Wednesday02 September 2015

Book review

Somerset: North and Bristol (Buildings of England)

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Somerset: North and Bristol (Buildings of England)

By Andrew Foyle and Nikolaus Pevsner
Yale University Press,
802pp, HB, £35

New discoveries illuminate an updated edition of Pevsner’s Somerset guide

Pevsner did his travelling in Somerset in 1955 and then experienced a worrying delay before the guides finally appeared three years later. Subsequently the Somerset volumes have been among those that had to wait longest for revision.

The process has been complicated, and the result is more of a mosaic than usual, because Bristol and Bath, which between them take up half the gazetteer, were covered in separate City Guides of 2003-4.

The third great architectural subject in this half of the county is Wells Cathedral, about as far from untrodden ground as you could find. Pevsner’s architectural overview of the two main building phases and how they affect the sensitive viewer remains intact and couldn’t be bettered. Likewise his description of the unnerving spatial effects at the east end, which have been called a domical net-vault with Islamic overtones by later critics.

But, even in such a thoroughly known place as this, the scaffolding provided by Pevsner has picked up some fascinating new-fangled attachments. There are, for instance, three holes high up in the cathedral’s facade that must have been noticed many times before anyone recognised them as singing holes, connected to a gallery in which trumpets and vocalists lay concealed to break mysteriously forth in song during the Palm Sunday enactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

Among other discoveries since Pevsner’s day are a tracing floor in the upper storey of the north porch and a changed understanding of the famous gothic effigies of Saxon bishops, which were not meant to lie prone but to take their places in a large stone reredos, each with their relics in a casket below.

The Vicars’ Close becomes even more interesting than it was for Pevsner, with the contributions of William Burges, Heywood Sumner and Henry Wilson, unspotted in 1958. Burges restored one of the 21 dwellings to its medieval form and painted further ceilings in other parts of the compound.

Royal Promenade, Victoria Square in Clifton, Bristol, by John Marmont

Source: James O Davies © English Heritage Photo Library

Royal Promenade, Victoria Square in Clifton, Bristol, by John Marmont

There’s also a fair amount of 21st century building in the cathedral precinct, two visitors’ centres, one against the cloister wall, another projected in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace, and a large recital hall to be built by Eric Parry north of the cathedral.

New discoveries stick out awkwardly in such accounts, like new extensions leaning against older fabric, but they have an importance out of all proportion to their literal size. Knowledge of even the best known artefacts continues to grow and to influence how the rest appears.

Part of the new understanding applies to how intervening users have viewed the buildings, part to what the structures wanted to mean in the first place. The overall effect is that the human story acquires new layers and maybe temporarily sloughs off others — the contest between French and English sculptors of the 12th and 13th centuries which preoccupied Pevsner now seems passé and has been deleted. It will reappear again later, not as Gospel truth, but as som ething a well informed observer once thought.

The rest of the revised volume is full of discoveries and enrichments that mustn’t be neglected. The little resort of Clevedon comes into its own, with its pier on slender insect legs fashioned of secondhand materials, and its cinema panelled all over in pressed tin. The small Victorian colliery town of Radstock that Pevsner so despised is finally recognised as “among the best survivors of the type in England”, a modest little place which also happens to possess two exceptional primary schools opened in 2005. An intriguing and unexplained plan of one of them is included.

The fascinating story of the 17th century workers’ housing at Frome can point a concluding moral or several.

This district, considered then to be humdrum 19th century stuff, was being torn down in the 1960s when the houses were found to be unique survivors from two centuries earlier. Demolition was halted, and a scholarly refurbishment followed. In the latest chapter, the restoration is being undone by the substitution of PVC windowframes and flashy new doors.

The story continues, or as Pevsner used to say at turning points in his lectures: “The plot thickens.”



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