There can be little doubt that the publication of the revised edition on West Sussex in the Buildings of England series was the outstanding event in 2019 in the field of Sussex architectural studies (not just churches).
Every reviser of a Buildings of England volume would no doubt maintain that their county presented particular difficulties, but it is hard to imagine that most of these would be on the same level as Sussex, particularly the West. The reasons for this centre on the circumstances in which the original single volume was written. At around the mid-point of his great project Nikolaus Pevsner understandably began to have doubts about his capacity to complete the series unaided. After all, the author of the Dehio series for Germany which was the model for the English series, had accepted help from quite an early stage and the level of detail to which Pevsner aspired from the beginning was greater. He therefore decided to farm out several counties, in whole or in part, and for reasons that are unclear, even from Susie Harries’s monumental biography, chose mostly counties close to London, though he lived there and one might have thought he would have found adjacent areas easier to access.
The first county to be treated in this way was Surrey, published in 1962, of which Pevsner wrote barely a third. The rest he entrusted to Ian Nairn, who though still in his thirties had acquired a high reputation as an architectural journalist and writer with a polemical approach. His particular strengths, apart from a good turn of phrase, included an unrivalled skill in evoking the atmosphere of a place and it was above all this that Pevsner admired. On the down side, Nairn had no art historical training and a lower boredom threshold. The latter inevitably affected his detailed studies of individual buildings which was Pevsner’s strength.
For Nairn Surrey was perhaps the ideal county for it is relatively small and has few major masterpieces (such as an ancient cathedral) requiring minute examination; in any case Pevsner seems to have taken on those that did exist as part of his contribution. The collaboration was deemed a success, so Pevsner decided to hand over the entire county of Sussex to Nairn, who in his turn accepted the commission. The particular difficulties he faced soon became apparent though we do not know in what order he went about his work and thus whether his more jaundiced comments came towards the end. His perambulations of towns remained exemplary but many of his assessments of individual buildings either concentrated to excess on atmosphere or were unhelpfully brusque in a work intended to have an inventory function, allowing a reader to find out what there was in a particular place and then to form a personal conclusion on its value. This has made brief dismissals such as ‘a nasty fussy job’ (Milland new church) or ‘There are very few Sussex churches for which nothing can be said. Alas, this is one of them’ (Hunston church) unhelpful. It is true that neither church is among the major ecclesiastical monuments of the county, but each does have something to offer. Milland in particular has some fine stained glass by Christopher Whall which Nairn apparently failed to notice. Indeed, stained glass as a whole was a particular blind-spot for Nairn; to take only the example of Whall, he is entirely missing from the index. It is true that East Sussex fares no better but in the case of Whall his finest work in the county is in the West.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Nairn had undertaken a project that brought out his weaknesses and under-played his strengths. He himself became increasingly unhappy and although he finished West Sussex he withdrew from the East, which fell to Pevsner by default. Nairn went on to other things that allowed him to show his approach to best advantage; his Nairn’s London is still in print after more than 50 years and despite parts being outdated, it reads very well. Pevsner’s taking over of East Sussex has a slight bearing on the new West Sussex since after boundary changes, some places then in East Sussex that were written up by him are now in the West.
The task that faced Elizabeth Williamson and her team of revisers of West Sussex was therefore daunting; almost fifty years later I can confess that it was the shortcomings of many of Nairn’s descriptions of churches that first impelled me to see if I could do better, leading ultimately to this website. However, even then I admired his ability to sum up a place in a single phrase and to draw attention to the unexpected. I have not said much here about the way individual churches have been treated in the new volume since, as with that on East Sussex, the revisers have acknowledged the use they made of this website, often following in outline at least my assessment of a church and I commented on many entries on churches in draft. Unsurprisingly, we are far from unanimous; many users have sent in comments and additions since 1965 that I was unaware of and the revisers naturally have their own views. All the same, I still marvel at their insistence that some rather good glass of 1932 at Billingshurst is by W T Morris of Westminster and not Morris and Co, given the convincing evidence in favour of the latter that Robert Eberhard has uncovered. But that is a tiny point of detail in a most impressive achievement and anyone who wants my or Robert Eberhard’s take on a church can fall back on this or his website.
One of the strengths of the new work is the extent to which the revisers have sought to accommodate Nairn’s texts within their greatly expanded one, many of them cited directly. They do not blindly follow what he wrote; both Hunston and Milland churches are now adequately covered, especially the latter. Many omissions and errors he made are silently corrected and the entries read as a seamless whole, incorporating the best of Nairn with much that is new. For this they should be congratulated.
By comparison, my own doings may seem of no great account, but there have been considerable changes, for the better I hope, since my final retirement last year, which allows me to devote a good five days a week to researching churches. Though I have continued to visit Sussex churches and to add new information and update this website, the prime focus of my interests has moved to the preparation of a further website which is in effect an England-wide version of my Architects and Artists section. This is the part of this website which has proved to be of the widest interest to users, many outside Sussex. I reckon there is at least ten years work ahead of me before anything appears, but I have made a good start and after nearly a year have compiled basic alphabetical lists covering almost half the counties of England. The present Coronavirus situation, though tiresome in almost every way, has at least allowed me to work on the lists with little interruption and I have begun discussions over the eventual form of the new website since that has a bearing on the way I go about my researches. Until there is somewhere more appropriate to report progress, I will continue to give updates here.
On a different but related point, I have been asked sometimes why I do not expand to social media; the answer is purely pragmatic since I cannot expect an unlimited length of time to complete my new project and do not want to be diverted.