Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Peter Draper considers a biography of the popular historian and writer who devoted himself to English architecture

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Reviewed by: Peter Draper
Author: Susie Harries
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £30

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The name of Nikolaus Pevsner is familiar to so many through the ‘Pevsner’ guides and his high-profile campaigning for the preservation of Victorian buildings, but few appreciate how much else he did.

The full extent of his contribution to the cultural life of this country and the complex narrative of his remarkable life have now been engagingly chronicled in Susie Harries’ long, but highly readable biography. What makes The Life particularly absorbing is the use Harries has made of Pevsner’s private correspondence and, above all, of his Heftchen, his private diaries to which he confided his ambitions, anxieties, the complexities of his relationship with his wife and his revealing, highly critical self-assessments.

Determined to achieve from his student days, he read voraciously over an astonishing range, annotating journals meticulously, memorising and constantly recording ideas. His prodigious capacity for sustained hard work became legendary, exemplified by his resolute mastery of several languages, the astonishing range of his bibliography, and the considerable privations he endured in order to complete the 46 volumes of the Buildings of England series in less than 30 years.

By turns irritated and charmed by the English way of life, Pevsner was fascinated with the distinctive character of the art of his adopted country, a theme that he pursued in
his controversial Reith lectures on The Englishness of English Art.

However, he was often caricatured – by those more comfortable with the amateur charm of Betjeman – as Herr Professor Doktor for what was seen as his dry Germanic pedantry. Yet Pevsner was an indefatigable and compelling lecturer, in spite of the abysmal quality of his slides, with real enthusiasm for communicating serious scholarship.

He somewhat harshly described himself in 1974 as “a jobbing educator”, “a compiler, entrepreneur and vulgarisateur”, not the academic scholar he had originally aspired to be. From our perspective, it would be hard to exaggerate his influence in engendering serious public interest in the history of art and architecture: through his publications, his popular Slade lectures at both Oxford and Cambridge and, not least, his dominating role campaigning for the Victorian Society.

Of particular value in this biography are the sharply drawn characterisations of the main personalities with whom Pevsner interacted.

These cumulatively provide vivid insights into English cultural attitudes, especially in the postwar years when he was such an influential figure. Recognition of his achievements, and of his tireless work on numerous public committees in the arts and education, came in the 1960s with prestigious honours, such as the RIBA Gold Medal and a knighthood.

Harries intersperses this narrative of his public life with more personal quotations from his correspondence and some delightful and illuminating anecdotes.

Overall, she provides a fair and balanced assessment of his strengths and weaknesses as a man and as a scholar, whether judiciously reviewing his attitudes to National Socialism or defending his reputation against later critics of his art-historical methodology.

This is an impressive biography of a remarkable man. On both counts it deserves to be widely read. 

Peter Draper is the editor of Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner (Ashgate, 2004)
 

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