Architectural History after Summerson

I attended an unexpectedly vehement hatchet job on the writings of John Summerson by Steven Brindle who has been commissioned by Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre to write a successor volume to Summerson’s great and much revised Pelican History of Art on Architecture in Britain 1530-1830, which was kept in print for nearly fifty years. It is probably necessary if commissioned to write a new version of a much loved and admired book to feel strongly about its defects: its tendency to sometimes too sweeping critical judgment and its focus on issues of design and style more than construction and use. But this was the nature of the era from which it sprang: the introduction of Wolfflinian criticism to British architectural history and an attempt to relate changes in British architecture to what was happening in Europe. As Elizabeth McKellar pointed out, who is writing Summerson’s biography, it was probably part of Pevsner’s brief for the Pelican histories that they should be critical surveys, informed by visual judgment, different in style and character from the traditional English archaeological and antiquarian approach.

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