Posts Tagged ‘historic building’

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, architecture, historian

Nikolaus Pevsner
1902-1983
‘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 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.

nikolaus pevsner, european architecture

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, field trip, cathedrals

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.

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England and the Octopus, Clough Williams-Ellis, countryside faced sprawl and disfigurement

In England and the Octopus, Clough Williams-Ellis warned that the countryside faced sprawl from city suburbs and disfigurement by ‘mean and perky little houses’. Williams-Ellis however held rather dim views about the masses and their aspiration to escape from the slums. He was a Fellow of the British Eugenics Society, and believed that the ‘lower class undesirables’ should be prevented from breeding’. Williams-Ellis designed and built Portmeiron, the Italian style village in North Wales, between 1925 and 1975.

The National Trust cares for more than 300 historic houses and gardens, more than 600,000 acres of countryside and 700 miles of coastline, and has more than four million members. But who would guess that the Trust was the beneficiary of a secretive and notorious gang that operated between 1930 and 1940. The gang, however, were neither criminals or revolutionaries, but a group of young, wealthy women with an eccentric sense of humour and a single shared passion. Having read Clough William-Ellis’s book England and the Octopus, published in 1928, which denounced the insensitive building and ugly development that was ruining the country, they determined to do something about it. So the gang was born.

The gang operated under pseudonyms, which included Red Biddy, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Erb the Smasher, Kate O’Brien, Silent O’ Moyle, See Me Run, Gerry Boham, Black Maria and The Right Bludy Lord Beershop of the Gladstone Islands and Mercator’s Projection. They invariably wore masks and communicated in mock cockney. Every ‘adventure’ was written up in their own minute book, known as ‘the Boo’.

Their first target was Shalford Mill, an 18th century watermill in Surrey that had fallen into disrepair after the First World War. At the time the potential loss of such buildings, which today would be considered national treasures, was considered very much the business of the landowner, and old buildings that were no longer useful were fair game for demolition. In 1932, the gang heard that the mill was facing demolition. They promptly bought the mill and restored it before handing it over anonymously to the National Trust for safe keeping. This was followed by the purchase of  Newtown Old Town Hall on the Isle of Wight, stretches of the coastline of Cornwall, Priory Cottages at Steventon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and they supported appeals for money to purchase land in Derbyshire, the Lake District, Devon and Wiltshire, all of which was later donated to the Trust.

Members of the Ferguson Gang at Shalford Mill, Surrey

Archive photograph of members of the Ferguson Gang at Shalford Mill, Surrey, with Red Biddy (left), Sister Agatha, the gang’s organiser (middle), and Bill Stickers (right).

The Trust subsequently allowed the gang access to parts of Shalford Mill building to hold their clandestine meetings. An ally was The Artichoke, aka John Macgregor, a well-known conservation architect, who became the tenant of the mill. Macgregor’s daughters, Joanna and Penelope, recalled ‘They would just appear, often chauffeur-driven. Our parents would tell us not to stare and to be on our on best behaviour. They were a little in awe of the gang. They were such intelligent women; all tweeds and Lyle stockings. A Fortnum & Mason van would arrive, and cooking smells would permeate our side of the mill’.

Money was also delivered to the Trust’s secretary at its headquarters in Queen Anne’s Gate in London in a variety of forms under a multiplicity of disguises. On one occasion a cash donation was delivered sewn into the carcass of a goose; on another banknotes were wrapped around miniature liqueurs. During a 1933 ‘raid’ by Red Biddy, a sackful of Victorian coins worth £100 was dumped on the secretary’s desk, with specific instructions for how it should be used. Red Biddy then ‘escaped’ in a taxi that ‘The Nark’ had positioned outside the building ready for the getaway.

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