How did a quintessential German scholar become an anglicised architectural pundit, broadcaster and national treasure?
Everybody who uses The Buildings of England, or ‘Pevsners’ as they are affectionately known, must wonder how Nikolaus Pevsner, that quintessential German scholar, was transformed into an anglicised architectural pundit, broadcaster and national treasure. The answers are in Susie Harries’ deft and judicious new biography.
As a 20 year-old student in Leipzig Pevsner had identified Wilhelm Pinder as ‘the coming man’. Pinder was a conservative academic but also a populariser, ‘a passionate and effective champion of German art’, as Harries describes him. Pevsner’s experience of the Weimar Republic (‘governments that did nothing’) and his steadfast admiration for Pinder made him a nationalist.
In 1930 the resolute Nikolaus Pevsner, now a family man, set out alone for England, to prepare material for some lectures for an Anglo-American cultural initiative at the University of Göttingen, a considerable departure from his previous work. ‘Englishness of course is the purpose of my journey,’ he wrote to Carola (Lola), his wife. After a spell in London he spent the summer months travelling to the extremities – to Hadrian’s Wall and to Snowdon. He bought black-and-white postcards as aides memoire and sat up late in grim bed and breakfast establishments capturing his impressions. Durham was the first place ‘that has made my heart pound’, he told Lola, the leafy view up to the cathedral ‘a Romantic dream.’ With hindsight, this episode, illuminated by his letters home, sets the scene for the rest of Pevsner’s career.
By the early autumn of 1933, despite Pevsner’s admiration for aspects of National Socialism, he had been ‘encouraged to resign’ from all his academic and professional posts and affiliations in Germany; that summer he had explored a future in Italy and now he headed reluctantly to England. To the Nazis, the Jewish-born Pevsner’s 1921 conversion to Protestantism was an irrelevance, as was his close study of medieval Saxon sculpture, a glory of German art.
Yet on an official form he denied that he had ‘definitely’ emigrated though Lola and the family had come over to join him in London in 1936. He, and particularly Lola (whose mother was Jewish), remained astonishingly naïve about the situation in Nazi Germany – sending their children back for a summer holiday in 1939 with the result that their daughter Uta was trapped there throughout the war. In Britain academic posts eluded Pevsner and a job researching industrial design in Birmingham was the best he could find. Two years earlier, a visit to England by his hero, Walter Gropius, had unsettled him: ‘I’m 32 and I’ve done nothing that will last.’
But gradually he breached professional defences; journalism, on the Architectural Review, and teaching at Birkbeck College gave him status. He became, as Harries puts it, ‘a mature art historian – but perhaps no longer an academic or an orthodox scholar.’ As such he was able, and willing, to shift his views on modernism and on design to the point where he would criticise the tendency of the Modern Movement to forget ‘legitimate human yearnings’. He was a regular broadcaster for the BBC – on Victorian architecture – and in 1955 he gave the Reith lectures on ‘The Englishness of English Art’, then published as a book. As a German-born art historian pronouncing upon his adoptive country he had exposed himself and at one level laid the seeds for a prolonged war of attrition, often unpleasantly jingoistic in tone. Pevsner’s friends from the 1930s, particularly Alec Clifton-Taylor, a thoroughly English architectural historian, were steadfast.
Nudging 50 Pevsner embarked on the monumental task that he, aided and abetted by the publisher Allen Lane, had dreamt up in the mid-1940s, a county by county survey of the architecture of England. The Buildings of England ran to 46 volumes of which Nikolaus Pevsner wrote 32 alone. Three appeared in the first year, 1951. He recognised the enormity of the task; ‘To make such books what they really should be would require so much time that the whole series could not be done.’ His mix of scholarship and wry observation was evident from the beginning but he knew his limitations (‘dovecotes are not really my line’). With Lola’s death (in 1963) he turned to student drivers and soon realised that he would also need co-authors. The first, unlikely, candidate was Ian Nairn (for Surrey and Sussex): ‘He writes better than I could ever hope to write.’ Few of Pevsner’s fellow writers were mavericks like Nairn, but each brought their own slant to the grand scheme. In their current form ‘Pevsners’ will be completed within the next 10 years. They are chunky, well illustrated and as comprehensive as their editors can make them, no longer slim volumes for a trim jacket pocket. That personal edge has, in general, been lost, buried beneath the weight of information.
Nikolaus Pevsner was a complex, even poignant, figure. The subtlety with which Susie Harries has portrayed his extraordinary achievements, always pitted against an underlying sense of ambivalence and self-doubt, makes this a quite exceptional life.
Gillian Darley is working on an anthology of the writing of Ian Nairn