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.
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 1974, and 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.
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.
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.