RIBA gold medal winner and author of Pioneers of the Modern Movement, but also described as a GP in the field of art history, Susie Harries reaccounts the life and times of Nikolaus Pevsner
No one took a dimmer view of how Nikolaus Pevsner would be remembered than Pevsner himself, reviewing his career from the perspective of what he had meant to achieve. As a young lecturer in Germany in the 1920s, he had planned and developed his working life along entirely orthodox lines, only to see it turn 10 years later into a sequence of art-related odd jobs overseas, connected as often as not by coincidence.
By rights, he would have been remembered as a solid and conscientious academic in a respectable German university, almost certainly a professor of art history with particular interests in Italian Mannerist painting and the English Arts and Crafts. Instead, Hitler’s anti-semitic edicts brought him to England to become a reluctant pundit on modern design and a buyer of cutlery and carpets for a furniture firm, an editor and journalist, a paperback inventoriser of England’s architectural heritage.
The end of the 1960s found him with three-quarters of The Buildings of England under his belt and a very poor estimation of what he had achieved. He was, he confided to his diary, ‘no longer a scholar’. He had no time for primary research, and his work on topics he had once considered specialisms − Mannerism, William Morris, Art Nouveau − had long been outdated. His ideas on Modernism were three decades old. ‘I have nowhere propelled my subject,’ he wrote. He had never made any claims to be an original thinker, and he firmly denied having a philosophical cast of mind. Some of his guiding principles − his belief in zeitgeist, for one − could be easily attacked, and had been: he had never examined them particularly critically, and they were readily dismantled. He was not a theorist, and he made no conscious effort to gather disciples.
However, his German training had given him the confidence, and the wide reading, to produce generalisations that seemed to make sense of a mass of data. Hence the success of his Pioneers of the Modern Movement, which was influential enough to be accused of having skewed the teaching of art history for a quarter of a century. But even this mark of authority was something he was unable to enjoy. He was perfectly aware that his account of the evolution of Modernism was not comprehensive − he had chosen to follow a single line of descent, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, at the expense of others − and he regretted the fossilisation of a polemic into a pedagogic platitude. He was on record as saying that, if it were not for the royalties, he wouldn’t mind if Pioneers went out of print.
If it had, future critics might have been less ready to convict him of being determined to promote Modernist architecture in Britain at all costs. In Pioneers, he undoubtedly tried to convince English readers in the 1930s of the aesthetic virtues and ethical strengths of the international Modern Movement, as expressed most purely in the work of Gropius and the Bauhaus. But by the early 1940s he was already advocating a milder form of Modernism refracted through the prism of national character. ‘Lincoln Cathedral is as English as Amiens Cathedral is French and Florence Cathedral, Italian. This is what we must again have, if we believe that a healthy European life cannot exist in uniformity and regimentation. Should international planning impose an international idiom, nearly all the visual pleasure would go out of the new buildings.’ To be acceptable in England, Modernism must be humanised, to accommodate the English vernacular and the element of irrationalism in the English character.
Pioneers of the Modern Movement, later published as Pioneers of Modern Design; The Buildings of England
Contributor to the AR
From 1936 he was a frequent, contributor to the AR (albeit sometimes writing under pseudonyms) and 1943-45 was acting editor while JM Richards was on active service
CBE 1953; RIBA Gold Medal 1967; knighted 1969
‘A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal’
Pevsner was part of the AR’s postwar drive to promote the softer version of Modernism that would coalesce in the visual planning theory of Townscape; but he was far from being its spearhead. Jim Richards was always adamant that Pevsner was employed as a resident historian at the AR, not a theorist or policy-maker and certainly not a front-line campaigner. That he might have had any impact, as a historian-cum-critic, on what was actually built is in any case debatable: Lionel Brett, as just one practising architect, found the notion hilarious. Pevsner has sometimes been blamed for the shortcomings of the Holford plan for redeveloping the setting of St Paul’s, when at most he used his public profile to air the AR’s attitude to the project − which was in any case a matter of approving pre-existing plans rather than shaping them.
So if Pevsner was not a scholar, theorist or Modernist ideologue, where does that leave his reputation? ‘I am fully aware,’ he wrote in 1974, ‘that in the history of art history I would not exist, except as a compiler, an entrepreneur and a vulgarisateur.’ His tone is disparaging, but there are more positive ways of interpreting these labels. Throughout his writing career, he ‘compiled’ information across an extraordinarily wide field of reference: his bibliography runs to 66 pages. To him, this meant he was no more than ‘a GP in the field of art history’. To others, it meant he had done some of the ground work for a vast range of future studies. He said late in his career that whenever he saw his name in print now, it was usually preceded by the word ‘not’, as in ‘not, as Pevsner assumed …’ He is still regularly challenged, corrected and contradicted − which suggests that half a century on, his works are still valuable reference points.
‘Entrepreneur’, too, fits best in its sense of ‘go-between’. Through his own intellectual voraciousness, Pevsner developed a wide web of contacts and sources, which he shared freely with friends, students and colleagues. And ‘vulgarisateur’ is an unnecessarily disparaging word to express his efforts to make the history of art, and in particular of architecture, something which belonged to a far wider audience than the charmed circle of the cultivated who had laid claim to it before the war. Pevsner was a pillar of the art history establishment without ever being fully an insider. He never held any of the most prestigious academic posts in art history, and he wrote principally for a lay readership − it was this above all, according to Ernst Gombrich, that separated him from many of his peers, rather than his religious or political beliefs. He was a populariser, and it was hard for him, brought up to think of himself as a potential Herr Professor Doktor, to recognise the importance of what he achieved in that role.
When the RIBA gave its 1967 Gold Medal to Pevsner instead of to a practising architect, it was for ‘affirming the value and meaning of architecture instead of simply seeing it in terms of cash and cost’. Through his relationship with Penguin − one of the main channels of access to so-called ‘high culture’ for ordinary people − he opened up the appreciation of architecture: how it has evolved, why it matters, its value as a means of understanding society or simply as an omnipresent source of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure. In The Buildings of England, he did a great deal to distinguish and define English architecture as an art form. John Summerson once called him, for the people of England, ‘a bringer of riches, the wisdom, the entertainment of architectural scholarship to more people probably than any man alive’. Not perhaps what he’d had in mind when he left Germany as a specialist in Italian Mannerist painting, but something to settle for.
Illustration by André Carrilho