A couple of years back, we did a series of posts that looked at matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls; image below via World E-Citizens) and how a similar concept could help novice book collectors tackle collecting areas that might otherwise prove overwhelming -- History, for example, or Food & Drink:
The basic premise (which is similar to what professors tell students to do when writing a research paper) is this: if your topic is too big to tackle, cut it down to size. Which is to say, narrow your focus until your subject is narrow enough not to overwhelm you, but broad enough to sustain your interest (and, if you're writing a paper, to insure there are enough primary and secondary sources available to buttress your arguments).
Virtually any broad book collecting area can benefit from this approach. If, for example, you collect numismatic literature, you're unlikely to have either the funds or the shelf space to collect everything that's been published about this subject. Far better, probably, to focus on the literature devoted to the ancient coinages of Alexander the Great:
This collecting concept works well for any of the very broad book collecting subject areas that we have dealt with in past series: archaeology, travel, Arabic literature, Christmas, the sea ... you name it!
And the concept works especially well for a subject like architecture. Trying to collect everything that has ever been written about this extraordinarily broad subject area would be the work of several lifetimes. Moreover, even unlimited funds would not net you every architectural title ever published, since many of this subject's rarest titles are permanently locked away in institutional collections.
Thus it is that most book collectors who collect this subject choose to focus their efforts fairly narrowly -- a particular style (Bauhaus, for example), or a particular theorist (e.g., Rem Koolhaas), and so on. Publishers have longed helped book collectors in this regard by publishing series that are devoted to fairly narrow architectural topics.
One of the most famous such series was begun at a time when architectural history was hardly recognised as a serious academic subject, nor was trustworthy architectural information readily available for the traveller. The series' institgator, a German-born art historian who had settled in England, would require the assistance of a publisher who one day would be much-beloved by PBO collectors.
The instigator was Nikolaus Pevsner. The publisher who helped Pevsner launch his project was Allen Lane. And the project, which eventually comprised forty-six titles over a 23-year period (1951-1974), would achieve worldwide fame under the series' title The Buildings of England. (Image below left via Old Swan Books; image below right via Brian P. Martin Antiquarian Books:)
The series' current publisher explains Pevsner's and Lane's original plan:
Lane provided Pevsner with the means to begin research for the books in 1945 with the help of two part time research assistants, both German refugee art historians, and a secretary. For the next twenty five years a pattern was established whereby an assistant worked for around a year on each county, preparing notes from published sources. During the Easter and Summer university vacations, then armed with fat folders of half-foolscap sheets, Pevsner set off to visit two counties, driven by his wife and, after her death in 1963, by others, usually students at London University or the Courtauld Institute of Art. (Images below via Hollett & Son:)
The series required extraordinary commitment from Pevsner:
A first draft was written immediately after each long day's visit, a feat of prodigious energy (hence the dedication of one of the volumes "to those publicans and hoteliers of England who provide me with a table in my bedroom to scribble on".) As soon as the travelling was finished, Pevsner shut himself away for a week to write the Introduction while everything was still fresh in his mind. These lively essays on the development of architecture in each county, written by a scholar up to date with the latest art-historical scholarship, were another feature which set the series on quite a different level from previous guidebooks. (Images below via Hollett & Son:)
Eventually, of course, the series proved to be more than Pevsner could handle entirely on his own:
Pevsner was unable to devote much more than a month to visiting each county and the speed at which the books were prepared inevitably led to errors and omissions. Each volume invited readers to send in comments..., and was immediately followed by a shower of letters eagerly drawing attention to anything from minor misprints to the relatively rare absence of whole villages or substantial houses. As the work became more demanding and time-consuming it became essential for Pevsner to share the writing with others. In the end, thirty-two of the books were written by Pevsner alone, ten together with collaborators, and four were delegated to others, all of whom made their own valuable contribution to the series. (Images below via Scorpio Books:)
Over the quarter-century that Pevsner and his associates were penning this series, of course, architectural scholarship itself was undergoing significant changes. Pevsner's focus on medieval liturgical architecture eventually was overtaken by scholarly investigations of things like cinemas and factories and other secular architecture. Even before Pevsner's death in 1983 the series' focus had begun to be broadened and deepened, resulting in the series known today as the Pevsner Architectural Guides to England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales.
But it was Pevsner's own prodigious efforts, memorialized in the original 46 volumes, that seem to resonate most deeply with many book collectors today. Many of these titles can be readily found in today's marketplace for very modest sums, excepting of course the rarest titles and those approaching Fine condition.