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Nikolaus Pevsner and Clyffe Pypard - by Julian Orbach

Julian Orbach

Julian Orbach gave a talk on June 11 to the guests attending the VCH summer event at Clyffe Pypard, at the generous invitation of  the Earl and Countess of Inchcape. This is the text of his talk. 

"It is a great pleasure to be here in this village to talk in support of the Victoria County History of which the Wiltshire series shines as one of the very best in Britain and tantalisingly close to completion after so many years.

Today, here, four strands of writing about Wiltshire come together, the Victoria County History, represented by all of us supporters here, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and in particular its Magazine represented by Canon Goddard, of whom more in a moment, the Buildings of England series represented by me revising the Wiltshire volume, published by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1963. And the last strand is the Shell Guides, only tangentially, but through one of the great figures of country writing of the twentieth century, the poet Geoffrey Grigson. Grigson edited the About Britain guides for the Festival of Britain, wrote Shell Country Guides to flowers 1955 and trees 1958, and his book on Wiltshire influenced JH Cheetham & John Piper's 1968 Shell Guide. Canon Edward Goddard represents that oldest strain of English antiquarianism, the Goddards having been in Wiltshire since the reign of King John, with great houses at The Lawn in Swindon and Upham Manor at Aldbourne, established here at Clyffe Pypard from at least 1500. The big house here was rebuilt in the 1840s for Horation Nelson Goddard (born the year after Trafalgar) as was the rectory opposite at much the same time, held of course by Goddard family members, so in due course Edward arrived here aged 29 in 1883 and remained rector until his retirement in 1935. In the tradition of Victorian parsons he took history and natural history very seriously, editing the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine for fifty-two years from 1890 and looking after the library in Devizes for a similar time. He was noted for the superb quality of his indexes, he was a compiler par excellence, his Wiltshire bibliography of 1929, I still use, and in the magazine he offered lists of antiquities, of bronze age implements, of medieval glass, and even a glossary of Wiltshire dialect. Formidable to the last he represents a type of scholarship familiar to Nikolaus Pevsner whose background was entirely dis-similar but also congruent.

Pevsner came to Britain in 1933 having been dismissed on racial grounds from his post at Gottingen, becoming one of that tide of immigrants from authoritarian Europe that so enriched the cultural and intellectual life of this country, no tide stronger than that which came from Germany and Austria in the 1930s. He settled in Hampstead where his neighbour was improbably that most English of interwar poets and essayists, Geoffrey Grigson. Despite his background and academic work, Pevsner was rounded up with all the other emigres, German, Austrian, Italian, concentration camp survivors, Communists, Fascists and Nazis, and sent to Huyton internment camp, that evolved into one of the greatest impromptu universities this country has ever achieved (a comment made about the sister camp on the Isle of Man), the birthplace of Pevsner's 'Outline of European Architecture', 1942, that asserted the values of European culture against those of crude nationalism.

Geoffrey Grigson was there as Pevsner was taken away, and in his own way asserted civilised values in time of trouble. He wrote later:

'When at last two hard-faced Bow Street runners arrived in the early hours of the morning to take him, I managed, clutching my pyjama trousers, to catch them up with the best parting present I could quickly think of which was an elegant little edition of Shakespeare's sonnets'.

It was Grigson who bought Pevsner to Wiltshire, specifically to this part of Wiltshire, inviting Lola in 1942 to stay in the cottage called Snowhill on the chalk ridge by the Broad Town white horse, that he had bought in the mid 1930s. When Grigson bought a larger farmhouse in Broad Town he sold the cottage to the Pevsners, and Snowhill was to remain their retreat for the rest of their lives. Endearingly makeshift and non-architectural, Snowshill was where the family relaxed in gardening and walking. Pevsner was already owner of Snowhill when the great journey of the Buildings of England began in 1950, to be a catalogue of all that was best in English architecture from the prehistoric to the present day, a catalogue not far from those that Canon Goddard had been working on since 1890. It seems unlikely that they ever met. The Canon retired in 1935 and died in 1947, to be buried here at Clyffe Pypard. He would surely have been known to Grigson before the war. In his presidential address to the Archaeological Society in 1930, the Canon described those things still in need of attention in Wiltshire studies including old cottages 'before they are improved out of existence' and country houses saying 'the domestic architecture of many large houses has never yet been described'. The Society could not do these things. Ultimately it was the Wiltshire Buildings Record that truly tackled the cottages and vernacular architecture, and it was Pevsner's volume of 1963 that brought the formal architecture of churches, country houses, small towns and industry together for the first time.

 The fact that the Buildings of England volumes are not just lists, like the Dehio guides to Germany that were Pevsner's models must be put down to the influence of Geoffrey Grigson, here in this parish, and to John Betjeman, a dozen miles NE on this same chalk escarpment at Uffington. Their writings brought to English topography that nose for the quirky, for the special, for the unlikely that pokes out so much more often than one might expect in Pevsner's writings. I refer you to the entry for Thomas Spackman, whose monument is here in the church at Clyffe Pypard, the village that he left to make a fortune in the London building world and to which he left money for education of children like himself when he died in 1786.

'The inscription tells that Thomas Spackman left £1000 for the purchase of Bank 3% consolidated annuities, largely to pay for a master to teach the poor children of the parish reading, writing and arithmetic. The monument displays plenty of the tools of the carpenter's trade, a gratifying sight in an age of such snobbery in monuments'.

And indeed by the feet of the truly magnificent marble statue draped in the cloak of Roman virtue is a rough woven basket of ordinary tools.

Pevsner finished Wiltshire in the year that his wife Lola died and she was buried here rather than in London, followed by Pevsner himself twenty years later in 1983, by then knighted, although no titles apart from 'her husband' are on the headstone. Grigson died two years later in 1985 and is buried a couple of miles away at Broad Town as is his wife, the great cookery writer Jane Grigson. Canon Goddard is here too in the churchyard not far from the Pevsners. It is a remarkable constellation for an out of the way country village, the embodiment of what we seek to do in recording the history, character and monuments of this county and, between them, the civilised and universal values that the study of small things can illuminate.

I follow in Pevsner's footsteps and am glad to be revising the county that meant so much to him, 'the county of the cottage' he called it. Many of you will have helped me already on my way. If we have not yet met it may be because I am only just finishing the fourth of the five old distreicts of the county, about to do Biddesden, the Chutes and Collingbournes to finish the old Kennet District before I leap the plain to the old Salisbury District. I have received many welcomes on my way, a few houses I have not seen, but never because of hostility to the Buildings of England series, that unlikely immigrant contribution to England's knowledge of itself."