Nikolaus Pevsner wanted his guides to show that English architecture could match anything in Europe, even though some of its finest was tucked away in unfashionable London suburbs. His guide to east London, now revised, opened my eyes in the 1960s. It's a pity more urban planners did not read it tooby Paul Barker / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Not long after the second world war, ex-sergeant Eric Hobsbawm moved into a flat in an 18th-century house on the north side of Clapham common. “Outside,” he writes in his recent autobiography, “I recall seeing my new colleague at Birkbeck College, Nikolaus Pevsner, perambulating the area for his great Buildings of England like an examiner giving marks to the past.” The Leipzig-born Pevsner, with his newly acquired British citizenship, was working on a classic early volume in his planned Buildings of England series: London Except the City of London and Westminster. It was always known to Pevsner fans simply as London Except.
This book symbolised his love affair with his adopted country. Many people had written architectural, topographical or antiquarian guides to London. With a few picturesque exceptions, such as Hampstead, Richmond or Greenwich, these books had always focused on the usual sights of Westminster and the City. Eventually published in 1952, London Except made the full circuit of all the other boroughs within the old London County Council area: from St Pancras and Islington in the north to Lambeth and Lewisham in the south; from Hammersmith and Wandsworth in the west to Poplar and Woolwich in the east. It was in these places that most Londoners lived. These urban tracts had been built up by the Victorians. Within them lay—then largely unregarded—baroque wonders like Hawksmoor’s great east end churches, or the Georgian terraces of Barnsbury (which was known as Pentonville before the estate agents waded in).
This April, 53 years later, the final updating of Pevsner’s London Except is completed, the keystone in a new arch. The last part is London 5: East. The earlier revisions of Pevsner’s great work, London 2, 3 and 4, reported on, respectively, south, northwest and north London (volumes 1 and 6 cover the City and Westminster). The whole of the original London Except was less than 500 pages; London 5 alone extends to 864. The lead author of London 5, as of all the other London Except revisions, is Bridget Cherry. She began work on the national series in 1968, as Pevsner’s research assistant, and went on to become overall editor of The Buildings of England (now called the Pevsner Architectural Guides), retiring from that role three years ago. As series revisions have gone ahead, Pevsner continues to be listed as a co-author. This is more…