Author James Bettley on Nikolaus Pevsner in Suffolk, his practices
and an ongoing mission of vision and revision
People are understandably amazed by the speed with which Pevsner travelled round the counties he covered for the Buildings of England, and the short amount of time he must have been able to devote to each place. In the case of Suffolk, we can work out from the papers deposited in the series archives at Historic England, Swindon that he was in the county for just four weeks, in August 1957. But this does not take account of a great deal of preparation by research assistants beforehand, and follow-up research afterwards.
‘If it is possible we should like the cider in the next crate to be drier.’
The letter writing began as soon as he got back to London: for example, a letter to the owner of Assington Hall, James Frere, commiserating with him on the destruction of that house by fire, which Pevsner read about in the Manchester Guardian of 29 August – he and his wife Lola had visited on the 6th. A lengthy and somewhat farcical correspondence then ensued, when Pevsner asked Frere to verify the inscription on one of the monuments in the church, a task which was delegated to Frere’s Italian gardener. The vicar had been unable to help, ‘he being 91 and she being 78 and rather ignorant at that!’, to quote Frere.
However, Assington was not top of Pevsner’s agenda. The very first letter he wrote upon his return to London, on 28 August, was to Mrs Guild at Aspall Hall (home then, as now, of Aspall Cyder), asking ‘for the price of your dry cider if one orders either one crate of twelve bottles or two crates’. This was followed by an order for two crates of nine flagons each, and very quickly by payment and a request that ‘if it is possible we should like the cider in the next crate to be drier’. In the last surviving letter, on 28 October, he wrote:
The arrival of the first crate of cider has so much increased the consumption in our house that it might be just as well if you send, together with the second crate for which I had asked, yet another of exactly the dryness of the first.
This would appear to be a hitherto unexplored aspect of Pevsner’s lifestyle.
Once Suffolk was published, in 1961, comments and corrections started arriving very soon. Rupert Gunnis, the historian of British sculpture, wrote on 8 March, pointing out (amongst other things) that he had looked at the monument by Peter Scheemakers to Francis Dickins in Cowlinge church several times, ‘& I do not think it was signed’.
As a matter of fact the monument at Cowlinge is signed on the base of the urn. You can’t imagine how proud I was, for the first time after twenty counties to see a signature which you had not seen.
An even prompter correspondent was M. P. Statham, West Suffolk County Archivist, to whom Pevsner replied on 28 February:
It is very discouraging indeed to realise that whatever trouble one takes, the resident expert will always be able to find mistakes. My text of Bury St Edmunds was read in galley proofs by the librarian, Mr Fordham, and I have of course also tried to check as much as possible.
This may have made Statham feel a little uncomfortable, for he wrote back confessing that he himself was one of those who had been asked by Fordham to look at the proofs, ‘though I only had half an hour or so for this, prior to going on holiday’.
The archives contain a wide range of further material, including correspondence with architects giving details of their own work, press cuttings, and the occasional letter from exasperated readers: the Revd J. T. Munday wrote to say about Eriswell,
I wish he could come to these parts himself – his ghost (I surmise it must have been a ghost) made some rather odd remarks about buildings in this neighbourhood, and it’d need quite a bit of sorting out.
Many of these corrections and suggestions were incorporated in the second edition (1974), and some unused material has proved useful in compiling the third edition. One correspondent submitted in 1969 a list of items, some of which were accepted, while others had ‘NO’ written against them. The latter have now been incorporated, and the correspondent, David Sherlock, has continued to provide many helpful suggestions to the present author. Nothing illustrates better the continuity of the series, and the constant process of revision that has gone on, in the case of Suffolk, for over fifty years.
The two newly revised Pevsner Architectural Guides to Suffolk are now available from Yale.