3 February 2010
The Westminster of the Pevsner series - the sixth and final volume in the revised (2003) London series - maintains the high standards to be expected, especially considering Simon Bradley's contention in the introduction that "the historical nucleus" is architecturally "all plums and no pudding".
The area covered lies from Oxford Street in the north to the Thames at Pimlico in the south; and from Hyde Park and Belgravia in the west to Temple Bar in the east, namely "the greater part of the London that outsiders come to see." Bradley suggests conclusions that might be drawn by a visitor about the links between the built environment and the society that it serves or served: "the average person [whoever that is] ... obviously likes shopping and drinking a lot, and about a hundred years ago seems to have been obsessed with theatre-going. ... That the monarchy was not specially ambitious or rich would be a reasonable conclusion."
The standard chronological introductory essays take up about a hundred of the book's meaty eight hundred pages; lists, glossaries and indices take it almost to nine hundred, and the book is replete with the usual collection of choice maps, plans, illustrations and plates, the latter in colour.
The introductory essays are good for providing a summary not only of the architectural history but also of the growth and development of the townscape. John Schofield co-writes the first phases, dealing with Westminster from prehistory to the Commonwealth. The innovatory hammerbeam roof in Westminster Hall and the fan vaulting of Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey are assessed. (In the main part of the book, the Abbey's description occupies one hundred pages.) This long period of time covers nineteen pages, but another nineteen are then taken up with the era to around 1815. Bradley argues that the Restoration was to Westminster what the Great Fire was to the City, in architectural terms "a great watershed". Here Bradley comes into his own looking at the development of Westminster in this crucial period: houses, churches, theatres, government offices, clubs, and shops; baroque, Palladian, rococo, and neoclassical; Wren, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Campbell, Gibbs, Kent, Stuart, Adams, and Chambers.
Details of metropolitan improvements, 1815-40, take up eight pages, and then twenty-five are devoted to Victorian and Edwardian Westminster. Bradley admits to narrative difficulties here, for "too much starts happening at once ... fresh novelties in style or technique seem always to be arriving, like trains drawing into one of the giant new railway termini." Westminster between the wars (seven pages), and the period to 1975 (nine pages) follow. Thereafter, the vexed issues of planning and conservation enter the picture, and Bradley shows how the successful opposition to the Covent Garden regeneration plan of the late 1960s meant that, "the idea that an `obsolete' district should be replaced wholesale was killed at a stroke." He concludes that, "on present form it is unlikely that a user of this book in twenty years' time will find many new landmarks, or miss many old ones - a claim that could not be made for the City of London or the East End. This stasis, which will seem timid to many, undoubtedly reflects the affection in which `Visitor's London' is held in the wider world."
Having dealt with the introduction, the meat of the book is split into eleven sections, each with its own opening appraisal. That for Soho, for instance, starts by stating that, "Really fine buildings are not common in Soho, and yet its layered history and teeming life make its labyrinthine streets specially intriguing." The section on Regent Street proposes that "John Nash's splendid Via Triumphalis is quite simply the greatest piece of town planning London has ever seen." Bradley draws an ingenious comparison of the scheme: "In the complete plan Regent Street is, as it were, the trunk of the tree. Its root was Carlton House, the top of the verdure, the villas and the terraces of the park." However, the Westminster volume only sees us climbing halfway up the trunk to Oxford Circus: readers wanting more need to refer to the third volume on north-west London.
History too is given of some prominent structures that have now disappeared, such as the Palace of Whitehall, and the discussions are never divorced from their historical, cultural, or artistic context, a notable feature that prevents the Pevsner series from being - for the historian, at any rate - as dry as dust. Bradley only occasionally is forthcoming with an egregious comment, which makes those he does make stand out all the more; for example, describing the London Hilton on Park Lane as "an insultingly mediocre design for such a prominent site."
In terms of coverage and scope and detail, this is a veritable masterpiece, and one feels that it should be given five stars for its magnificence, but such reference books are never `lovable', and so I feel I must, alas, only give four stars according to Amazon's own star-system terms: I like it - a lot!