Book Review: The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East as the new Pevsner

OHCT Trustee Malcolm Airs  recommends Simon Bradley’s latest book The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East  as the new Pevsner.

The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East by S Bradley, Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood  is a cause for celebration: the revised account of Oxfordshire in the Buildings of England series has finally been completed. This updated guide addresses half a century of change and development since the previous edition, including a wealth of ambitious new buildings for the University and its colleges.

The first edition was originally published in 1974. At 936 pages with 121 black and white photographs, it was by far the fattest volume in the series. Pevsner himself wrote the text for the city of Oxford and the rest of the county was written by Jennifer Sherwood. It is a measure of the detailed research that has taken place in the county over the last fifty years that the revised editions now amount to 1482 pages illustrated by 254 colour photographs and are presented in two volumes. The volume for the north and west of the county was written by Alan Brooks and was published in 2017. Now, six years later, we have the companion volume for the city of Oxford and the south-east of the county by Simon Bradley. The lengthy wait has been well worth it.

Both books are indispensable for anyone interested in the architectural riches of the county. The text has been extensively rewritten and the stunning colour photographs, most of them specially taken by James O. Davies, brilliantly capture the special character of Oxfordshire which is described in the comprehensive introductions.

For members of the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust, it is the ecclesiastical buildings which will be of particular interest in the new volume. Pevsner in his original introduction to Oxford felt the need to be selective in considering churches and chapels built after 1830. In light of what happened after that date, it seems a bizarre decision and Bradley in his introductions to both the city and the county does not recognise any such restraint. Indeed, as he emphasises ‘Oxfordshire is an especially interesting county in the architectural history of the church of England. This is due in large part to theological, antiquarian and pastoral initiatives from Oxford’ many of which took place in the Victorian period. His general survey of ecclesiastical architecture from the Saxon period to the present day provides an accessible account with relevant examples which could almost stand as the basis for a separate book in its own right. It pays due regard to monuments, furnishings and stained glass and covers non-conformist, Quaker and Catholic buildings as well as Anglican churches and college chapels. It is written with admirable clarity and I would urge every church-crawler to read his comprehensive introductions before embarking on their journeys to explore the wealth of fascinating buildings from every period that adorn this part of the county. As he notes reassuringly ‘it is good to report that a high proportion of parish churches in the area are kept open for visiting’.

It is perhaps a mark of changing taste in recent years that the new edition is much more sympathetic to the pleasure that can be enjoyed in some of the more quirky churches in the south-east of the county as well as the more well known buildings . This can be illustrated by a couple of examples. The beautiful Arts and Crafts church of St Helen at Berrick Salome is described by Bradley as ‘a church like no other in Oxfordshire’ whereas Sherwood in the first edition condemned it as ‘a hideous application of all the trappings of fashionable late C19 domestic architecture to a church’. For her the interior was ‘austere’ but for Bradley it is ‘a festival of C17 woodwork, dominated by the elaborate nave roof’. His response to its particular qualities is much more in tune with contemporary sensibility. Similarly, Sherwood described the majestic Dorchester Abbey as ‘an unsatisfactory building…with a particularly drab nave’. Bradley’s account is far more detailed and nuanced with the advantage that he can draw on the meticulous analysis of Warwick Rodwell’s monograph published in 2009. He also properly acknowledges the careful Victorian restoration of Butterfield and Gilbert Scott which contributes so much to its present character.

It is a tribute to Bradley’s lively prose and his eye for relevant details that make this new ‘Pevsner’ such a pleasure to read. Even if you own the first edition, you must buy the revised version. There is so much more to find out and to enjoy.

The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East, by Simon Bradley, Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood (Yale University Press), October 2023, 936 Pages, 114 x 215 mm, 130 colour + 80 b-w illus. Hardcover. ISBN 9780300209297

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