Pevsner and Essex - A Talk by Dr James Bettley

An Open Meeting organised by the Wivenhoe Society in the William Loveless Hall on 11th October 2005. Article by Peter Kennedy (first published in Wivenhoe News, Winter edition 2005) 

Dr James Bettley is an architectural historian; he lives in Great Totham and for the past five years – following his time as Head of Collection Development at the National Art Library at the V&A – he has been working on the new Essex volume of Pevsner; "and this is what I am going to be talking about tonight". Indeed, if any readers of the recent Autumn issue of Wivenhoe News were puzzled by the photo on the front page, that inscrutable image is now revealed as "the unfortunate author labouring under the weight of previous editions of Essex Pevsner".

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig in 1902, was educated "with typical German thoroughness at four different universities", and his first published books were on German baroque architecture and on Italian painting. He came to England in 1934 as a refugee from Naziism and soon began writing and publishing texts on design, in English. His An Outline of European Architecture starts with the words: "A bicycle shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture."

I think we can go along with that. He then set out to produce an up-to-date guide to the most significant buildings in every part of the country – eventually, over the years, Pevsner had completed 46 volumes of The Buildings of England. Scotland, Wales and Ireland would follow.

Pevsner realised that second editions were more important than the first, in terms of accuracy. So why, asked Dr Bettley, do we now need a third edition of Essex? Well, it is 50 years on, Essex itself has changed; buildings have changed or, like Alresford Church, been destroyed; military buildings are being documented more fully; farm buildings that would not have appeared in the original Pevsner are being included, as at Lawford Hall. There are major new buildings, and also we have an interest in some modern architecture – like the Modern Movement houses in Frinton – that Pevsner did not consider.

We can be justly proud of the architecture of Essex, where there are 14,000 listed buildings, which is more than in Norfolk. And Wivenhoe serves as a good case study, as it illustrates a lot of points that need changing in Pevsner. Wivenhoe Church was thought by Pevsner to be of little interest, but not so, says Dr Bettley, there is a lot to enjoy in it "and its wooden cupola is just as nice as the one in Finchingfield". Garrison House was mentioned by Pevsner, but the next edition will include, for example, the Water Tower, and of course "we cannot today ignore the new docklands style development that has come to Wivenhoe, or the arrival of the University – which in the new edition will have a section to itself".

Dr Bettley is keen to correct some misleading information with regard to Wivenhoe Park; in the course of his talk he mentioned that Pevsner had confused Wivenhoe Park and Wivenhoe Hall, writing that Hopper’s mansion of 1846 concealed fragments of an Early Tudor house. In describing Pevsner’s error the speaker had suggested that Wivenhoe Park was a completely new house by Hopper, when he should have said that it was a remodelling of the house of 1758-61 and that much of the impressive internal plasterwork might well be 1760s. So I am pleased that we have put that straight, and I think we can convey to Dr Bettley – whose talk was exceedingly well received – our feelings that in building on Pevsner's foundations he will surely produce a fascinating third edition of Essex which will further enhance the reputation of this great series.