Wednesday, March 14, 2012

THE Pevsner

Many people have achieved the honor of forming eponyms, that is words that stand for conditions or habits of thought. Among these are Alzheimer’s (disease), the Peter Principle, Spoonerism, Thatcherism and many others. In only a few case, however, has the name itself, without any suffix or controlling noun, served to categorize a whole book or set of books. Baedeker and Webster come to mind.

Pevsner (short for The Buildings of England by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner) is the only such term I know that serves to monumentalize an art historian. The original series of the guides in 46 volumes was published between 1951 and 1975. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and produced ten with collaborators, with a further four of the original series farmed out to others. Today it is not unusual to hear people ask in Britain about a building: "Is it in Pevsner?" Setting out on a trip, it is always well to ask: "Did you bring the Pevsner?"

After he arrived in England in 1933, Nikolaus Pevsner found that despite the country's wealth of buildings, the serious study of architectural history had attained little status there. He conceived a project to create a series of comprehensive county guides to address this lack, gaining the backing of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books (for whom he had written his "Outline of European Architecture").

Work on the series began in 1945. Lane employed two part-time assistants, both German refugee art historians, who prepared notes for Pevsner from published sources. Pevsner spent his academic holidays touring the country by car to make personal observations and to carry out local research, before writing up the finished texts. Since his death, work has continued on the series, with several volumes now in their third revision. From their original compact paperback versions (“to go in a schoolboys' pocket"), many of them have swollen to 700 pages or more. Unfortunately, few of the continuers were able to replicate Pevsner's characteristic wit, so unexpected in what was basically a set of gazetteers.

Eventually the scope of the series expanded to include Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Now known as the Pevsner Architectural Guides, they are published by the Yale University Press.

Begun two decades ago a transatlantic imitation, the Buildings of the United States, has proceeded slowly, even though the volumes are written by one (or two) separate authors and thus should proceed rapidly.

Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig in 1902 to Jewish parents. Trained in the strict canons of art history then prevailing in Germany, he took up an academic post, only to be summarily dismissed by the Nazis in 1933. Since he had some acquaintance with the art of England, he decided to resettle in that country. It was the middle of the Depression and at that time Britain had virtually no tradition of serious art scholarship. He had to find work where he could, first making a name for himself with his studies of design. These culminated in his first popular success, "Pioneers of the Modern Movement" (1936), the book that established the basic narrative of the origins of the International Style in architecture.

After being briefly interned as an alien in 1940 he was at last able to establish himself in his new country. Once World War II ended, he returned to Germany in the uniform of a colonel in the British army.

By dint of careful study of the language and the culture, Pevsner was able to assimilate perfectly (or almost) into English society. He even acquired the English gift for understatement, remarking at one point that "my scholarship has been described as impeccable, but it I really think that it is very peccable."

Nikolaus Pevsner joined two other distinguished emigres from Central Europe, Leslie Howard, the actor, and Lewis Namier, the historian, as people who helped the English define themselves. All the same, his book on the "Englishness of English Art" (1956), originally presented as the Reith Lectures on the BBC, was not a success. Critics complained that the methodology was too German. In fact Pevsner had been influenced by his charismatic but controversial teacher Wilhelm Pinder, a strong proponent of special German qualities in art. Earlier, though, the Bloomsbury writer Roger Fry had ventured to write about the distinctive qualities of French art. And contemporary US critics like Harold Rosenberg were pushing "American-type painting" (abstract expressionism). So the search for national character in art was a common theme of the period.

For us neophytes of fifty years ago, eager to explore the deepest profundities of German Kunstgeschichte, Pevsner appeared to be something of a lightweight. He did not seem to belong to the same league as Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, and Rudolf Wittkower, for he was concerned with reaching a large public--as they for the most part were not. In fact Pevsner changed the way that several generations viewed buildings: he gave his followers a whole new way of seeing. And as a tenacious advocate of historic preservation, he helped save many fine structures from the wrecking ball. His heritage lives on vibrantly in Britain--and indeed in the whole Western world.

As far as recollection serves, I only heard Sir Nikolaus lecture once, in 1965. It was in a tiny basement room of Birkbeck College in London, where he spoke on German medieval literature. As a graduate student in England in those days I secured as many of the volumes of the Buildings of England as I could, so as to take them on trips. Eventually I acquired all 46.

You can read it all, as I did, in Susie Harries’ new blockbuster “Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life” (Random House), where the text exceeds 800 pages. Because Pevsner was interested in so many things--from medieval cathedrals and Georgian country houses to Victorian culture and town planning--the book is continuously enthralling. Of course quite a lot else happened in the course of a life that spanned most of the 20th century.



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