Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Oxfordshire revisited

Around this time of year English Buildings becomes a book blog for a week or so, as I cast an eye over some recent books on subjects that I write about here. First, a new volume in a familiar series of architectural guides – but no less impressive for that...

The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire: North and West by Alan Brooks and Jennifer Sherwood
Published by Yale University Press

It’s time to ease the cork out of another bottle of the fizzy stuff in the Wilkinson household when another revised volume in Pevsner’s invaluable Buildings of England series comes out – especially if, as is the case with the latest, Oxfordshire: North and West, it covers an area close to my home. In the original edition, Oxfordshire (written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood) was covered in a single volume, so this is a substantial expansion as well as a revision – it includes the bulk, in terms of area, of the county, leaving the city of Oxford and the southern part of Oxfordshire for another volume.

The revision is by Alan Brooks, who has already revised the two Gloucestershire volumes, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. He did a fine job on those, and doesn’t disappoint with Oxfordshire either. Revising a ‘Pevsner’ is not a simple task. It’s not just a question of bringing the book up to date by adding new buildings and deleting those that have been demolished. It also involves taking in corrections, adding buildings that the original authors missed, noticing alterations to fabric, and, perhaps most importantly of all, incorporating the results of new research. Alan Brooks, for example, has benefitted from recent publications, especially on the vernacular architecture of the county, and is an expert on stained glass, so has strengthened the book’s coverage of that subject considerably. This adding of new detail demands a gentle touch. Brooks has been able to preserve a lot of the wording of the original book, although the words get moved around to accommodate new research and occasional changes of emphasis or modifications of opinion. Alan Brooks deserves congratulations for keeping all these balls in the air while delivering such a wealth of architectural information.

Looking at familiar places with a ‘Pevsner’ in hand is usually a revelation, all the more so in this case, for someone who has been used to using the 1974 first edition of Oxfordshire. Looking at places I’ve visited recently, I notice enhancements and interesting additions everywhere. At Fifield, for example, the architect who did the church’s 19th-century restoration is named, and we are told more about the artists who produced the stained glass. At Hook Norton there’s an extended description of the brewery, a wonderful building given short shift in the first edition. In many places there is more on small (and not so small) houses – at Horton-cum-Studley we are given more on the almshouses, cottages, and a timber-framed house that even merits a diagram. I was pleased to see the inclusion of the occasional bit of background, such as the expanded coverage of the stained glass at Horspath depicting John Copcot, a 15th-century student at the Queen’s College, Oxford, famous, we are told, for killing a wild boar with his copy of Aristotle. This is all about filling in detail on buildings that could have been given better treatment first time round. But there have also been changes in Oxfordshire’s villages. For example, North Oxfordshire’s great set piece village, Great Tew, has been transformed from the sorry state of dilapidation noted in the 1974 edition to the revived and thriving place of today. Brooks notes that ‘much solid conservation work has been carried out by the estate’: how true.

Towns get markedly better coverage. Chipping Norton for example, has much more detail about houses, shops, former hotels, and schools, sometimes with more precise dating than in earlier editions. Visiting the town with the new edition in one’s hand, one emerges with a better understanding of the place’s vernacular architecture, its notable local baroque buildings, and its 20th-century architecture. I’ll be returning to Chipping Norton, to look more closely at various buildings, from the masonic hall to the former workhouse, now converted to flats. Banbury and Burford, to name just two other towns I know quite well, will repay further visits with the new Pevsner. Repeated and redoubled visits, indeed. It will take a long time to drink dry the deep well of information marshalled in this latest Pevsner. Meanwhile, I’ll raise another glass of fizz.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I hope the new version omits some of Pevsner's more dismissive and opinionated comments. Difficult to forgive him for his negative remarks on Anglo-Saxon Architecture, probably dissuading many from taking the period seriously. I fear too that even a new version might leave many fascinating buildings out. A lot of the built environment consists of bow-fronted semis and so on - however we might find ourselves rather bored with these en masse, it's probably about time they were fitted into an overall context. Who, for instance, mass-produced the tiled doorways in circa 1890 houses, or the Gothic gateposts on the Wells Road going out of Bristol? Part of the task might be enabling observers to appreciate easily overlooked items in the ordinary suburbia. Betjeman could do it (in verse), almost without trying...