On Pevsner’s first visit to England in 1930, he looked in vain for the kind of architectural guide he wanted and would have found in Germany. Fifteen years later, given the chance by Penguin Books, he began to write one for himself.
Pevsner’s Buildings of England were guides primarily to the formal stylistic characteristics of buildings, not their social context nor the life histories of their builders or owners, nor even the details of their construction. The main aim of the series was to inform, not to evoke atmosphere – to tell people what they were looking at, rather than how they should feel about it. The function of the books determined their form, laid out as a gazetteer rather than a narrative, and their style , terse and telegraphic, stronger on adjectives than verbs.
The counties took 25 years to complete, and the series became a burden quite early on. To finish required superhuman application and a certain imperviousness to criticism. His aim was more to publicise than to prescribe; but ‘Is it in Pevsner?’ quickly became a yardstick for measuring architectural worth, invaluable to the conservationist and an asset for the estate agent. As Pevsner intended, The Buildings of England have provided a framework on which others can build.
The series also continues along the original lines, now known as the Pevsner Architectural Guides and published by Yale, with additional volumes covering Wales, Scotland and Ireland. A continuing programme of new editions keeps it up to date with new information on older buildings and recent architecture.