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An Appetite for Looking

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‘Is Pevsner in the back?’ A familiar question from the driver when setting off for almost any destination in England – familiar not from my childhood (I don’t think there were Pevsners at home) but from years of adult friendship with people interested in buildings and places. Yes, here is Leicestershire in the footwell, and the seat pocket yields Nottinghamshire, which may mean that instead of driving straight past Hickling (say) we’ll take time to look at the ‘unusually rewarding number of engraved C18 and early C19 slate headstones in the churchyard’. If the church door is open we’ll find art of every century inside, from the ‘wild interlacing’ of a carved Saxon coffin to the ‘poor box, small, 1685, but still not at all classical’. We’ll even notice the door hinges on the way out, enjoying the extravagance of the medieval ironwork. Pevsner calls them ‘accomplished’.

Who was this man who had such a passion for detail that he paid attention to door hinges, yet who thought and worked on such a colossal scale that he wrote thirty-two volumes in The Buildings of England series single-handedly? I first read Susie Harries’s mighty Nikolaus Pevsner when it came out in 2011 and remember the fascination of starting to understand Pevsner’s early life in Germany, the influences on his approach to art, and the extraordinary motivation that kept him writing, lecturing, campaigning and sitting on myriad committees in the intervals between visiting buildings in whichever county he was currently researching. Sometimes an individual life story seems to tell, with particular clarity, the refracted history of a century. To an extent I hadn’t expected (having associated him mainly with rood screens and accomplished ironwork) Pevsner’s life – as told by Harries – was one of those.

Harries’s book won the Wolfson History Prize (sharing the honour with another exceptional work long in the making,

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‘Is Pevsner in the back?’ A familiar question from the driver when setting off for almost any destination in England – familiar not from my childhood (I don’t think there were Pevsners at home) but from years of adult friendship with people interested in buildings and places. Yes, here is Leicestershire in the footwell, and the seat pocket yields Nottinghamshire, which may mean that instead of driving straight past Hickling (say) we’ll take time to look at the ‘unusually rewarding number of engraved C18 and early C19 slate headstones in the churchyard’. If the church door is open we’ll find art of every century inside, from the ‘wild interlacing’ of a carved Saxon coffin to the ‘poor box, small, 1685, but still not at all classical’. We’ll even notice the door hinges on the way out, enjoying the extravagance of the medieval ironwork. Pevsner calls them ‘accomplished’.

Who was this man who had such a passion for detail that he paid attention to door hinges, yet who thought and worked on such a colossal scale that he wrote thirty-two volumes in The Buildings of England series single-handedly? I first read Susie Harries’s mighty Nikolaus Pevsner when it came out in 2011 and remember the fascination of starting to understand Pevsner’s early life in Germany, the influences on his approach to art, and the extraordinary motivation that kept him writing, lecturing, campaigning and sitting on myriad committees in the intervals between visiting buildings in whichever county he was currently researching. Sometimes an individual life story seems to tell, with particular clarity, the refracted history of a century. To an extent I hadn’t expected (having associated him mainly with rood screens and accomplished ironwork) Pevsner’s life – as told by Harries – was one of those. Harries’s book won the Wolfson History Prize (sharing the honour with another exceptional work long in the making, The Reformation of the Landscape by Alexandra Walsham). Then, as always, new titles came to take its place on the front tables and off it went to await the specialists who would seek it out. But this biography took twenty years to complete and was made to last. Like Pevsner’s own books it struck me as enormously informative, eccentric, practical and straight-talking all at once, concerned with the big questions lurking under the detail, and with equipping readers to make up their own minds. I might never read all 800 pages again but I knew I’d be back. And here I am, prompted partly by the succession of revised Buildings of England volumes appearing with impressive regularity from Yale University Press. The project to update the whole series is now reaching its culmination, so that recent months have brought Durham, Hampshire, Wiltshire and others – each much enlarged from the first editions of Pevsner’s time, shiny black spines binding together judicious summings-up of great cathedrals, Victorian suburbs, market squares. Each book is a vote of faith in Pevsner’s legacy, re-equipping his work for the present. I scan the new entries, looking for what’s changed, feeling the vitality of this national institution that gathers obscure and famed places into alphabetical order and puts knowledge of their buildings in our hands. It’s only vital, however, if it matters to the next generations too. Does it? Will it? Enquiries among students in their twenties yield blank faces: ‘Pevsner’ means neither a man nor a guidebook. As I start to explain, I worry that I’m describing a pleasantly irrelevant line in pew-related pedantry, the sort of thing loved by people of a certain milieu in the 1970s. I go home, read Susie Harries and start the conversation again with conviction. Nikolaus Pevsner reveals, I think, an extraordinarily strenuous and open-minded thinker. He was an internationalist who cared about national cultures, an antiquarian who was also an acute and commit­ted advocate of contemporary design. Never entirely at home in England, he wrote without any hint of complacency or shared assumptions; he was concentrating and on his mettle. Old and new, rural and urban, domestic and commercial: all these drew his serious consideration. A shopfront in Coventry could interest him as much as a carved font in a Cornish hamlet: either might provoke excite­ment or dismay. Nor did he skimp on attention to the kinds of town so often overlooked by those preferring the countryside or the city – places that are now being encouraged towards regeneration through the ‘Towns Fund’ (though there’s little agreement about what kind of regenerated future they should aim for). For these reasons, all of which are to do with breadth of vision converging with respect for the small-scale, local and immediate, Pevsner’s voice may prove both bracing and heartening as we try to invent our post-pandemic environment. Or we might simply be glad of a Pevsner volume in the footwell or holdall as we head off on staycations. We’re lucky to have these books, which exist only because the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 brought disaster for a young art historian lecturing at the University of Göttingen. Nikolaus Pevsner had grown up in Leipzig, in a cultured and comfortably well-off Russian-Jewish family, though he was rarely comfortable as a child himself, pouring his agonized self-scrutiny into diaries and plays. He found direction and hope when he started to learn about the history of art, and to discover modern architecture with its space and rationality – so dif­ferent from the highly furnished and emotionally fraught family apartment. All his life he would be a man of intense emotions and rationalism, constantly managing these aspects of himself and put­ting them to use. He was getting a foothold as a scholar and working all hours to support his wife Lola and three children when the implications of Nazism became clear to him. He had been slow to see it coming, and some of the tutors he continued to admire were Nazi sympathizers. He has been much criticized as a result, and Harries tackles the situ­ation head-on. ‘What exactly did Pevsner’s political views amount to in the 1930s?’, she asks, and then gives a nuanced reading of the evidence. There was no nuance at all in Nazi Germany’s treatment of Pevsner. As an ethnic Jew (he had long since converted to Protestantism, though he never practised a faith of any sort) he was banned from lecturing, and then ejected from the university altogether. His dreams of following in the great German historical tradition fell apart. He loved his country and its art, and he had no choice but to leave. He went first to Italy, hoping to find a job there. If he had, we might now possess The Buildings of Umbria rather than Lincolnshire. Instead it was in England that narrow opportunities opened. Only after two years of graft was he settled enough for Lola and the children to come, very reluctantly, and join him. Pevsner’s descendants gave Harries access to all his personal papers. One trunk was labelled in Pevsner’s hand: ‘Mr Thief. This is not locked. It contains nothing of value.’ To his biographer, of course, its contents were of inestimable worth. Even so, Harries knows that a great deal is missing. He threw away forty years’ worth of his enor­mous private diary (or hefchten), the volumes covering the whole of his marriage. Whatever intimacies and discords were written there, he had the discretion to put them beyond reach. It’s not only in the astonishing reams of candid personal writing that Harries is able to trace Pevsner’s responses to the tribulations of his own life and of European history. A subtle portrait of him emerges from her readings of his published work on art and architecture. In Pioneers of Modern Design (1936), the book that made his name, he claimed William Morris as the great originator of the modern move­ment, whose emphasis on form, craft and function laid the groundwork for the radically new architecture of Walter Gropius, one of Pevsner’s German heroes. Without being remotely autobiographical, this is a book full of personal significance. Pevsner was making sense of his new life in England, establishing the interrelatedness of European cultures, championing modern ideas that the English often regarded as alien. ‘The modern movement was some­where he felt at home,’ writes Harries. That simple insight has been on my mind for a decade. Architecture that might feel to others unhomely spoke to Pevsner of his past and of belonging. In 1946, Pevsner told Allen Lane, founder of Penguin, about Georg Dehio’s catalogue of historic German buildings, published in five vol­umes between 1905 and 1912. Shouldn’t there be an equivalent in England? he wondered aloud. With Lane’s consent the giant scheme was begun. I’m glad to understand the German roots of the project, and its ambition to make clear both the uniqueness of English build­ings and their place in the broad currents of European art. Harries’s descriptions of Pevsner’s county tours are a joy, though it might not have been such a pleasure to be on the road with him. He set a relentless pace – no long pub lunches or diversions to the sea­side. His lists of items to pack are superbly evocative of the mobile office (‘paper clips (large); pins; foolscap . . . second fountain pen’), the hours spent inspecting dark churches (‘torch; 100-watt bulb; aspirin’) and the hurried stopovers (‘drip-dry shirts . . . tin opener’). Some counties he visited alone, doing all the driving (which he hated), organizing historical notes for each building, making arrange­ments with hundreds of house-owners and key-holders, and writing up his text each evening. The process worked much better when Lola was at the wheel and could make arrangements for the following day while Pevsner was writing. Starting in Cornwall in 1948, with Lola driving an Austin Ten on loan from Penguin, and continuing until her sudden death in 1963, they worked on the recording of England. Their last county together was Yorkshire. Pevsner referred to his later work as ‘after my time’, as if, without her, he was posthumous. Through the post-war decades he held multiple university posts, lectured to packed halls and acquired legendary status as a teacher. He was loved and revered by students at Birkbeck, Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute, many of whom felt decisively shaped by his influence. He didn’t need to keep on teaching; it might have been shed to make more time for the books and influential committee work. But he believed in the power of lectures to open up new ideas for students, and in the accruing, argumentative work of a class talking together. Harries quotes some of his Courtauld exam questions: ‘Analyse the spread of “Caravaggism” outside Italy.’ ‘Which do you consider to have been the more influential artist, Manet or William Morris?’ Doubtless I’d flunk this test, but the provocative turns of phrase, the specific yet openly exploratory tasks, make me want to set a timer and begin. Think of the giant considerations lying latent in those questions: what is influence and how does it relate to value? How do ideas travel? Really, how does culture work? The Buildings of England volumes were another kind of teaching. They were always intended for the general public, and when he really wanted to do things well Pevsner preferred to think of the child who might read him rather than the professor. His aspiration was for ‘every schoolboy to have his own volume of his own county in his pocket’, so that he might start to place himself in England and in Europe, and to develop what Harries calls simply and rightly ‘an appetite for looking’. Not many of today’s schoolchildren have their own county volume, but some would derive a great deal from it if they did. One last thought lingers after rereading Harries’s portrait of this prodigiously productive man with his coherent individual vision. She shows how consistently Pevsner thought beyond individuals to wider movements, or to ‘the spirit of an age’. He thought beyond himself as well. He wanted The Buildings of England series to exist but it did not belong to him. He meant it when he spoke of the Kent volume, which he had delegated to John Newman, as the best in the series. When he advertised for additions and corrections, he welcomed them. He was a truly collaborative thinker. The expanded and rewrit­ten volumes now appearing are still ‘Pevsners’ in the sense that this is just what he had hoped for. So in 2022 Pevsner is still ‘in the back’ and also out in front, drawing our attention to what surrounds us, sharpening our appetite for looking. I’m putting Harries’s superb biography where I can easily find it again. It shows, in abundance, why he matters.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Alexandra Harris 2022


About the contributor

Alexandra Harris lives in Oxford and is writing about West Sussex, a county that Pevsner delegated to Ian Nairn. She runs the ‘Arts of Place’ network at the University of Birmingham. You can also hear her talking about winter in litera­ture on our podcast, Episode 26, ‘A Winter’s Tale’.

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