Combe Florey, Pevsner and the Waughs

In a recent article in the Guardian, literary journalist Ian Jack pays homage to the late Nikolaus Pevsner on the occasion of completion of the work he began in the 1950s. This occurred with the publication of the final volume of the Buildings of Scotland, relating to the architecture of Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. The work was launched with Prof Pevsner’s ambitious Buildings of England series originally sponsored and published by Penguin Books and often referred to as “Penguin Guides.” The first guide was devoted to Cornwall and was published in 1951. Much of the work on the early volumes was undertaken by Pevsner himself who was driven around the countryside by his wife to follow up on the initial research done by his assistants. The texts of these early volumes were written by Pevsner and can be painful reading due to to his meticulous attention to detail. A rivalry grew up between Pevsner and John Betjeman who favored a more relaxed and accessible form of architectural history in his Shell Guide series.

In his Guardian article, Jack mentions Combe Florey. This was Evelyn Waugh’s home from 1956 until his death in 1966, and his wife and later his son Auberon lived there afterwards.  Jack’s article discusses Pevsner’s entry for the house:

Not everywhere welcomed his curiosity; [Pevsner] sometimes got on poorly with the owners of country houses. “Nice staircase of c1753,” was his only comment on the interior of Combe Florey, Auberon Waugh’s house in Somerset. “One can’t very well take offence at that,” Waugh countered later, “but I feel my staircase has been violated whenever I reflect that his bleary socialist eyes have appraised it.”

Combe Florey is covered by the guide entitled South and West Somerset, no 14 in the Penguin series and written by Pevsner. The entry starts with a long and detailed paragraph about the church and then continues with the “manor house.” After a description of the Medieval gatehouse, which predates the manor house and still belongs to Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, the entry continues:

The present house is up the hillside. It was built c. 1675 and received a new front in 1730. Five bays and two stories, with pedimented doorway and ground floor windows with Gibbs surrounds. (Nice staircase c. 1735.)

This volume was published in 1958, and Pevsner may have visited the house before the Waughs moved there in late 1956. Waugh leaves no record in his published diaries or letters of a visit by Pevsner. Since he would probably have been aware by that time of the rivalry (even enmity) between Betjeman and Pevsner, he would likely have noted such a visit. Nor does Auberon mention whoever it was who allowed Pevsner into the house when he wrote about it in a 1992 article in his “Way of the World” column for the Daily Telegraph (quoted above). Auberon should have been pleased to have Pevsner’s favorable assessment of his staricase since he more usually left only a dry factual description of a country house that lacked any particular architectural or historic notoriety.

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