London: Chatto & Windus, 2011
Hardcover. xii+866 p. 16 p. of plates. ISBN 978-0701168391. £30
Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling
Oxford Brookes University
It is never long before the student of architecture or design history comes across the work of Nikolaus Pevsner. Most likely this encounter first takes the form of one or both of his two landmark survey texts, Pioneers of the Modern Movement, from William Morris to Walter Gropius (first published in 1936 and later revised and reissued as Pioneers of Modern Design), or his Outline of European Architecture (1943). As the student progresses, they might find useful his work on – among other things – academies of art, 19th-century architectural writers or industrial art – while in their leisure time, they might go for a ‘perambulation’ from one of the multi-volume Buildings of England series that he founded. If that student pursues an academic career, they may very well find that each time they think of a new area of study to pursue, that Pevsner got there first. His oeuvre is, then, a defining one in architectural history, and remains a benchmark, if no longer a model, for practitioners of the discipline.
Thus, as Susie Harries rightly notes in the opening pages of her magisterial biography of Pevsner, ‘[his] career is a prism through which to view the world of art history as it developed in England in the middle of the twentieth century’, spanning, as it did, ‘architecture, design, modernism, Englishness, art education, conservation, town planning, garden history’ [ix]. Moreover, given that comparatively little work has been published on him as either author or man despite his prolificness, her aim is ‘to do justice to a figure who is known, but not notorious, and whose life has not been fully described before.’
To achieve this goal, Harries has been fortunate in gaining access to archival material previously unavailable. In particular she has made substantial use of papers held by the Pevsner family, not least the Heftchen: the highly personal notebooks-cum-diairies that the historian kept for most of his life. She also draws on his papers at the Getty Institute and material at the BBC Written Archives, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and the National Archives. All this alongside her command of the history of the discipline, and its evolution in England and Germany since the end of the nineteenth century.
Her scope is wide. Dividing the book into seven main parts, and a conclusion (but no introduction), in 866 pages she covers Pevsner’s life from his childhood and youth in his native Leipzig to the final years of his life as a widower in his house at Wildwood Terrace, Hampstead. Harries painstakingly reconstructs the cultural and educational context of his youth and university training, and the way that this shaped his notion of art and architecture as a cultural expression of national identity. She charts, movingly, his genuine puzzlement that, despite his Jewish heritage, such beliefs could not be accommodated within the Germany that the National Socialist Party was creating, and his reluctant recognition that if he were to pursue a career – and she makes clear the iron ambition in his character – then he would have to leave.
Pevsner came to England in late 1933 with the help of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, and support from a rather wonderful character, Francesca Wilson, a friend of family friends and a history teacher who was one of the many English people to work actively to draw attention to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis for their ‘non-Aryan’ beliefs. It is clear from Harries’s discussion that throughout this decade, Pevsner always hoped that he could go home – to the extent of sending his three children to Germany on holiday in 1939 (his daughter remained trapped there for the duration of the war). She also demonstrates the rather desperate job search he undertook in this decade. The academic post he yearned for eluded him for most of the decade, except for part-time teaching, and it was as a researcher into industrial art (producing the 1937 Survey of Industrial Art in England for the University of Birmingham) and as a buyer for Gordon Russell that he earned his income. It was in this context that he would write Pioneers.
Pevsner’s ‘Englishness’ was inaugurated by the outbreak of war in 1939 and, despite his internment, the war years set him on the path towards his many achievements in the discipline. He first worked for Penguin in this decade, became Assistant Editor at the Architectural Review, began to lecture at Birkbeck College, produced the first of the many editions of Outline before going on to found the Buildings of England series. Harries is particularly strong on Pevsner’s career from the 1940s onwards. She offers a very vivid picture of the evolution of the Buildings series and his own evolution into an establishment figure (the title of Part Six) and the legacy through a generation of doctoral students and others who, in various ways, he supported and encouraged in their work.
Harries’s biography certainly achieves her goal of examining Pevsner’s life in depth. Very much like her subject, she has covered every base that one might think of in accounting for a life through a tumultuous period in history. She also draws attention to little-known areas of his work, for example, I had not realised his involvement in post-war debates about art education through the Coldstream Committee. The book is, as the blurb on the book jacket declares, ‘a definitive biography’ and will for a long time serve as a standard reference work for anyone working on Pevsner himself or his oeuvre.
In this respect, it can seem a little churlish to criticise the book, but there are some flaws. Many of these are to do with the nature of book. It is not produced for an academic press, but a commercial publisher. Thus Harries has to steer a very tricky line between producing a work satisfying to an academic audience but also to a lay audience who probably know Pevsner best through the copies of the Buildings of England that accompany them on their days out. For me, this tension results in a book which is little too heavy on biographical detail at the expense of a broader consideration of the context in which Pevsner, though not without difficulty, found work in the 1930s and 1940s. I yearned to know more about figures like Wilson, for example, and the intellectual climate at Birmingham University in the thirties. Likewise, some discussion of how architectural history has developed as a discipline since his death in 1983 might have been welcome.
The more commercial nature of the book is also reflected in minor irritations such as a highly idiosyncratic mixture of notes and citations (and these in insufficient numbers) and a rather short bibliography. More seriously, the lack of an introduction means that the book’s author fails to offer a rationale for the nature of her approach to biographical writing, and while she demonstrates a clear dispassion for her subject throughout the text, I am not sure at the end of it what I am really to make of Pevsner.
But these are small criticisms against the backdrop of a highly impressive and detailed biography of this man. It will undoubtedly form the backbone of Pevsner studies for decades to come.
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