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. Today there are four series of county volumes: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – as well as a guide to the Isle of Man. Each county volume comprises a gazetteer describing the buildings of significance, accompanied by maps, plans, and more than 100 specially commissioned photographs; an informative introduction explains the broader context.
In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Charles O’Brien (Joint Series Editor) reflects on the history and development of the Pevsner series, and considers its importance in the field of architecture over 70 years since the the first books were published.
Article by Charles O’Brien
The Pevsner Architectural Guides were founded in 1951 with the launch of the first three volumes of The Buildings of England to Cornwall, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, published by Penguin Books. By 2001, with fiftieth anniversary celebrations under way, discussions had begun between Penguin and John Nicoll, managing director of Yale University Press London, with a view to acquiring the series and moving the editorial and research team to the Press. This was a good move for us, for despite the historic association with our original publisher we were by that time a rather curious prestige operation to find within a large commercial publishing house. In contrast, Yale’s reputation for publishing high-quality art and architectural history was well established and widely celebrated. We made a natural fit, although not in the literal sense, as the addition of three members of staff finally forced the need to move from the characterful but cramped quarters of Pond Street, Hampstead to the Press’s present home in Bedford Square. The new office provided an architectural setting wholly appropriate to our endeavours, and is only a few doors away from the building in Gower Street where Pevsner himself had his office for his work on the guides.
The team that worked full-time on the books until 2022 has always been small: typically comprising two author-editors – who split their time between writing for the series and overseeing other authors – a picture researcher, and a production editor. Bridget Cherry, who had been Pevsner’s research assistant and later series editor, retired at the time of the move to Yale. Simon Bradley and Charles O’Brien had already begun working for the series in the 1990s. Both of us were engaged initially to lead on research, supporting Bridget and also the series’ deputy editor Elizabeth Williamson, before graduating to authorship. At that time, the principal area of effort for the in-house team was the delivery of fully revised guides to buildings in Greater London (eventually six books, replacing Pevsner’s original two). This project had commenced with publication of London 2: South in 1983. At the same time, we provided editorial oversight and support for the authors working on delivery of revised editions for the English counties and the new volumes for Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The complexities of financing the progression of the series across Britain and Ireland were always significant. While the publishers have borne the cost of supporting the full-time editors, production editor and picture researcher, plus the production, printing and distribution of the volumes, funding of the research, fieldwork and writing could not be sustained easily, and the Buildings Books Trust (later Pevsner Books Trust) was established in 1994 to raise money for this purpose, chaired by Sir Simon Jenkins and with trustees that included past members of the publishing and editorial team and others from academia. Administration of the Trust was led by Gavin Watson, who joined the team in the move to Yale and became a familiar face in the office at 47 Bedford Square until his retirement in 2011, when the financial responsibility for the series was taken on by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
The twenty years since the move to YUPL have been the busiest in the lifetime of the Guides. We were taken under the umbrella of Sally Salvesen, managing editor, who already had responsibility for the Pelican History of Art series (another Penguin-originated series, launched by Pevsner simultaneously with the Buildings books). One of the first improvements to the backlist was a re-jacketing of the unrevised small-format books in the series, so that the diverse Penguin jackets of the 1960s and 1970s were replaced with the format adopted in the early 1980s of colour photographs, black banner and white typeface.
The page layout remained, and remains, unchanged from the design of 1951, but at Yale the series also took its first step into colour photography for the hardback volumes, with Gloucestershire 2: The Vale and Forest of Dean (2002). This transformed the look of the books, not least in expressing the varied hues of building stone across Britain and Ireland that do so much to define a county or region’s architectural character. As time has gone on, the quantity of specially taken photos has far outweighed the number of library shots and has become a selling point in itself. To begin with, we continued to enjoy generous help in kind from the photographers of the Royal Commission of Historical Monuments and its successor English Heritage, and from their equivalent bodies, RCHAMW or CADW in Wales and the RCAHMS (later Historic Environment Scotland). English Heritage continued with financial grants for photography into the early 2000s, but as budgets tightened this had to be withdrawn and the series needed to commission photographers directly. We have been exceedingly fortunate to have no shortage of photographers of talent and creativity. The freedom for authors to choose subjects and specify precisely the view or detail that best illustrates their words has meant that over time the illustrations of the books have become much more varied and engaging, and are now very distant relations to the black-and-white shots included in the first and second editions. At the same time, the books have become much more fully illustrated, with maps, plans, topographical prints and other text figures chosen to illuminate and support the content.
At that time of our move to Yale, the Buildings Books Trust had secured a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to reach a new audience by delivering an educational website (www.lookingatbuildings.org) alongside a publishing initiative to create a series of paperback City Guides. These were intended to be more user-friendly than the traditional hardback volumes and through the integration of photography, maps and plans were intended to be equally useful to visitors and to residents. The original project was designed to deliver guides to six major English cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield), all of which had descriptions in the county guides that were woefully out of date. Manchester was published first, its format and page design having been hatched at Penguin and then applied to the subsequent books. A guide to Bath, although not part of the HLF-funded work, was published in the same format. This was a major departure for the series and added a significant number of new authors to the roster, with writers and editors having to learn much about the opportunities and pitfalls of producing text which bore little relation to Pevsner’s original descriptions but needed to be just as independent and forthright in its opinions. The results were very successful, Liverpool having sold over 20,000 copies alone in its lifetime. Over the following years the city paperbacks were extended to cover Brighton & Hove, Hull, Newcastle and Gateshead, and Nottingham.
There was, however, always a semi-hidden agenda behind these guides: to seek out authors who could put their experience on the city paperbacks into tackling the major task of the associated county revisions. This bore fruit in the following years with new volumes appearing by several of these authors, covering Birmingham and the Black Country, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, much of Lancashire, Somerset and Sussex, and the greater part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. The increased activity also injected a renewed sense of purpose into the wider programme of new editions, and there has been a touching commitment by several of our authors to roll from one project to another – clear proof that this is one of the most enjoyable and stimulating kinds of work available in the field of architectural history. At our busiest we have had more than twenty authors working across Britain and Ireland at one time. This has given consistency of approach and valuable longstanding relationships between authors and editors, sometimes over a period of decades.
The achievement can be measured not only by our sales – we calculate that since joining Yale we must have sold over 400,000 copies of our backlist and new titles – but also by this simple statistic: by 2002 we had produced just 25 new or revised editions of the guides since 1983, but by next year we will have published, including the City Guides, our Glossary and the Introductions to Churches and Houses, 75 volumes, and completed entirely the coverage of England, Wales and Scotland, more than fulfilling Pevsner’s hopes for these books when he wrote in 1974: ‘the first editions are only ballons d’essai; it is the second editions which count’.
About the Author
Charles O’Brien is joint series editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and author or coauthor of London 5: East; Befordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough; Hampshire: South and Surrey
with Contributions by
Simon Bradley (Joint Series Editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and author or coauthor of the Buildings of England volumes London 1: The City, London 6: Westminster, Cambridgeshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East
and Linda McQueen (Production Editor)
About the Series:
There are four series: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, plus a guide to the Isle of Man. The guides are compiled by county or city, and each volume comprises a gazetteer describing the buildings of significance, accompanied by maps, plans, and more than 100 specially commissioned photographs; an informative introduction explains the broader context.
Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.