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CELEBRATING A NEW PEVSNER

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 9th October 2009
David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, celebrates the publication of a new book – and points out some of the lessons it offers.

Those of us interested in architectural history had reason to cheer last week. A new ‘Pevsner’ was launched – and not any old Pevsner, but a Pevsner that covers Ripon!

For anyone who is not quite up to speed, it may be helpful to explain that a Pevsner is a book – and there is a whole series of Pevsners. Officially they are known as ‘The Buildings of England’ and are detailed guides to the architecture of all the English counties. They were written, from 1951 onwards, by the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, a German architectural history professor who lived most of his life in England, and devoted it to cataloguing our architecture. So valuable were his volumes that anyone with an interest in architecture needed to travel the country with the relevant volumes of Pevsner’s guide in a pocket.

Since Sir Nikolaus’s death in 1983 others have continued his work. There is now a parallel series on ‘The Buildings of Wales’ (which has recently been completed) and on-going work on ‘The Buildings of Scotland’ and ‘The Buildings of Ireland’. Together they form a remarkable and extraordinarily-detailed corpus of work.

This column has had reason to comment on Pevsner in the past. In May 2008 it was noted that ‘Pevsner himself said that it was not the first editions that were important, but the later updates that would be much more valuable.’ And now we have the latest revised volume – ‘Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and The North’. It has appeared exactly 50 years after the first edition; there was an edition in 1967 that just added about 40 pages of telegraphic ‘Addenda’, without altering the layout of the original.

Why ‘West Riding’, when it hasn’t existed as a legal entity since 1974? When Pevsner started his work he used the historical English counties, and the publishers (now Yale University Press) took the decision, as the new editions were commissioned, to keep to the original boundaries. So Ripon is West Riding; so are Sharow, North Stainley and Grewelthorpe, but not Norton Conyers, Marton-le-Moor or West Tanfield. For new information on them we shall need to wait for the new edition of the North Riding Pevsner; and that doesn’t look as if it will be soon. The official website (www.pevsner.co.uk) does not have it listed as ‘Work in Progress’. We are, though, promised Yorkshire West Riding: Sheffield and the South sometime, though no date is suggested.

Nevertheless, we should celebrate the new volume, and the increased coverage it gives to Ripon. Pride of place goes, as one would expect, to the Cathedral – more than 27 pages of analysis, compared with just nine (smaller) pages in the old edition. It is full of fascinating asides. Do you know, for example, the link between Ripon Minster and the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford? The man responsible for the great ceiling fresco at the Theatre, which shows Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel ignorance from the University, was Robert Streeter, King Charles II’s Court Painter – and he, says the new volume, painted an altarpiece on canvas for Ripon, with draperies and an Ionic colonnade. A footnote tell us that ‘the last surviving part of Streeter’s altarpiece was thrown away only in the mid-1960s’.

There is much to absorb in the information about the Cathedral, and it will certainly be instructive to pay a visit with the new volume. But there is much new about the city, too. Just outside the Cathedral the writer comments that although few of the original buildings that once surrounded the great church survive, ‘some of the successor buildings contribute to a continuing sense of the precinct as a visual as well as an historical entity’. We need to enhance that sense by removing the through traffic that passes round the Cathedral to its detriment.

Sometimes the Pevsner volumes are castigated for being dust-dry descriptions, but there are subjective judgements, too, that add spice. There is comment about the recent staircase in the cathedral that leads to the library (the writer dislikes it). Writing about St Wilfrid’s Church on Coltsgate Hill the words ‘theatrical’ and ‘melodramatically’ show the impression the building made. The Spa Baths description, now lengthened, retains the ‘florid’ used by Pevsner 50 years ago. Among the buildings getting a mention for the first time are the Grammar School and the new Cathedral Primary School, the Crescent and the Clock Tower. There is criticism for the Market Square, which is ‘disappointing’ because ‘the effectiveness of simple C18-C19 facades [is] easily eroded by only a small number of indifferent mid-C20 interpolations’ – a sentiment that many would endorse.

So the new Pevsner can look at Ripon from the outside and, sometimes, see problems to which those of us who live in the city may have become inured. And there are new things to discover, too, not just in Ripon but in the north of the Riding – go and see what you may have missed!

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