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Pevsner : The Complete Broadcast Talks

Architecture and Art on Radio and Television, 1945-1977

 

Edited by Stephen Games

 

Farnham: Ashgate, 2014

Hardcover.  xix + 578 pages. ISBN 978-1409461975. £90.00

 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling

Oxford Brookes University

 

 

At 578 pages, Stephen Gamesís edited volume of Nikolaus Pevsnerís broadcast talks is a sturdy and invaluable complement to Susie Harriesís 2011 biography. Together they constitute similarly substantial contributions to the study of an architectural historian who is fast becoming the most documented in British architectural history. Gamesís study covers the span of years from the end of the Second World War to 1977, and he has brought together the transcripts and scripts of Pevsnerís talks for both wireless and television, noting, as one might have suspected from the bookís size, that he gave more talks than any other art historian for the BBC. It is, then, a considerable task to have uncovered all the relevant documentation and assembled it, as anyone who has used the Corporationís archives will attest.

Arranged chronologically, the reader can thus trace the development of Pevsnerís ideas and their expression, sit in awe at the range of subjects he covered (from the Baroque to the Picturesque, the Arts and Crafts movement to British modernism), or, more simply, dip into the text for opinions on particular periods, events or subjects. However, this is to under-describe the book for Games has not just assembled a series of documents. The talks are divided into periods, reflecting sometimes a particular theme. Thus the opening section is ĎPropagandaí, and it documents Pevsnerís earliest talks for the BBC, when he was concerned to promote English modernism. Other sections are organised around key producers for whom he talked, such as Basil Taylor and Leonie Cohn, another is devoted to his famous 1955 Reith Lectures. Each talk within the section has a prefatory discussion of varying length, while each text is then annotated by Games to various ends: sometimes to signal where illustrations would have been seen; to note changes to the text or to add particular information of note.

The book is a major achievement, and it is hard to criticise it since it will be an invaluable tool for historians not just of Pevsner himself but architectural historiography more generally, and also of broadcasting, as well as the key role played by the BBC in the cultural education of the nation. I would have liked some further explanation for the particular choice of themes (the book has a fairly short preface but no proper introduction) and yearned for more information about the producers with whom Pevsner worked. However this may reflect the fact, as Games notes in the preface, that he has also produced a companion volume (Pevsner, the BBC Years) which focuses on his entry into broadcasting and the period up to, and including, the Reith Lectures. With its publication, Pevsner studies might be said to amount to a discipline; perhaps in due course we might expect similar substantial studies of further key figures in British architectural historiography, not least John Summerson.

 

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