Nikolaus Pevsner

Nikolaus Pevsner

Overview
Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, CBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

, FBA (30 January 1902 – 18 August 1983) was a German-born British scholar of history of art and, especially, of history of architecture. He is best known for his 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951–74), often simply referred to as "Pevsner".

The son of a Jewish fur trader, Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig
Leipzig
Leipzig Leipzig has always been a trade city, situated during the time of the Holy Roman Empire at the intersection of the Via Regia and Via Imperii, two important trade routes. At one time, Leipzig was one of the major European centres of learning and culture in fields such as music and publishing...

, Saxony.
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Quotations

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.

An Outline of European Architecture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1942] 1957), p. 23.
Encyclopedia
Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, CBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

, FBA (30 January 1902 – 18 August 1983) was a German-born British scholar of history of art and, especially, of history of architecture. He is best known for his 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951–74), often simply referred to as "Pevsner".

Life


The son of a Jewish fur trader, Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig
Leipzig
Leipzig Leipzig has always been a trade city, situated during the time of the Holy Roman Empire at the intersection of the Via Regia and Via Imperii, two important trade routes. At one time, Leipzig was one of the major European centres of learning and culture in fields such as music and publishing...

, Saxony. He studied art history
Art history
Art history has historically been understood as the academic study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts, i.e. genre, design, format, and style...

 at the Universities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt/Main, completing a PhD in 1924 on the baroque merchant houses of Leipzig. In 1923 he married Carola ('Lola') Kurlbaum, the daughter of distinguished Leipzig lawyer Alfred Kurlbaum. He worked as an assistant keeper at the Dresden Gallery
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden features major works of art. It is located in the gallery wing of the Zwinger....

 (1924–28). During this period he became interested in establishing the supremacy of German modernist after visiting Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition of 1925
Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes
The International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts was a World's fair held in Paris, France, from April to October 1925. The term "Art Deco" was derived by shortening the words Arts Décoratifs, in the title of this exposition, but not until the late 1960s by British art critic...

. In 1928 he contributed the volume on Italian baroque painting to the Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft, a multi-volume series providing an overview of the history of European art. He taught at the University of Göttingen (1929–33), offering a specialist course on English art and architecture.

According to Games's biography, op cit, and an earlier summary of this in Games's introduction to Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, Pevsner welcomed many of the economic and cultural policies of the early Hitler regime, but was caught up in the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state shortly after Hitler's accession to power and was required to step down from Göttingen in autumn 1933. Later that year he moved to England. His first post was an eighteen-month research fellowship at the University of Birmingham, found for him by friends in Birmingham and partly funded by the Academic Assistance Council
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics
The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics is a British charitable organization dedicated to assisting academics who, for reasons including persecution and conflict, are unable to continue their research in their countries of origin...

. A study of the role of the designer in the industrial process, the research produced a generally critical account of design standards in Britain which he published as An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England (Cambridge University Press, 1937). He was subsequently employed as a buyer of modern textiles, glass and ceramics for the Gordon Russell
Sydney Gordon Russell
Sir Gordon Russell was an English designer, craftsman and educationist.He came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement from 1904 after his father had moved to Broadway in the Cotswolds to be hotelier at the Lygon Arms, through the Guild of Handicraft, the community of metalworkers,...

 furniture showrooms in London.

By this time he had also completed Pioneers of the Modern Movement: from William Morris to Walter Gropius, his influential account of the pre-history of what he saw as Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
Walter Adolph Georg Gropius was a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture....

's dominance of contemporary design. Pioneers ardently championed Gropius's first two buildings (both pre-First World War) on the grounds that they summed up all the essential goals of twentieth-century architecture; in England, however, it was widely taken to be the history of England's contribution to international modernism, and a manifesto for Bauhaus
Bauhaus
', commonly known simply as Bauhaus, was a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for the approach to design that it publicized and taught. It operated from 1919 to 1933. At that time the German term stood for "School of Building".The Bauhaus school was founded by...

 (i.e. Weimar
Weimar
Weimar is a city in Germany famous for its cultural heritage. It is located in the federal state of Thuringia , north of the Thüringer Wald, east of Erfurt, and southwest of Halle and Leipzig. Its current population is approximately 65,000. The oldest record of the city dates from the year 899...

) modernism, which it was not. This false view of it has long been institutionalised and almost as long been challenged. In spite of that, the book remains an important point of reference in the teaching of the history of modern design, and helped lay the foundation of Pevsner's career in England as an architectural historian. Since its first publication by Faber & Faber in 1936, it has gone through several editions and been translated into many languages. The English-language edition has also been renamed Pioneers of Modern Design.

Second World War


In 1940, Pevsner was interned as an enemy alien in Huyton, Liverpool
Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

, despite having been included in the Nazi Black Book
The Black Book
The Black Book was the post-war name given to the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. , the list of prominent British to be arrested in the case of a successful invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany in World War II.-Background:The list was similar to earlier lists prepared by SS like the Special Prosecution...

 as hostile to the Hitler regime. He was released after three months on the intervention of, among others, Frank Pick
Frank Pick
Frank Pick LLB Hon. RIBA was a British transport administrator. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1902, he worked at the North Eastern Railway, before moving to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London in 1906...

, then Director-General of the Ministry of Information. He spent some time in the months after the Blitz
The Blitz
The Blitz was the sustained strategic bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941, during the Second World War. The city of London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 76 consecutive nights and many towns and cities across the country followed...

 clearing bomb debris, and wrote reviews and art criticism for the Ministry of Information's Die Zeitung
Die Zeitung
Die Zeitung was a German language newspaper in London published during World War II. It had an average circulation of 15.000 to 20.000 from March 1941 to June 1945 and was mainly read by Germans in exile...

, an anti-Nazi publication for Germans living in England. He also completed for Penguin Books
Penguin Books
Penguin Books is a publisher founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane and V.K. Krishna Menon. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. Penguin's success demonstrated that large...

 the Pelican paperback An Outline of European Architecture which he had begun to develop while in internment. Outline would eventually go into seven editions, be translated into sixteen languages, and sell more than half a million copies.

In 1942 Pevsner finally secured two regular positions. From 1936 onwards he had been a frequent contributor to the Architectural Review
Architectural Review
The Architectural Review is a monthly international architectural magazine published in London since 1896. Articles cover the built environment which includes landscape, building design, interior design and urbanism as well as theory of these subjects....

 and from 1943–45 he stood in as its acting editor while the regular editor J.M. Richards
James Maude Richards
Sir James Maude Richards, FRIBA, MA, , was a leading British architectural writer.Richards was born at Epsom, Surrey. Educated at Gresham's School, Holt, and Cambridge University, he trained as an architect at the Architectural Association, but his main career was as a writer on architecture...

 was on active service. Under the AR's influence, Pevsner's approach to modern architecture became more complex and more moderate. Early signs of a lifelong interest in Victorian architecture, also influenced by the Architectural Review
Architectural Review
The Architectural Review is a monthly international architectural magazine published in London since 1896. Articles cover the built environment which includes landscape, building design, interior design and urbanism as well as theory of these subjects....

, appeared in a series written under the pseudonym of 'Peter F.R. Donner': Pevsner's 'Treasure Hunts' guided readers down selected London streets pointing out architectural treasures of the 19th century. He was also closely involved with the Reviews proprietor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, in evolving the magazine's theories on Picturesque
Picturesque
Picturesque is an aesthetic ideal introduced into English cultural debate in 1782 by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, a practical book which instructed England's...

 planning.

In 1942 Pevsner was also appointed a part-time lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

; he would eventually retire from the college in 1969 as its first professor of art history. He lectured at Cambridge for almost thirty years, having been Slade professor
Slade Professor of Fine Art
The Slade Professorship of Fine Art is the oldest professorship of art at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London.-History:The chairs were founded concurrently in 1869 by a bequest from the art collector and philanthropist Felix Slade, with studentships also created in the University of...

 there for a record six years from 1949–1955, and would also hold the Slade professorship in Oxford in 1968.

Framing all this was his career as a writer and editor. After moving to England, Pevsner had found that the study of architectural history had little status in academic circles, and the amount of information available, especially to travellers wanting to inform themselves about the architecture of a particular district, was limited. Invited by Allen Lane
Allen Lane
Sir Allen Lane was a British publisher who founded Penguin Books, bringing high quality paperback fiction and non-fiction to the mass market.-Early life and family:...

, founder of Penguin Books, for whom he had written his Outline and also edited the King Penguin series, to suggest ideas for future publications, he proposed a series of comprehensive county guides to rectify this shortcoming. Work on the Buildings of England series began in 1945, and the first volume was published in 1951. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and 10 with collaborators, with a further 4 of the original series written by others. Since his death, work has continued on the series, which has been extended to cover the rest of the United Kingdom, under the title Pevsner Architectural Guides
Pevsner Architectural Guides
The Pevsner Architectural Guides are a series of guide books to the architecture of the British Isles. Begun in the 1940s by art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the 46 volumes of the Buildings of England series were published between 1951 and 1975. The series was then extended to Scotland and...

 (now published by Yale University Press). As well as The Buildings of England, Pevsner also proposed to Penguin the Pelican History of Art series (1953– ), a multi-volume survey on the model of the German Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft, which he would himself edit. Many individual volumes are regarded as classics.

Post-war


In 1946 Pevsner made the first of several broadcasts on the BBC Third Programme, presenting nine talks in all up to 1950, examining painters and European art eras. By 1977 he had presented 78 talks for the BBC including the Reith Lectures in 1955 – a series of six broadcasts, titled The Englishness of English Art, for which he explored the qualities of art which he regarded as particularly English, and what they said about the English national character. His A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., were published in 1976 as A History of Building Types.

Pevsner was a founding member in 1957 of The Victorian Society
The Victorian Society
The Victorian Society is the national charity responsible for the study and protection of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and other arts in Britain....

, the national charity for the study and protection of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and other arts. In 1964 he was invited to become its chairman, and steered it through its formative years, fighting alongside John Betjeman, Hugh Casson and others to save houses, churches, railway stations and other monuments of the Victorian age. He served for ten years (1960–70) as a member of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (or Coldstream Committee), campaigning for art history to be a compulsory element in the curriculum of art schools. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy
British Academy
The British Academy is the United Kingdom's national body for the humanities and the social sciences. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value.It receives an annual...

 in 1965 and awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
Royal Institute of British Architects
The Royal Institute of British Architects is a professional body for architects primarily in the United Kingdom, but also internationally.-History:...

 in 1967. Having assumed British citizenship in 1946, Pevsner was awarded a CBE
CBE
CBE and C.B.E. are abbreviations for "Commander of the Order of the British Empire", a grade in the Order of the British Empire.Other uses include:* Chemical and Biochemical Engineering...

 in 1953 and was knighted in 1969 'for services to art and architecture'.

Lola Pevsner died in 1963. Pevsner himself died in London in August 1983 and his memorial service was held at the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury
Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury
The Church of Christ the King is a church belonging to the Catholic Apostolic Church which is situated in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, beside Dr Williams's Library and near University College London. The church is currently used by the Anglican organisation Forward in Faith...

 the following December, with the memorial address being given by Alec Clifton-Taylor
Alec Clifton-Taylor
Alec Clifton-Taylor OBE was an English architectural historian, writer and TV broadcaster.-Biography and works:...

, a friend of fifty years. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard in Wiltshire.

Notable ideas and theories

  • "A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral
    Lincoln Cathedral
    Lincoln Cathedral is a historic Anglican cathedral in Lincoln in England and seat of the Bishop of Lincoln in the Church of England. It was reputedly the tallest building in the world for 249 years . The central spire collapsed in 1549 and was not rebuilt...

     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." From An Outline of European Architecture, 1943.
  • Pevsner also described the three ways aesthetic appeal could manifest itself in architecture: in a building's façade, the material volumes, or the interior.

Publications

  • Academies of Art, Past and Present (1940)
  • An Outline of European Architecture (1943)
  • The Leaves Of Southwell
    Southwell Minster
    Southwell Minster is a minster and cathedral, in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England. It is six miles away from Newark-on-Trent and thirteen miles from Mansfield. It is the seat of the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham.It is considered an outstanding...

    , (King Penguin series), Penguin, 1945
  • Pioneers of Modern Design (1949; originally published in 1936 under the title Pioneers of the Modern Movement)
  • The Buildings of England (1951–74)
  • The Englishness of English Art (1955, BBC Reith Lectures)
  • The Englishness of English Art
    English art
    English art is the body of visual arts made in England. Following historical surveys such as Creative Art In England by William Johnstone , Nikolaus Pevsner attempted a definition in his 1956 book The Englishness of English Art, as did Sir Roy Strong in his 2000 book The Spirit of Britain: A...

     (1956, print edition)
  • The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968)
  • A History of Building Types (1976)

Further reading

  • Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: the Life, (Chatto & Windus, 2011).
  • Stephen Games, Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art, (Continuum, 2010). (Pevsner biography, Volume 1.)
  • Stephen Games, 'Introduction', in: Nikolaus Pevsner, Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, (Methuen, 2002; revised Methuen 2003).
  • Professor Brian Harrison, 'Nikolaus Pevsner' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • ed. Bridget Cherry and Simon Bradley, The Buildings of England: a Celebration, (Penguin Collectors Society
    Penguin Collectors Society
    The Penguin Collectors Society is an educational charity based in the United Kingdom. Its primary purpose is to promote the study and research of all aspects of Penguin Books, the publishing company founded by Allen Lane in 1935.-History:...

    , 2001).
  • ed. Peter Draper, Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner, (Ashgate, 2004).

Papers


Papers relating to Pevsner's departure from Germany and efforts to obtain work in England are contained within the archives of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (now the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics
The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics is a British charitable organization dedicated to assisting academics who, for reasons including persecution and conflict, are unable to continue their research in their countries of origin...

) in the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library , the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library...

. Index to the Catalogue of the SPSL.
A substantial collection of his papers is held at the Pevsner archive in the Getty Research Institute
Getty Research Institute
The Getty Research Institute , located at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, is "dedicated to furthering knowledge and advancing understanding of the visual arts". A program of the J...

, Los Angeles. Nikolaus Pevsner papers, 1919–1979. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.

Documents relating to his various projects for Penguin, including the King Penguin series, the Pelican History of Art and the Buildings of England, are held by the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol.
Papers relating to the work of the Victorian Society during his years as Chairman are held by the Victorian Society themselves and the London Metropolitan Archives. (Victorian Society archives)

External links