Learning to Love Pevsner – 50 Years in 50 Books

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, our production editor Linda McQueen gives her personal insights into what it has been like working in the Pevsner team since 2015 – as someone who knew nothing about architecture prior to taking on the role!

Article by Linda McQueen

Linda McQueen at her desk in the Pevsner office

‘Does it matter if I don’t know anything about architecture?’ I ask at my final interview.

A small silence falls. The editors look at one another. Eyes are widened, ever so slightly. Eyebrows knitted, ever so thoughtfully.

‘Well,’ says Simon Bradley, eventually, ‘a positive aversion to it might be a problem…?’

I was not a Pevsner person. I joined the team in 2015 because I know how to make a book. My background is copy-editing, structure, image layout and typesetting, and over my 40 years in the industry I’ve transferred those simple skills across many subject areas, from romantic fiction to psychological thrillers, from Norse mythology to travel guides, from financial services to Nigerian oil corruption. I’ve worked on literary novels, 1,000-page guides to France and Italy with line drawings, hotel listings, indexes, detailed mapping and photographs, PhD-level textbooks on derivatives-trading with 15-line equations and full-page tables, pamphlets of poetry, short novels for teenagers with reading difficulties, feminist theory, memoir, and, currently in my freelance ‘other hat’, a book on canoeing and kayaking in Texas. I always learned something from each of the jobs, retained small parts of the knowledge, and I truly thought that the job I’d applied for, as part-time production editor job with the Pevsner team at Yale University Press, would be the same.

But it’s not the same. It’s not the same as anywhere else.

It took me a whole year to realise this. I know, I know – readers who have been Pevsner aficionados for life will be shaking their heads. And I did see some differences right away. For a start, the Yale office is an awe-inspiring setting entirely suited to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge and enlightenment: a Grade I listed building on Bedford Square, full of little rooms with big windows and delightful views, sweeping staircases, attics, roof hatches, and a boardroom with a Wedgwood-blue plaster ceiling – so different from most of the publishing conglomerates nowadays, in their offices made of glass and steel with employees in rows at banks of identical partitioned desks. When the environment is congruent with the task at hand, it makes a difference. It creates flow, rather than disconnect. And there, that’s a lesson in itself about architecture: our built environment matters.

One of the next things to strike me was how incredibly polite and respectful were all the people I was working with and interacting with. Even the readers, sending in their beautifully penned letters with corrections to published books or queries about forthcoming ones – I began, almost without thinking, to adopt in response an entirely different way of writing, one that felt like correspondence from a more formal, kinder age.

Although I could do all the tasks the job entailed, the bigger picture needed me to experience the entire 11-month production schedule of a Pevsner guide from start to finish, before I completely understood my role. But at around the one-year mark there were three events that really brought home to me what Pevsner is – the trust in and appreciation of it that so many people hold in their hearts.

The first of these was my first launch party. It was for the Derbyshire volume by Clare Hartwell, and it remains, in my mind, the most magical of evenings. We held it at Haddon Hall, donated free – as, I learned, is almost always the case – by its owners, Lord Edward and Lady Manners. It was June, and the weather was glorious. We had the use of the grand hall complete with armour, three wood-panelled side rooms, and the terraced garden with a marquee. We arrived early and their public tea room was still open, so we sat in the sun with tall slices of impossibly light Victoria sponge. Then, after it closed to the public for the day, we explored the fishponds and the upstairs rooms. The wine chosen by the Hall was mellow and rounded, the staff had made us a cake decorated with nasturtium flowers and lavender, and the Duke of Devonshire popped over from Chatsworth. All of this generosity was for Pevsner – because of Pevsner. The respect for the series hummed in the drowsy summer air as loudly as the bees.

Left to right: Joint Series Editors Charles and Simon at the Haddon Hall launch for Derbyshire; Haddon Hall; Cake served at Haddon Hall

The second event was an author day in the office. Once a year, we would invite all the authors currently researching and writing to come together for a day to talk to us, exchange ideas, and be importuned ever so gently about the importance of schedules and of keeping up-to-date contact lists and research notes for future scholars. I listened as they discussed church organs, heritage preservation and the recent difficulties in southern counties of rich people, or hotel chains, buying the big country houses and erecting barbed wire fences and alarm systems (Sir Nikolaus Pevsner himself was occasionally a master of delicate almost-trespass by surveying a building’s eaves or window frames with binoculars from public land, and even this is often no longer possible). It was an astonishing collective interplay of beneficence and expertise, a warm bath of goodwill and intelligence.

And thirdly, the National Film Theatre (BFI Southbank) held an evening of films and discussions about Pevsner. They showed the 2001 TV film Pevsner Revisited with Jonathan Meades, and excerpts from the 1990s TV series Travels with Pevsner, where diverse luminaries along a very particular line between intelligentsia and celebrity – Germaine Greer, P.D. James, Joan Bakewell, Dan Cruickshank, Janet Street-Porter – talked about their favourite Pevsner county; one review called this ‘the BBC at its best’. The Pevsner editors gave off-the-cuff introductory talks with fluent humour, passion and ease, and what embedded itself in my mind was the expression on the face of every single member of the audience: one of rapt attention verging on delight.

That was eight years ago, and in my time here at Yale, within the tight-knit huddle of expertise that is co-created by Pevsner’s extraordinary editors, authors and contributors, I have learned the difference between a broach and a splayed-foot spire, can tell a barrel vault from a fan vault, and know the varying spellings of ‘clerestory’; but I still can’t always tell brick from stone. I haven’t learned to love architecture, but I have learned to notice it – to look upwards when walking about the city streets, to appreciate the flexibility of concrete, to relax in the expansive outlines of the Georgian style and not shrink quite so far from the Victorian Gothic. As the revision of the Pevsner series moves slowly towards its culmination, and I move closer to retirement, I would honestly choose as a leaving gift a subscription to the Twentieth Century Society.

I haven’t learned to love architecture, not all of it. I haven’t retained a mental glossary of terms, nor an encyclopaedia of useful facts. But I will take away, and keep as a precious gift, a lifetime’s love for Pevsner and everything it means – to vision, to academic excellence, to culture, and to a more gracious way of living, thinking and being than I have ever encountered anywhere else in life.

About the Author

Linda McQueen is the production editor for the Pevsner series.

About the Series:

There are four series: England, ScotlandWales and Irelandplus 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.

Find out more

Further reading:

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.

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment