It's always been one of the easiest ways to gauge what kind of a person someone is: take a look at their bookshelves. Lots of Camus and Sartre? The man's riven with existential angst. She's got the complete works of Austen? Incorrigible romantic, but with a redeeming sense of humour. So when I started delving into Harry Mount's new guide to Britain's architecture, I could not help but notice that the most quoted authors, whom he uses to back up his arguments and prejudices, are Evelyn Waugh and P G Wodehouse. Mount might claim that he is exploring the styles and history of Britain's buildings, but in truth this is a guide to England, and a very particular England, all parsonages, country houses and poshness.
The book begins with an explanation from Mount that he first became interested in building style when he spotted a particular kind of windowsill in Islington. So far, so urban. But Mount's jaunt through the architecture of Britain quickly heads off down the motorway to reassuring country places and we get a lengthy paean of praise to the rectory. Perhaps this is a lingering nostalgia for the parental home of his cousin, David Cameron, who grew up in a former rectory. One senses strong affection from Mount in his account of the buildings of a village, and he has assembled all sorts of fascinating facts along the way. There was a lack of church construction, for example, between 1540 and 1666, while England was coming to terms with the traumatic aftermath of the Reformation. Or this little gem: East Anglia has the densest concentration of medieval churches in Christendom.
To the secular reader, Mount may seem to spend an inordinate time touring churches and cathedrals, but his interest reflects the architectural history of this country. The importance of faith in previous centuries meant that they were often the most significant of buildings in village, town and city. Just as domestic architecture developed, reflecting the growing wealth of first the upper class, then the mercantile and educated middle class, so Mount's account moves on to describe building styles and techniques behind the construction of the homes of Britain.
Practicality, ambition and invention all play their part in the history of British house design. In early manor houses, for example, the hall was the most important room in the building, for people gathered together for warmth. Later, when builders worked out how chimney breasts could be contained in walls, people were able to move upstairs to be cosy. Wattle and daub was a common building material for Tudor houses, but its use ceased after the Great Fire of London showed to devastating effect how risky it was. The Perpendicular style was particularly popular in Britain, because it featured huge windows letting in the light. And the history of the country house, he points out, owes much to the political ambitions of the courtiers of Elizabeth I. She decided against building palaces; they built country houses to impress her and ease her progress around the country.
Mount is very clear in his account of differing styles, outlining the various forms of Gothic and helping to distinguish between Palladian and baroque. There is a useful essay on Inigo Jones. The writing style is affectionate and the whole thing bounces along, complete with dating tips so that the reader can start to identify styles. Sometimes the bounciness grates, in particular the forced populist references. It's time to write about pubs, so let's call the chapter after EastEnders landlords Den and Ange; a route through London is Princess Diana's guide to classicism.
While the book functions at one level as a useful primer, this is far too personal a guide to be a true reference work. The problem is that Mount's taste is just too predictably Establishment. He devotes plenty of space to his passions – rural Britain, grand houses – and far too little to railway architecture, for example, or to the Arts and Crafts movement.
The omissions are glaring. The references to the north of England are minimal (Coronation Street, and mention of poor housing) but there is no appreciation whatsoever for the Victorian sumptuousness of Northern cities. There is nothing here of Liverpool, with one of the greatest stretches of waterfront in the world. There is no mention of Manchester's astonishing Italiante warehouses where the cotton merchants made their fortunes, nor the wool industry's stunning contribution to the skyline of Bradford. Perhaps if Mount had read Mrs Gaskell on Manchester, or D H Lawrence on Nottingham, or even Ian Rankin on Edinburgh, as much as he delves into Waugh and Wodehouse, he would have served his readers better.Reuse content