Pevsner – Series & History

Pevsner History

Nikolaus Pevsner, an art historian of European standing, conceived the idea of English architectural guidebooks after he settled in England in the 1930s. At that time architectural history was hardly recognised as a serious academic subject, nor was trustworthy architectural information readily available for the traveller. The success and achievement of his aim eventually became possible with the assistance and enthusiasm of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, for whom Pevsner had written his Outline of European Architecture in 1942. Lane provided Pevsner with the means to begin research for the books in 1945 with the help of two part time research assistants, both German refugee art historians, and a secretary. For the next twenty five years a pattern was established whereby an assistant worked for around a year on each county, preparing notes from published sources. During the Easter and Summer university vacations, then armed with fat folders of half-foolscap sheets, Pevsner set off to visit two counties, driven by his wife and, after her death in 1963, by others, usually students at London University or the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The tours, initially made in a 1933 Wolseley Hornet borrowed from Penguin, began in 1947 with Middlesex. The first book, on Cornwall, appeared in 1951, the forty-sixth, and last, on Staffordshire, in 1974. A first draft was written immediately after each long day’s visit, a feat of prodigious energy (hence the dedication of one of the volumes “to those publicans and hoteliers of England who provide me with a table in my bedroom to scribble on”.) As soon as the travelling was finished, Pevsner shut himself away for a week to write the Introduction while everything was still fresh in his mind. These lively essays on the development of architecture in each county, written by a scholar up to date with the latest art-historical scholarship, were another feature which set the series on quite a different level from previous guidebooks.

Pevsner was unable to devote much more than a month to visiting each county and the speed at which the books were prepared inevitably led to errors and omissions. Each volume invited readers to send in comments and publication, and was immediately followed by a shower of letters eagerly drawing attention to anything from minor misprints to the relatively rare absence of whole villages or substantial houses. As the work became more demanding and time-consuming it became essential for Pevsner to share the writing with others. In the end, thirty-two of the books were written by Pevsner alone, ten together with collaborators, and four were delegated to others, all of whom made their own valuable contribution to the series.

From the 1960s onwards more information was available to be consulted and new research began to make the emphases of the early volumes appear a little unbalanced. Although from the beginning the books had broken new ground by covering all periods of architecture, the greatest space had been devoted to medieval churches and their furnishings. Secular buildings, with some notable exceptions, had been treated more summarily. Revisions, before and since Pevsner’s death, have continued to take advantage of developments in architectural scholarship. The scope of the series has been broadened and deepened by the transformation of our understanding of the post-medieval centuries, the research into architecture and urban planning of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the wealth of interest in both rural vernacular buildings and the surviving structures of Britain’s industrial past. In the 1970s and 1980s a younger generation began to show a greater interest in cinemas and Art Deco factories and over time that interest extended to an appreciation of the best of postwar architecture, from schools to council estates and from private houses to office buildings. The results are more inclusive, but the aim remains the same: to present to a broad public up-to-date and accessible information about the most significant buildings in the country whilst always keeping under review the definition of ‘significant’.

The revision and updating of his original guides was always Pevsner’s expectation and some limited correction had already begun before the last of the county guides was written. Several of the earliest books were revised in the 1970s by Bridget Cherry and Elizabeth Williamson and from 1978 the first of the guides for Ireland, Scotland and Wales were published. The scope of the work became more ambitious after 1982 when London 2: South became the first of the larger format volumes to be published.  Since then, initially under Penguin Books and from 2002 under Yale University Press, the revisions have been undertaken by a large family of independent authors, supervised by the in-house editor-writers, Simon Bradley and Charles O’Brien. In this period we have achieved publication of all of the volumes for Scotland and Wales and by Spring 2024, with the publication of Staffordshire, we will have completed the project to produce new, fully-revised and expanded volumes for the whole of England to replace Pevsner’s original forty-six guides. The project for Ireland continues, you can read more about it here.

The Guides

‘The greatest endeavour of popular architectural scholarship in the world.’
Jonathan Meades, The Observer

The Pevsner Architectural Guides, were begun in 1951 by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) with the aim of providing an up-to-date portable guide to the most significant buildings in every part of the country, suitable for both general reader and specialist. The success of the volumes covering The Buildings of England led to the extension of the series to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Whilst cathedrals and their furnishings, great country houses and their parks form the grand set pieces, the books demonstrate the enjoyable diversity of architecture in the British Isles in accounts of rural churches and farmsteads, Victorian public buildings and industrial monuments.

Today there are four series of county volumes: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – as well as a guide to the Isle of Man. Each county volume comprises a gazetteer describing the buildings of significance, accompanied by maps, plans, and more than 100 specially commissioned photographs; an informative introduction explains the broader context.

The series also includes paperback City Guides, a Pevsner Architectural Glossary and Introductory Guides to Houses and Churches.

The majority of the guides are in print and available to purchase from this site or elsewhere.

Pevsner Post!

We love to share email updates about our guides, plus special offers for our loyal community of architecture lovers.

Back to the Pevsner Series Page