Although it is only just over half way through the year, there can be little doubt that the publication of the revised edition on West Sussex in the Buildings of England series will be the outstanding event in the field of Sussex architectural studies (not just churches). This follows the appearance of the volume for East Sussex in 2013. The work has been done by Elizabeth Williamson, an experienced reviser of the series, and a team of experts and has been impatiently awaited.
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, both East and West and particularly the latter. 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 which appeared in 1962 and 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, acknowledging that he felt inadequate in this respect as an outsider. On the down side, Nairn had no art historical training and, it would be fair to say, 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 small and has relatively few major masterpieces requiring minute examination; in any case Pevsner seems to have taken on many of these as part of his contribution. The collaboration was deemed a success and in consequence 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. Faced with this requirement, 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) were not very helpful. 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 which seems to have been a particular blind-spot for Nairn; to take but one example, the name of Christopher Whall is entirely missing from the index. To be fair 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. That seems to have been his own conclusion for although he agreed to finish West Sussex he withdrew from the East, which then 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 very outdated, it reads very well. Pevsner’s resumption of writing East Sussex is not entirely irrelevant to the present volume on West Sussex since after boundary changes, some places in East Sussex written up by him are now in the West and show his markedly different approach.
The task that faced the 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 treatment of individual churches in the new volume since, as with East Sussex, the revisers have acknowledged the use they made of entries on this website, often following in outline at least my assessment of a church. Also, I commented on many entries on churches in draft. Nevertheless and unsurprisingly, there is no unanimity between the reviewers and myself, for many users have sent in comments and additions that I was unaware of since the original volume appeared in 1965 and the revisers naturally have their own views. Having said that, however, I still marvel at their determination that the rather good glass of 1932 at Billingshurst is by W T Morris of Westminster and not Morris and Co, given the increasing amount of 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. Some of the omissions and even errors he made are corrected without drawing attention to any change so that the entries read as a seamless whole, incorporating the best of Nairn with much that is new. For this they should be congratulated.
In comparison with this major development my own doings are of no great account, but in view of its, I hope, positive impact on the development of the website, my final retirement from work may be thought to be of some note. In place of the one day a week that I have recently been able to devote to church studies, I now have five or six days (allowing for other commitments). I am still working out how best to use this newly won time but though I have some slowly forming ideas about extending my reach beyond the county, I intend to devote some of it to Sussex. In particular I hope to pick up some of the many loose ends that I spot and also to increase the number of (re-)visits to churches. This has been a major limitation as I no longer live in the county and also no longer have family links there.