Pevsner: The Early Life

Germany's loss was England's gain, says James Stevens Curl of the start of an acclaimed career

June 3, 2010

This is the first part of a detailed study of a fascinating career, and ends at the close of 1933. Although Stephen Games contracted in 1983 to write a biography of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), the historian of art and architecture, he did not realise how vast the subject would be, so we are only now beginning to get the results of his labours after his extensive trawls through archives in the UK, Germany and elsewhere, although Games edited a 2002 volume containing Pevsner's radio talks on art and architecture, for which he also provided a biographical introduction. Pevsner's family would not agree to Games' work as "authorised" and he did not have access to diaries, although he was given numerous contacts, permitted to study some correspondence, and allowed to read a family history that Pevsner had written in 1954.

Nikolaus (formerly Nikolai) Bernhard Leon Pevsner (originally Pewsner) was born in Leipzig into a Russian-Jewish family. Educated at the Thomasschule (with which J.S. Bach once had been connected) and at the Universities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt-am-Main, he was profoundly influenced in his attitudes to art history by Wilhelm Pinder, whose Hegelian-determinist views underlined that hoary Germanic concept, the zeitgeist, and stressed the importance of "national character" in art and architecture. Pinder's over-estimation of German art ensured his position under National Socialism, and his pernicious teachings led his pupil to adopt many distorting presuppositions that marred his work.

In 1924, the year that saw the first of an astonishing number of scholarly publications that would appear over the course of his life, Pevsner became assistant keeper at the Dresden Gemaldegalerie before his 1928 appointment at Gottingen University, where he eventually lectured on English architecture.

Convinced that he was protected by his Lutheranism (he converted in 1921), his commitment to German culture, and his conviction that Hitlerism was a bulwark against chaos (by no means an eccentric view at the time, either within or outside Germany), he nevertheless lost his positions in 1933, and realised he would have to emigrate to England, a land he believed had lost the plot with regard to art and architecture. Amazingly, although he never studied English at school, he became fluent, and spoke the language, if pedantically, with only a slight Saxon accent.

He brought out many works after he settled in England, including Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936, ominously subtitled From William Morris to Walter Gropius, reissued in 1949 as Pioneers of Modern Design). In this and in other writings Pevsner made spurious claims that architects such as C.F.A. Voysey and M.H. Baillie Scott were among the "pioneers" of Modernism, despite the fact that they themselves rejected any such preposterous notions. As Modernism demanded a tabula rasa, it is more than curious that Pevsner attempted to give it respectable antecedents despite protests by some of those named as its begetters.

Making such connections was a technique Pevsner also used in his Outline of European Architecture (1942 with subsequent editions). He insisted that Walter Gropius (1883-1969 - a "great architect", according to Games) was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts Movement, yet Gropius and his disciples (Pevsner too must carry some responsibility) were destroyers of traditional craft-based architecture, the results of which are all around us.

In his Outline, Pevsner gave us an entertaining account of European architecture, but he went awry towards the end, for he omitted everything that did not conform to his construct of a supposed "progression", a trait also employed by his colleague at the Architectural Review, Philip Morton Shand. It is arguable, though, that Pevsner's greatest achievement, inspired by the standard work on German architecture, Handbuch der deutschen Kunstdenkmaler (1905-12) by G.G. Dehio, was the Buildings of England series (from 1951 - with later guides covering Scotland, Wales and Ireland). Although often quirky, with many faults, "Pevsners" are indispensable companions for any architecturally minded traveller in the British Isles.

Games' book is a useful precis of a career up to the time Pevsner was obliged (very reluctantly) to leave Germany: he had hoped in vain (as did his hero Gropius) to have some sort of rapprochement with the Nazi regime, and remain in his homeland.

However, Pevsner: The Early Life is spoiled by serious weaknesses: use of colloquialisms; sentences ending with adverbs or prepositions; and unpleasantly snide remarks, such as those about a distinguished academic denounced as "besuited" with "a nearly folded handkerchief" in his "breast pocket". Pevsner deserved a biographer with better manners. Games thinks that scruffiness goes with creativity and long hair: such sad delusions should have no place in accounts of a man who, despite much wrong-headedness, was a significant scholar.

Pevsner could be touchingly kind to his juniors: more than once, unprompted, he generously shared valuable research information with this reviewer, who is hugely indebted to his memory.

Pevsner - The Early Life: Germany and Art

By Stephen Games

Continuum, 256pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781441143860

Published 31 March 2010

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