Monday, April 25, 2016
Around the house
Spring has been in the air for a while now, albeit on and off (my Facebook feed seems to alternate between images of bluebells and snow), so it’s the time of year for English Buildings to turn temporarily into a book blog. In the next few posts, I’ll be offering my thoughts on a number of books that have struck me in the last few months, mostly new publications, but also a couple that have come my way recently even though they’ve been out for a while. I start with the beginning of a new series: Pevsner Introductions…
Charles O’Brien, Houses
Pevsner Introductions: Published by Yale University Press
The name Pevsner needs no introduction to readers of this blog. The Buildings of England series, county guides to England’s buildings by the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, now revised and expanded by a team of scholars, is the bible for anyone looking at our buildings or writing about them. The Pevsner team have already developed the series, adding the counties of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and creating the Pevsner City Guides. Now come introductory architectural guides on specific building types.
Houses by Charles O’Brien is the first of these introductions to come my way. It covers the history of the English house, working chronologically from the Middle Ages to the present. All the key phases are described, concisely but in enough depth to give the reader a real sense of the character of each period – in the way houses were planned, in their architectural details and embellishments, and in the overall look of the architecture of each era. The book features a good sample of the great houses, but covers more modest dwellings too, from cruck-frame buildings in Herefordshire to weavers’ houses in Macclesfield, council flats to 1960s SPAN houses. There’s useful information on structures (for example medieval timber frames) and on key developments in architecture and building (the ‘great rebuilding’, the orders, the way leaseholder development worked in the Georgian period, and so on).
Houses is an excellent primer of architectural styles through the ages, but it’s more than this. At certain key stages, it gives a real sense of the ideas and turning points that drove architectural change. To take one example: the increasing use of chimneys in Tudor houses is explained and the book points out how this not only benefited the comfort of the inhabitants but also led to changes in the way houses were planned, to accommodate the chimneys and fireplaces. Or another example: an extended caption on houses in Essex Court, in London’s Temple, neatly summarises the new type of house built after London’s 1666 Great Fire: the point at which brick-faced, stone-quoined houses with modillion cornices and narrow bands of stone separating the storeys became fashionable, defining a kind of house seen widely in the following decades. Or yet another: the way in which the ‘Mock Tudor’ style became fashionable in the 1920s, in part because of its promotion by builders and by the newly expanding building societies, which made mortgages more widely accessible and brought this brand of domesticity to a growing band of buyers. Developments such as these are explained with great clarity, although the process does entail the use of specialist architectural terms. The author defines the key ones as he goes along, but non-specialists might find it helpful to get a copy of Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary, which provides more detail. There’s a concise bibliography to help you follow up specific areas.
In short, this is an ideal book for anyone with an interest in historic houses – for the country house visitor looking for some architectural background, or for the lover of historic towns and villages who wants a clearer sense of the ways in which cities like Bath or London or Birmingham came to be the way they are, or for the owner of a period house who is on the lookout for guidance on the relevant styles and fashions. It’s written with admirable clarity and is highly illustrated with well chosen examples, informatively captioned. And coming from the Pevsner stable, the book makes you feel you are in a safe hands.