The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Cornwall

Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 800pp, £35)

Reviewed by Robert Drake 

The new ‘Pevsner’ volumes are now coming thick and fast. As well as this one, Beds, Hunts and Peterborough; Cambridgeshire; South and West Somerset; and Aberdeenshire North and Moray are forthcoming.

Cornwall was the first Pevsner to be published by Penguin in 1951, with the research done in 1948 in (according to Pevsner’s biographer, Susie Harries) an unreliable pre-war car. He was clearly mesmerised by the Cornish landscape, but did not seem to rate the buildings highly as an architectural historian. This volume was lightly revised in 1970, but church descriptions mostly still dwelt on tower design and arcade column profiles with little reference to C19 work unless by well-known practitioners like Street, and none at all on C20 work except in dismissive terms. Peter Beacham has an almost lyrical enthusiasm for Cornwall: its landscapes, architecture and townscapes, particularly the often neglected inland towns like Launceston, Liskeard and St Columb Major. He has something of the spirit of John Betjeman’s Shell Guide to Cornwall (1934, revised 1964) but backed by the authoritative research of the Buildings of England series.

There are quite a few C20 buildings this time, especially from the 1930s in and around the resort towns, such as the Carlyon Bay hotel and housing development near St Austell (with the involvement of Marshall Sisson), and in Penzance where the Jubilee Pool of 1935 must take pride of place. There are relatively few houses from this period but Beacham gives pride of place to those by John Campbell on a promontory at Chapel Point near Mevagissey (1935-38) which the Society visited in 2009. A yachtsman sailing past was so impressed he asked Campbell to build him a similar house on the Helford Passage (Pentyr, 1939) near Falmouth.

There was only one new inter-war C of E church built in the Diocese of Truro: St Thomas of Canterbury, Camelford (Sir Charles Nicholson,1938). A ‘minor delight’, says Beacham, with glass by Martin Travers and a Delabole slate altar. Some older Cornish churches were spectacularly embellished in this period, such as St Hilary near Marazion with painting by second generation ‘Newlyn’ artists including Harold Knight and Dod and Ernest Proctor under the auspices of the Rev. Bernard Walke and his artist wife Anne.

Often they want to do things differently in Cornwall, its ‘otherness’ possibly coming from its non-conformist free-thinking tradition. This is perhaps exemplified in its post-war Corbusian buildings by the County Council under the direction of F K Hicklin, including the superbly-sited Council HQ outside Truro (contrasting with Devon’s neo-Georgian HQ at Exeter) and public libraries, the two best being at St Austell and Saltash. Artists and Cornwall are of course inseparable, with Tate at St Ives by Evans and Shalev (1989-1993) prominently sited on Porthmeor Beach, but needing expansion because of inadequate exhibition space.

This guide is thoroughly recommended not just for Pevsner ‘completists’ but for all lovers of Cornwall’s buildings.