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Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner
August 5, 2005

The dust jacket of this book presents three portraits: a neat, serious young man photographed in 1922 for his identity card as a student at Frankfurt am Main University (on which his first name was strangely Slav-ised to an unexplained "Nikolai"); an equally serious middle-aged man wearing the round spectacles of the stereotypical European intellectual; the last, a tweed-jacketed genial old man standing in what is clearly an English country churchyard, his hand resting on an upright tombstone. The pictures illustrate the book's contents: the significant episodes of an intellectual biography of the complex and frequently contradictory Nikolaus Pevsner, without whom the history of English art and architecture, and a public curious about these subjects, would probably still be adrift.

The papers given by 13 contributors to a conference held at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2002, on the centenary of Pevsner's birth in Leipzig, have been transformed into essays and arranged into four broad thematic groups. In the first and longest essay, Ute Engel examines with much newly researched material how the framework of Pevsner's art history was formed in the Germany of the Weimar Republic. Between 1921 and 1923, he attended no fewer than four universities, going to lectures mostly about Baroque art and architecture given by Heinrich Wolfflin among others.

The subject of his doctorate, completed in three years by 1924 and published in 1928, was the secular Baroque town houses of Leipzig. Excerpts from his thesis show that, by the age of 22, Pevsner had already acquired the skills of "scientific" methodology, of Wissenschaft , learnt from his supervisor, Wilhelm Pinder; the categorisation and typologies of art objects; and the ability to analyse and describe either what he saw or what an observer moving through a building would see. Engel nicely juxtaposes some of Pevsner's written descriptions with photographs of the buildings described.

Pevsner proceeded from the study of architecture to that of painting in his first job as an assistant at Dresden's art gallery, where he contributed to the catalogue of, and published articles about, Italian painting. During a subsequent employment lecturing at Göttingen, he took up the then unusual subject of English art and architecture spanning the medieval period to the present, and in 1930 made his first visit to England.

While risking the neat backward projection of what we know of the development of Pevsner's later career on to his earlier one, Engel makes a satisfying case for the idea that by 1935, when he left Germany for exile in London, Pevsner possessed the theory and methods that would allow him to examine and describe the Englishness of English industrial design, art and architecture to the public, rather than to his fellow scholars.

Further essays analyse Pevsner's progress in this elucidation: the publication in 1936 of Pioneers of Modern Design , in which he attempted to establish a firm foundation for his particular view of what the practice of modern architecture should and should not be; his co-editorship of the Architectural Review during the war years. The extraordinarily popular An Outline of European Architecture of 1943, which is still in print, was written on an upturned bucket in the basement of Birkbeck, following his appointment as lecturer there. At a meeting in 1945 with Allen Lane, his two remarkably ambitious series of books were simultaneously devised: the monumental Pelican History of Art and Buildings of England , the first three of which appeared in 1951, and Pevsner's last in 1974. His many radio talks culminated in 1955 with the Reith Lectures on "The Englishness of English art", in which he made what was subsequently regarded as an impossible attempt to apply his theories of art, characterised by geography, to unimaginably disparate material.

Stefan Muthesius continues the geographical theme in "Germanness, Englishness, Jewishness, scientificness, popularisation?". In a carefully argued discussion, too long and nuanced to précis here, he asks whether art history could ever have been German, English or Jewish. Hitler's apologists certainly thought so, but Muthesius brilliantly examines the stereotypes and shows that, in spite of Pevsner's early training in Kunstgeographie , described by Engel, and the attempt in his Reith Lectures to apply it, Pevsner just does not conform, and probably would not have done even if he had continued to live in Germany.

Despite or because of their popular success, Pevsner's histories and their under-lying theory were attacked in his lifetime by lesser scholars. His strong disagreement, however, with his doctoral student Reyner Banham over the inclusion of the Futurists, Expressionists and others insufficiently aligned to the Zeitgeist in Banham's revisionist thesis, published in 1960 as Theory and Design in the First Machine Age , had all the venom of an oedipal quarrel; this is poignantly described by Nigel Whitely in the final essay. Although the two men were eventually reconciled, the conflict exposed Pevsner's inability to entertain any modification to his view of the ethically "correct" path of 20th-century architecture or to accommodate the New Brutalism that Banham championed and what he saw as the florescence of irrationality and individualism that appeared in much of the architecture of the 1960s. He could never accept Banham's distinction between the two "Machine Ages", in the first of which individuals were seen as producers and in the second as consumers; but this was never likely from the man who disapproved of cinemas all his life.

It is an unfortunate irony that the eye-watering price of a book about a historian correctly praised on its jacket for having had a "seminal role in making architectural history available to so many people" is likely to limit its readership to those with access to academic libraries and to exclude the public whom Pevsner so wished to address.

Christopher Woodward was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, University College London.

Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner

Editor - Peter Draper
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 246
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 7546 3582 1

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