The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Warwickshire

Chris Pickford & Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 801pp, £35.00)

Reviewed by Jeremy Gould

This is the first revision of the 1966 Pevsner which, according to Chris Pickford, was ‘done in a single university vacation, at a breathtaking speed and with unbelievable intensity.’ It is a more measured and comprehensive affair, with 801 pages and 125 colour plates. Moreover, Birmingham and the area west of the M42 motorway will appear in a separate volume now in preparation.

This leaves Coventry as the major city here, with Nuneaton and Bedworth, Rugby, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick the major towns. Although truly the middle of England, it is mostly off the tourist route except for Stratford, the castles of Warwick and Kenilworth and stately homes like Ragley Hall or Charlecote Park. Warwickshire is still a rural county despite at least two centuries of industrial growth based on the canals and then the railways, coal mining, cement and engineering, bringing prosperity and rapid change. In the C20, Coventry made bicycles, cars, aeroplanes and telephones. Modernism was slow to reach Warwickshire: Voysey built there as did Guy Dawber and H B Creswell (he of The Honeywood File who had an office in Rugby) but the step forward came with Elizabeth Scott’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre ‘influenced by North Germany’ in 1932. There are Art Deco cinemas (although, oddly, none by Birmingham’s Harry Weedon) and houses, including one by Frederick Gibberd (born in Coventry and trained at Birmingham) of 1931, the first of many works in the county.

The prolific H N Jepson of Nuneaton built houses, Art Deco Co-ops and the ‘distinguished’ St Thomas More School ‘in the brick style of contemporary Holland’ in 1937. Serge Chermayeff’s little cubic house at Rugby of 1934 is the first modern by a national star but the ‘Scandinavian style’ houses for Flower’s Brewery by F R S Yorke (another Birmingham graduate) at Stratford of 1938 – 39 had a greater influence on the post-war style. The real breakthrough came post-war with rebuilding after the Blitz. Nuneaton was replanned by Gibberd but he managed to build only the Library (which Pevsner saw as ‘pure Ledoux or even more Gilly’) and some suburban housing. More famous then and much more important now is Coventry, to which Pickford rightly devotes 90 pages. This is old Coventry and the new, socialist city of Donald Gibson and Arthur Ling and the bright young things of the City Architect & Planning Department who re-planned the city centre and suburbs and designed most of the new buildings within 25 years. They were ably supported by local private architects and Coventry was the making of Sir Basil Spence with the competition for the Cathedral in 1951. What Coventry did so well then was to make new places as well as buildings; more recent Coventry has many less modest buildings, for example at its two universities, but the effect is overwhelming. The clarity of YRM’s plan for Warwick University disappeared long ago.

Pickford notes that post-war Coventry has ‘not fared very well’. Actually it has been treated scandalously badly. The wholesale demolition of its post-war schools (Ling’s lovely Whitley Abbey School of 1955 – 57 was illustrated in the 1966 edition), the demolition of Spence’s 1964 – 65 John F Kennedy House next to the Cathedral, the heavy-handed alterations to the Upper and Lower Precincts, the partial demolition of the (now listed) Central Market, the frightful alterations to Broadgate House (also now listed) and the general lack of maintenance all degrade what was once the most celebrated and important place in England. Pickford notes ominously that the Swimming Baths (1956, 1962 – 66, Grade II) and the adjacent Leisure Centre (1974 – 76, refused listing) ‘are closing in 2019’. He also notes how interest has grown in Victorian architecture, still widely despised in 1966.

This new edition will expand our knowledge and appreciation of late 20th century architecture, although it may be too late to save it. Go see it now.