Monday, August 22, 2011

GUEST POST "A modest county": Pevsner in Leicestershire

Susie Harries published her Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life last week. In this guest post for Liberal England she looks at Pevsner's treatment of Leicestershire and Rutland.

Pevsner's mood as he set off to tour the buildings of Leicestershire was subdued. By the mid-1950s Penguin Books were losing money on every volume of the Buildings of England and Pevsner had been pressed into service as a fundraiser - a role in which he did not shine. His letter to Sir Hugh Beaver, Managing Director of Guinness, was hardly brash: "The sum involved is not large per annum and the use within the field of English art and architecture is quite big."

With the threat that the series might be abandoned hanging over him, it was perhaps not surprising that when he came to write the introduction to Leicestershire he lacked zest. As Reyner Banham pointed out, he wrote at his best when dealing with extremists - Mannerists, High Victorians, Brutalists. Pevsner himself identified a love of the extreme as a typically German characteristic - and he found few extremes in Leicestershire. He preferred mountains to plains, and listed his favourite recreation as the 12-mile walk: Charnwood Forest, he noted glumly, was no more than seven miles by four across.

"A modest county", Pevsner called Leicestershire, with few outstanding buildings. Specifically, it seemed to be short on the types he particularly liked. Its medieval churches were often ruined by over-restoration: 'Much of the aesthetic pleasure in, it may well be true to say, half her ancient churches ... is obliterated by the zeal of the restorers.’

Its contemporary buildings, too, were few and far between: "Clearly Leicestershire, Leicester, and the clients of the architects in Leicestershire have not yet understood what the new style in architecture is about." When Pevsner visited Leicester University the Engineering Faculty Building by James Stirling was still on the drawing-board - perhaps fortunately, given his resistance to overbearing self-expression in architecture. (Inconsistent as ever, though, Pevsner could appreciate the boldness of some garish gestures.

"In HUMBERSTONE GATE, [Leicester]," he wrote, "is LEWIS’S STORE (by G. De C. Fraser, 1935-6) with a tall modernistic tower, definitely not in a good taste [sic], but by its very queerness and uncouthness an established landmark. The rest of the frontage is tamer.")

Nor was Leicestershire, having had no Industrial Revolution to speak of, rich in the kind of Victorian buildings he found interesting, . With no steep increases in urban populations, there had been less need for new churches. For Catholic churchgoers there was Augustus Welby Pugin. But while Pugin's drawings were brilliant - "rapid, unfettered, impulsive"  the completed buildings were not: "They are at best correct in forms and mood (Mount St Bernard), at worst of an unprecedented gloom which makes one yearn for the fantastical Gothic of the C18 or the richer forms and styles of the Victorian proper."

And then there were the Nonconformists - rarely for Pevsner a source of joy. "1866 by Thomas Carter," he wrote of the Baptist Church in Friar Lane, Leicester, "and, as far as architecture is concerned, thoroughly horrible. It would take up too much space to describe the discrepant motifs and demonstrate the unfeeling way in which they are assembled."

So he had to find his pleasures in unexpected places. Always cramped for space in the BoE volumes, nevertheless he usually made  room for inscriptions that took his fancy. In Barrow on Soar it was the epitaph for Theophilus Cave (d.1656):
Here in this Grave there lyes a Cave,
We call a Cave a Grave.
If Cave be Grave and Grave be Cave,
Then reader judge I Crave
Whether doth Cave lye in Grave
Or Grave here lye in Cave?
If Grave in Cave here buried lye
Then Grave where is thy victorie?
Goe reader and report here lyes a Cave
Who conquers death and buries his own Grave.
Monuments, too, were an unfailing source of interest. He was moved in Prestwold by the tomb of Charles Hussey Packe, who had died in 1862 at the age of 15: "Recumbent figure of a youth in Eton clothes on a mattress, very pathetic."

In St Michael, Brooksby, he noted that Sir William Villiers and his young wife had both died in the same year, 1711: "Standing figures side by side in the dress of their time but draped with big cloaks of a vaguely Roman kind. Sir William looks somewhat pompous with his big wig, his wife has a round attractive face, the shape and features that Renoir liked."

Pevsner may have complained of Leicestershire's architectural diffidence, but when it came to individual buildings it was, in fact, often precisely their modesty that appealed to a man who had been known to use 'introvert' as a term of praise. Just as he disliked aggression and irrationality in architecture, so he valued manners and equanimity. Admiring of the early Tudor detached chapel at Withcote - "a perfect example of this rarely surviving type of building" - it was Withcote Hall to which he warmed: "A plain, reasonable, cream-coloured and extremely lovable house of the early C18." (Withcote Hall is on English Heritage's Heritage at Risk register.)

Withcote Hall (photo by Stephen Pointer)

Lack of pretension again attracted him in Holy Trinity, Staunton Harold. As a historian, he noted that the church was one of very few to be built during the time of the Commonwealth. He relished the originality of its exterior: "Perhaps as a demonstration in favour of old times, a completely new church was built entirely in Gothic forms" - and the miraculous preservation of its contrasting interior - "as consistently 'Jacobean' in style – that is, at that moment and in Leicestershire 'modern' - as the exterior is Gothic.’ But it was the church's "engaging humility" that won his affection: "Altogether Staunton Harold church was not intended to be a showpiece, and that makes it all the more lovable."

Given Pevsner's enduring fascination with national character in buildings and landscape, Staunton Harold was special: "For position, Staunton Harold, the house and the chapel, are unsurpassed in the country... as far as Englishness is concerned. One must see the group with the lakes from due E – from the main road or from the drive nearer by."

In contrast, a carving in the church of St Michael, Stoney Stanton was totally alien:
Norman tympanum now over the N doorway of the chancel. A very odd representation. On the l. an ox (lamb?) and behind it a bishop with crozier and blessing raised hand. The ox attacks a dragon (is attacked by a dragon?). On the dragon perches an eagle, and from the r. a second dragon attacks the first. What is the meaning of this Germanic barbarity?

Tympanum, St Michael, Stoney Stanton (photo by John Salmon)

Pevsner had a rather English sympathy for the aspirations of the humble. 'COALVILLE', he wrote, "A pathetic and unpromising name for a town. But the CLOCK TOWER by Henry Collings, of 1926 makes up for such misgivings. Quite a proud thing to build for a small town."

On the same principle, he rejoiced in Rutland, which he would have given its own volume if he could. Echoing the words of W.G. Hoskins, he declared: "They say the best things come in the smallest parcels: Rutland is both very small and very good."  He revelled in the chancel arch at St Peter, Tickencote, Voysey's The Pastures at North Luffenham, the Norman carvings in the church of St Andrew, Stoke Dry, and, perhaps most particularly, the church of Holy Trinity, Teigh. Built in 1782 by George Richardson for the Earl of Harborough, it had retained a 13th-century tower, but the interior was entirely 18th-century. Pews were ranged along the walls as in a university college, and the pulpit was pure Strawberry Hill Gothic:
The W and E walls are articulated by slender shafts into three blank arches. On the E side the window is in the middle space, the boards with the Ten Commandments are in the lateral ones. The W wall is more surprisingly and entertainingly organized. The lateral spaces have boards with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. In the middle space the doorway, a little higher up l. and r. of it two reading desks in boxes accessible from behind, and, above the doorway, the pulpit also accessible from the tower. The wall l. and r of the pulpit is painted with mock glazing bars and trees appearing behind them. The three boxes give one an irresistible hope that at any moment preacher and readers might pop out like the little figures in a weather-house.

Holy Trinity, Teigh (photo by Philip Wilkinson)

Pevsner had, after all, enjoyed himself. And it seems likely that Sir Hugh Beaver responded well to the modest approach. When Leicestershire appeared in 1960, Beaver was the dedicatee and Guinness the first sponsor to step in and keep the Buildings of England on the road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this interesting post.

I can't resist mentioning what he said about my old school, a next-door neighbour of the university:

The bulk of the buildings of the WYGGESTON SCHOOL FOR BOYS are architecturally a disgrace and there is no more to be said about them.