You may have heard of this person. The name sounds unusual. It doesn’t sound English. Is he something to do with music? Is he a painter? If you have anything to do with architecture or historic buildings you will know who he is, or rather was.

Nikolaus Pevsner
‘Art history in England was, at its worst, an activity a bit like stamp collecting’

Often referred to as ‘Pevsner’, Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, was a German-born British scholar of the history of art and architecture. He is best known for his extraordinary series of county-by-county architectural gazetteers, The Buildings of England, published between 1951 and 1974and for his classic An Outline of European Architecture published by Penguin in 1942 as a Pelican paperback. Outline has the notable quote:

A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.

An Outline of European Architecture went into seven editions, was translated into sixteen languages, and sold more than half a million copies.

Pevsner was born Leipzig, Saxony in 1902, the son of a Jewish fur importer. In 1933 he was forced out of his teaching post in Göttingen, where he lectured on the history of art and architecture, a result of the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state, though earlier he had been an enthusiast of Hitler’s proposals for regenerating Germany economically. He moved to England where he rebuilt his life. By the late 1950s he was a national institution.

First published in 1942, Nikolaus Pevsner’s grand tour of Romanesque basilicas, Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance villas and Baroque churches has become a seminal work which has inspired countless students of architecture.

Amongst many distinguished positions, Pevsner was the first professor of art history at Birkbeck, University of London (from where he would eventually retire in 1969); he was acting editor for the Architectural Review between 1943 to 1945, he was Slade professor at Cambridge for a record six years from 1949 to 1955, and he was a founding member in 1957 of the Victorian Society.

The unique inventory of English buildings contained in the 20,000 pages and forty-six volumes of The Buildings of England, has been universally acclaimed as a triumph of scholarship, insight and perseverance. Is it said that no student or scholar of architecture would think of touring England today without a ‘Pevsner’ in their hand (perhaps one of a handful of nouns derived from the name of a person). But how did it all start?

In England, Pevsner was surprised to find that there was no comparable guide to English architecture along the lines of the invaluable Handbook of German Monuments published by the pioneering architectural historian Georg Dehio who had cycled his way round every important building in Germany. Following an invitation from Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, to suggest ideas for future publications, he proposed a series of pocket-sized county guides to be sold at an affordable price.

Nikolaus Pevsner leads a field trip on cathedrals

Work began on the series in 1946. Two part-time assistants, both German refugee art historians, were employed by Penguin to prepare notes for Pevsner, working in libraries and amassing a huge file of notes on every place of interest. Then during the Easter and Summer breaks, the only time that Pevsner could afford to take out from his other commitments, he would take off for the next county in his list in an old Wolseley Hornet car often driven by his wife Karola (‘Lola’). They would drive from dawn until dusk visiting each and every building of historic or architectural interest, usually briefly, with Pevsner scribbling in a notebook. They stayed in hotels, inns and B&Bs, and every evening long into the night, Pevsner would write the first draft at whatever table was to hand. It was a demanding and hectic schedule, a monumental task.

This series is as essential as the Ordnance Survey map for any walker, cyclist or motorist with an eye for buildings … In it he will find a reference to everything on his journey from the stone circle near St. Buryan which is called the Nine Maidens to Messrs. Boots’ factory near Nottingham …  Professor Pevsner’s comments are always shrewd, and so thorough is he that he does not miss even ‘a merry little spire-let’ on an otherwise undistinguished Presbyterian church. With his Middlesex in one’s pocket one could visit Hampton Court or Syon House and be certain of seeing everything.
The first three volumes in the series, NottinghamshireCornwall and Middlesex, were published in 1951 priced 3s 6d each (about 17p), with print runs of 30,000.  Early on it was realised that more durable covers would be needed as the guides were in constant use so hardback editions were introduced. Although the guides were uniformly encyclopedic, and opinionated, the Spectator in its review said:

By 1954, the series was in trouble as sales were down, It was no longer economical to produce the books even with the higher prices of 5/- (25p) for the paperbacks and 8/6 (about 42p) for the hardbacks. Alternative funding was eventually found, most notably from the Leverhulme Trust, who subsidised the work on future editions. Publication resumed in 1957 with two or three titles issued annually. With the books being ever more extensive in scope,  specialist co-authors were brought in. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and ten with collaborators, with a further four of the original series written by others.

 John Betjeman, the English poet, writer and broadcaster, and like Pevsner a member of the Victorian Society edited the Shell Guides to the English counties (which were in competition with Pevsner’s) . He mocked Pevsner believing him dull,  and a scholarly collector of lifeless details. Betjeman told would-be contributors to his Shell guides that ’the eye and the heart are the surest guides’ to architectural taste, not so subtly implying, that Pevsner was deficient in both. His habit of referring to Pevsner as ‘Herr Professor Doktor’ is telling. What might have rankled is that Pevsner undertook a project, The Buildings of England, that Betjeman might have thought ought to have had his own name on it. This is Pevsner’s monument, and one that Betjeman, for all his qualities, lacked the discipline and objectivity to aspire to.

The Buildings of England series was finally completed in June 1974 with the publication of Oxfordshire and Staffordshire. Since Pevsner’s death in 1983, work has continued on the series, which has been extended to cover the rest of the United Kingdom, under the title Pevsner Architectural Guides (now published by Yale University Press).

Pevsner was awarded a CBE in 1953 and was knighted in 1969 ‘for services to art and architecture’. Lola Pevsner died in 1963. Pevsner died in 1983 in Hampstead, London, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard, in Wiltshire. Two biographies have been published. The first, one of two volumes by Stephen Games, Pevsner: The Early Life in 2010, and the second by Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, published in 2012.


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