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Nikolaus Pevsner - greatest architectural historian ever?

Susie Harries’ Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life is an interesting book because it focuses on my hero’s personal life rather than his lecture notes. Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) was born in Leipzig into a com­fortable and cultivated Jewish family. Father Hugo (1869-1940) was a fur merchant and mother Annie Perlman (1876-1942) was a pianist. Pevsner attended Leip­zig, Munich, Berlin and Frank­furt Universities.

It was clear in his diary that Nikolaus Pev­sner wanted to be a real German and was embarrassed by his parents’ Judaism and his father’s association with trade. In 1919 his bril­l­iant brother Heinz committed suicide, so Nikolaus aband­oned Judaism and con­verted to Lutheran­ism that same year.

Receiving his PhD in 1924, Pevsner married Karola Lola Kurlbaum, daughter of the respected appeal judges in Germany. It was a life­­­long, sometimes unstable marriage, with 3 children. Lola was al­so Jew­ish but considered herself 100% Prussian and hoped to raise her husband up to her own cultural standard.

Pevsner's doctoral thesis, Leipziger Baroque (1925) was a study of It­alian man­n­erist and baroque painting. Soon he was working as As­s­istant Keeper at Dresden Gallery (1924–8), assisted the dir­ec­t­­or of the Dresden International Art Ex­hibition in 1925 and became lecturer at Göttingen University in art and architectural history (1929–33). Loving English art, he travelled widely in England in 1930.

Back in Germany Pevsner found elements that were admirable about the Nazis, indicat­ing how much his outlook on art history matched theirs. And he really DID support Goebbels in his drive for pure, non-decadent German art. Apparently he said of the Nazis in 1933 "I want this movement to succeed. There is no alternative but chaos".

Yet to the Nazis, Jewish-born Pevsner’s 1921 conversion to Prot­est­antism was nothing; he would always would be a Jew. And his passion for med­iev­al Saxon sculp­ture, the glory of German art, didn’t prove his Germanness either. The young man was caught up in the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state and lost his job at Göttingen in May 1933.

In 1934 the family emigrated and friends found Nikolaus a research post at the University of Birmingham. In 1936 he est­ablished his name by publishing Pioneers of the Modern Design, the single most widely read book on modern design.

He had no social life and little sleep. After a day looking at buildings and taking endless notes, Pevsner worked on his notes at night and planned the route for the following day.

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life 
by Susie Harries
Random House, 2013

Isle of Wight
one of Pevsner's Architectural Guides

He wrote mostly about English architecture, yet what he really admired was the modern functionalist German style. Pevsner traced the evolution of the C20th architect­ure from sev­eral sources, from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movementArt Nouveau and Victorian architecture, to Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues who broke with the past! Be still, my beating Bauhaus heart!

During WW2, Huyton Liverpool was an internment camp for prisoners of war. “Enemy alien” Pevsner was imprisoned there in 1940 and was not released until the Director Gen­eral of the Minis­try of Information intervened. Then Pevsner settled in London and caught up with the other German speaking refugees: Walter Neurath who founded Thames & Hudson art pub­lishing, and art historian Ernst Gombrich.

I agree that architecture was the most important of the arts because it was the most closely connected with family life. Sad­ly Pevsner found that the study of archit­ect­ural history did not win as much academic in­terest in Britain as it did in Europe. Social changes, the power of the Church and the Nobility, the rise of the estate of burgesses and eventually the emergence of the urban pro­letariat, underpinned his Outline of European Archit­ec­ture (1943).

By war's end, Pevsner was established as an art-historian who loved “soothing, civilised” England, becoming a British citizen in 1946. But it was not until the UK was safely post-war that Pevsner told his children about their Jewish Russian-German heritage. Or that the grandparents had been killed in Leipzig in WW2.

Pevsner joined the acad­em­ic staff at the Univ­ers­ity of London and also edited Architectural Review (1942-45) which ran until 1957. The Pelican History of Art, und­er Pevsner's general editorship, became one of the most authoritative works on the visual arts in English. From 1949 to 1955 he was Slade Prof of Fine Art at Oxford (1968-69), and a Fellow of St John's College Cambridge.

[Apart from Nikolaus Pevsner, my art history students were asked to read the brilliant works of Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, EH Gombrich, Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Otto Kurz, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. Note that they were all trained at German-speaking universities!]

Pioneers of the Modern Movement
by Nikolaus Pevsner, 1936

Nikolaus Pevsner and his books, in 1980

Pevsner was, and is best known for editing the monumental series, The Buildings of England (1951-74). Intending to cover every single building of architectural interest across Britain, he wrote 32 of the books himself and 10 with collaborators, personally visit­ing every building he described. A further 4 of the original series were writ­ten by others. This series became Pevsner Architectural Guides.

In 1958, Pevsner became founding chairman of The Vict­orian Society for the study and protection of Victorian and Edward­ian art and architecture, thankfully saving houses, churches, railway stations and other Victorian monuments.

In 1959 he became the first Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck College, University of London. He focused on A History of Building Types 1976, cov­ering national monuments, government build­ings, town halls, law courts, theatres, libraries, museums, hospit­als, prisons, hotels, banks, warehouses & offices, rail­way stations, market halls, exhibition buildings, shops and fact­or­ies.

This Mittel-European Jew of Russian descent became a Protestant Englishman, knight of the realm, lecturer at the BBC, academic and publishing phenomenon, founding-father of academic architectural history in Britain. Pevsner died in London in 1983, memorialised in Church of Christ the King, Blooms­bury. He was buried in St Peter Wiltshire churchyard.


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