Famed Pevsner Architectural Guide updated for Chichester

Historian and researcher Dr Tim Hudson explains his part in this anticipated revision

The Buildings of England series founded by (Sir) Nikolaus Pevsner after the Second World War is one of the glories of British publishing.  Forty-six volumes covering the whole country appeared between 1951 (Cornwall) and 1974 (Staffordshire), the bulk of them written by Pevsner himself.

Pevsner was always aware of their shortcomings, however, and said that revised versions would be the ones to look out for.  Over the last 15 years or so Yale University Press, continuing the work of the original publisher Penguin, has been bringing out new editions in a larger format, with superb colour photographs to replace black and white ones.  The aim in revising is to retain as much as possible of the original books, while updating and expanding the texts as necessary.

Work on Sussex

The 1965 volume for Sussex, by Pevsner in collaboration with Ian Nairn, has now become two volumes, the first appearing in 2013 as Sussex: East.  Currently West Sussex is being tackled under the editorship of Elizabeth Williamson, a former Deputy Editor of the series, with myself initially as researcher to the project.

Nikolaus Pevsner with his wife Lola lunching on the road while compiling
The Buildings of England; he was especially fond of Shippam’s fish paste!

Last year I was asked to undertake the revision of Chichester as well, and as a long-term resident of the area with a background in architectural history I was excited to be more closely involved.  Fortunately my remit doesn’t include the complications of the Cathedral and Precinct, to be dealt with by Dr John Crook, a medieval specialist and co-author of the recent Hampshire: North volume of the series.  The precinct though isn’t entirely separate from the rest of the city; as an example the east range of the Vicars’ Close has become the shops on the west side of South Street!

Pevsner’s classic arrangement of gazetteer entries is retained for each place covered: introduction; churches and religious buildings; public buildings; and Perambulations, the last section attempting to scoop up everything else into manageable walks.

It’s a great privilege while revising to be able often to see inside buildings not normally open to the public.  Luckily most owners and occupiers are willing to grant access when requested; though the published books always make clear that a description doesn’t imply that the same access is available to readers.

Changing Chichester

There have been many changes in Chichester’s fabric since 1965, with demolitions (much of Somerstown and the extraordinary fantasy called The Grange in Tower Street are examples) and new constructions (some, one might diplomatically say, more appealing than others).

Demolition of Somerstown 1964 (picture by John Templeton)

Buildings have often changed their uses, religious ones especially, so that the revision will often refer to ‘former’ this or that.  Revisers must keep up to date with what’s going on all the time.  Just now, for instance, Chichester’s fine central Post Office in West Street has been vacated; new buildings are going up at the University in College Lane; while the future of the so-called ‘Southern Gateway’ is uncertain and a cause for concern (I hope that the Chichester Society will fight to protect at least the Art Deco Court House at Southgate, and also the wonderful Bus Garage in Basin Road, a building probably known to few).

Most of the Chichester text is by Ian Nairn, a crusading journalist rather than an architectural historian, best remembered for hard-hitting articles in the 1950s and 60s with titles like ‘Stop the Architects Now’.  Nairn has a very distinctive voice, but some of his opinions have become outdated.  He wasn’t really in favour of building in historical styles for instance (common practice in previous centuries) and seemed to have a special animus against Sir Edwin Lutyens, now claimed by some as England’s greatest ever architect.  Nor was political correctness his thing; a comparison of corbels in the Chichester Bishop’s Palace chapel with ‘the effect given in other circumstances by a firm full-bodied woman’ wouldn’t pass the editorial blue pencil today (what circumstances?).  Nairn’s best remarks will be preserved in the revision, but there is much that unfortunately has to be dropped or rewritten.

The Chichester Society and the Buildings of England

Chichester did once host Sir Nikolaus as lecturer, though the event didn’t go entirely as hoped (see Newsletter No. 139 of December 2003 for a report). And Ian Nairn himself in the early days visited the city to advise the Society’s chief personnel on tactics. For the reviser of Chichester the 190-odd issues of the Society’s Newsletter have much to offer, for instance the memorable word ‘Chichibild’ (No. 56 of February 1985), coined by Joy Crawshaw to describe the sort of semi-Modernist buildings that plagued the city in the 1970s.

Comments and suggestions for corrections to or amplifications of the text of the 1965 volume are still very much welcomed from members of the Society – something that goes for other West Sussex places as well – this can be done via our contacts form

(This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The Chichester Society Newsletter)