrals and their furnishings, great country houses and their parks from the grand set pieces, the books demonstrate the enjoyable diversity of architecture in the British Isles in accounts of rural churches and farmsteads, Victorian public buildings and industrial monuments.
Pevsner Architectural Guides have now leapt into the digital age with the release of Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary App for iPhone and iPad. Based on the successful 2010 publication in hardback of Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary, this stunning app offers users a dynamic and innovative way to engage with architecture and the Pevsner lexicon. Editors Simon Bradley and Charles O’Brien have overseen the series for many years and numerous editions, routinely encountering the myriad challenges which can be presented by architectural language. In this conversation with publisher Sally Salvesen, the editors describe their experience of living and working with Pevsner guides, from their earliest experiences up to the latest cutting-edge iteration of the series.
What was your first experience of learning the Pevsner vocabulary?
As a teenager, when I started to look seriously at the buildings of Newcastle and County Durham. Luckily there were copies of the 1950s county volumes at home. I can remember especially going round Durham Cathedral and Hexham Abbey, trying to relate every word on the page to what was in front of me, and learning all the time.
When you joined the Pevsner team at Penguin, did you discover new ways to use the terms?
When I joined I found I didn’t know many of the terms in the glossary so consultation with it was frequent and illuminating. Most terms are specific so one can’t really use them in more than one way, and our former Series Editor, Bridget Cherry was always particularly resistant to attempts by authors to adjust some terms for use as adjectives e.g. verandahed.
Are there terms that Nikolaus Pevsner himself found particularly useful?
He saved space by adopting the abbreviated terms for the phases of English Gothic, E.E. (Early English), Dec (Decorated) and Perp (Perpendicular). Sometimes these have to be qualified, perhaps by naming the century too. But on the whole Pevsner tried to avoid piling on specialist terms for their own sake, as he felt that these could be a barrier to understanding; he once described his mission as ‘the shedding of abracadabra’.
What happens when you come across an architectural element you have never seen before? Can you give an example?
This happens occasionally and more often than not can be identified from the existing glossary, but the Pevsner authors also use each other to check terms and circulate photos to ask for advice.
As an editor, how do you check if your author’s description of a building is accurate?
We usually have the old text to compare, and any changes may indicate that the author is correcting a mistake – though it’s sometimes worth checking. The availability of so many photos on the web makes this task easier than it used to be, when a pencilled note on the author’s manuscript might be the only way to make sure. And in the end we know that our authors can be relied upon nearly always to get things right.
Do individual Pevsner authors use terms in particular ways?
Part of the role of the editor is to try to ensure consistency in the use of architectural vocabulary across the series. There are certain terms whose spelling varies across the regions of England, and in Scotland, Ireland and Wales there are terms used only in those countries (e.g piend roof instead of hipped roof in Scotland),which we now include in the glossaries accompanying those volumes.