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Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983)


German-born British architectural historian and critic, the founding-father of the academic discipline of the history of design in England. Nikolaus Pevsner is best known for editing the monumental 46-volume series, The Buildings of England (1951-74). His other acclaimed books include Pioneers of Modern Design (1949), An Outline of European Architecture (1943), and A History of Building Types (1976). Pevsner was a consistent advocate of the Modern style in design. One of his central thesis in The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968) was that painters and sculptors were cut off from the public already in the nineteenth century, but architects and designers have accepted social responsibilities, and fulfilled their practical purposes for the public fully and enthusiastically.

"Architecture and design for the masses must be functional, in the sense that they must be acceptable to all and that their well-functioning is the primary necessity. A chair can be uncomfortable and a work of art, but only the occasional connoisseur can be expected to prefer its aesthetic to its utilitarian qualities." (The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design by Nikolaus Pevsner, 1968)

Nikolai (later Germanified to Nikolaus) Pevsner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, into a well-to-do Jewish family. His father, Hugo, was a prosperous fur trader, who had moved to Germany from White Russia. Pevsner's childhood was dominated by his mother, Annie (née Perlmann), who had learnt to paint as a girl. "She also sang and we had plenty of music at home and a grand piano. The music went from Italian opera to negro stuff and the Cake Walk," he once recalled. Pevsner's emotionally unstable brother committed suicide at the age of seventeen. Annie made a failed attempt to kill herself soon afterwards. The psychiatrist Auguste Forel, who treated Pevsner's mother in Switzerland, named a Venezuelan ant after him: Crematogaster distans r. pevsnerae. (Pevsner - The Early Life: Germany and Art by Stephen Games, 2010, p. 28)

Pevsner decided to read history of art early at the grammar school. He attended lectures at the University of Leipzig while still in sixth form, and continued studying at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt. At the age of 19, he abandoned his Jewish roots and converted to Evangelical Lutheranism. Before receiving his Ph.D. in 1924, Pevsner married Karola ("Lola") Kurlbaum, from a Lutheran family. Pevsner himself also converted to Lutheranism and tried to keep it secret from his childred that they had Jewish ancestry. Karola was the daughter of one the respected appeal judges in Germany, Alfred Kurlbaum, whose second wife was Jewish.

Leipziger Barock, Pevsner's doctoral thesis, was published in 1925. It was followed by a study of Italian mannerist and baroque painting, Die italienische Malerei vom Ende der Renaissance bis zum ausgehenden Rokoko (1928-32).

From 1924 to 1928 Pevsner was Assistant Keeper at the Dresden Gallery. He also assisted the director of the Dresden International Art Exhibition in 1925. After being appointed lecturer at Göttingen University on the history of art and architecture, Pevsner became interested in English art, and he traveled extensively in England, but at that time he was neither an anglophile nor an internationalist. 

Politically Pevsner did not oppose the new National Socialist Germanyw, but he dismissed Hitler's Mein Kampf as crude propaganda. Pevsner doubted the liberal political and social values of the Weimar Republic and believed in the transcendent "Germanness" of German art. He couldn't bear the artist, Spartacist types, expressionists with whom his mother associated: they were "too democratic and unpatriotic." ('Some Individuals: Schoeps, Pevsner, Kantorowicz, Landmann,' in The Passion of Max von Oppenheim: Archaeology and Intrigue in the Middle East from Wilhelm II to Hitler by Lionel Gossman, 2013, p. 303)

Following the rise of Nazism, life became increasingly difficult for Pevsner, his  academic career in Göttingen ended, and in 1934 he settled in London. Reluctant to cut his ties with his home land, he did not take up British nationality until 1946. He worked as a lecturer and was a buyer for his friend Gordon Russell, a designer and champion of the Royal College of Art. In 1936 Pevsner established his name in Britain with Pioneers of the Modern Design. It hailed architecture as the most important form of all the arts: "All art, so long as it is sound and healthy, serves building." For An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England (1937) Pevsner used research done at Birmingham University in 1934 and 1935. It was later in 1954 revised by Michael Farr as Design in British Industry.

In the 1940s Pevsner edited the Architectural Review (1942-45) and King Penguin Books, which ran to seventy-six volumes before it ceased publication in 1957. The Pelican History of Art, under Pevsner's general editorship, became one of the most authoritative works on the visual arts in the English language. His survey of the buildings in Cornwall, published in 1951, gew into the unique series The Buildings of England (1951-74), which was realized in collaboration with Penguin Books.

The guidebooks to the architecture of all England were organized by county. Pevsner himself wrote most of the original 46 volumes, and he also personally visited every building he described; allegedly the amount was 30,000 buildings. When a reader complained that the series was making slow progress, Pevsner answered: "Personally I think you ought to be grateful that you get these volumes at all. I can assure you that I can only produce them by working consistently on my journeys a ninety-one hour week." (Architecture, Travellers and Writers: Constructing Histories of Perception 1640-1950 by Anne Hultzsch, 2014, p. 17) Staffordshire, the last of the first editions, came out when Pevsner was 70 years old. Paradoxally Pevsner wrote mostly about English architecture, but what he really admired was the modern German style, the functionalist Bauhaus style of the 1920s.

His first radio broadcast Pevsner made in February 1945. Over the decades he gave more talks for the British Broadcasting Company that any other art historian. Pevsner had a Saxon accent. To improve his English, he listened to Linguaphone recordings of G.B. Shaw talking about the English language.

Pevsner was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge (1949-1955)  and at Oxford (1968-69). The Slade post required only eight lectures a year. His unpretentious style of lecturing made him popular with students. Moreover, he felt being a part of the English university establishment, and the surroundings of Cambridge gave him "the wonderful chance of being able to walk through a town for a whole mile without being hurt by the sight of a single building." (Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life by Susie Harries, 2011, p. 449-450)

In 1959 Pevsner became the first Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck College, University of London, remaining there until his retirement in 1969 when he became Emeritus Professor. In 1953 Pevsner appointed CBE and in 1969 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also a Royal Gold Medalist of the R.I.B.A., and held many honorary degrees. Pevsner died on 18 August 1983.

Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design has been called "probably the single most widely read book on modern design." Most of the preparatory work for the book Pevsner did in 1930-32 in Göttingen. Originally it appeared in 1936 under the title Pioneers of Modern Movement. Pevsner traced in it the evolution of the 20th-century architecture from several sources – from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Noveau, and the Victorian engineering and architecture, to Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues who radically broke with the past. "The new style, the genuine and legitimate style of our century," stated Pevsner, "was achieved by 1914."

In An Outline of European Architecture Pevsner characterized Le Corbusier, perhaps the most influential most influential architect of the 20th Century, as "the Picasso of architecture, brilliant, of inexhaustible inventiviness, incalculable and irresponsible." (ibid., Jubile edition, 1960, p. 672) The American historian and architectural critic Lewis Mumford expressed a totally different opinion in 1957: ". . . Le Corbusier betrays human needs for the sake of a monumental aesthetic effect. The result is an egocentric extravagance, as imposing as an Egyptian pyramid to give a corpse immortality and, humanely speaking, just as bleak." (Architecture in the Twentieth Century by Peter Gössel and Gabriele Leuthäuser, 2001, p. 263) In the 1970s Pevsner still saw that the style of Walter Gropius and other pioneers of modernism is valid because society has not changed since  – "it is the creative energy of this world in which we live and work and which we want to master, a world of science and technology, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security, that is glorified in Gropius' architecture". (Pioneers of Modern Design, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1970, p. 217)

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, form an undercurrent in An Outline of European Architecture. They reflect the structure of the work, although Pevsner focuses on chronological presentation of different styles in architecture. With European culture Pevsner meant Western Europe, Russia is excluded. Like Spengler, Pevsner believed that history follows a cyclic process. Each culture has its own Leitmotiv, the leading idea, which develops, ripens, decays and dies. Mostly it is manifested in cathedrals.

Church architecture from the early Christianity to Renaissance dominate nearly two thirds of the book. As an introduction to the Gothic Pevsner presents St. Denis more thoughtfully than any other church. Pevsner dismisses the suggestion that Suger (1081-1151), Abbot of St. Denis, was the designer of St. Denis  – he was not an architect and did not have special knowledge of construction work.

This is also a commonly held view. Erwin Panofsky, on the other hand, is ready to give Suger more merit in his essay from 1946: "Devoting himself to his artistic enterprises "both with mind and body," Suger may be said to record them [plans and technical details], not so much in the capacity of one who "countenances or protects or designs to employ" as in the capacity of one who supervises or directs or conducts. To what extent he was responsible or coresponsible for the very design of his structures is for others to decide. But it would seem that very little was done without at least his active participation." After reaching the 17th-century, Pevsner loses his interest in churches and deals mainly with palaces and government buildings. When Pevsner comes to the modern times, he selects his examples from a wide variety of buildings, from sky scrapers and private houses to factories, theatres, museums, etc. From Scandinavian architects he gives more room to the Swedish Gunnar Asplund than the Finnish functionalist Alvar Aalto.

After Buildings of England series started to come to end, Pevsner focused on A History of Building Types (1976). It was partly based on the Mellon lectures which he gave in the National Gallery in Washington in 1970. The subject had fascinated him for decades. Already in Göttingen in 1930 he had lectured on it, and later held seminars at Codova in the Argentine in 1960 and at the Courtauld Institute of Art of the University of London in the 1960s. The book won the late Sir Nikolaus the Wolfson Literary Award in 1976.

"... every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it. Nineteenth-century architecture is evocative architecture. Hence for instance the preference for Gothic in churches. Buildings for education were designed to evoke the Age of Pericles or the learning of the cloister. Banks and offices liked to allude to the Renaissance palazzo - i.e. to evoke Lorenzo the Magnificent. The gaol of course had to have the motifs of the medieval castle. And so on - but also in reverse. The greatness of the Crystal Palace is that there was nothing it could evoke." (A History of Building Types by Nikolaus Pevsner, 1976)

The building types covered in the study were national monuments, government buildings (including houses of parliament, ministries and public offices, and town halls and law courts), theatres, libraries, museums, hospitals, prisons, hotels, exchanges and banks, warehouses and offices, railway stations, market halls and exhibition buildings, shops and department stores, and factories. Schools and university buildings or concert halls were not included, because they "would have swelled the book to unmanageable proportions." Pevsner arranged the types from the most monumental to the least monumental, from the most ideal to the most utilitarian. Libraries Pevsner placed between theatres and museums, but as working places they all have much differences. The treatment of buildings led to some unintentionally ironic results. Public offices are hierarchically somewhere between the Lenin Monument in Moscow and the Paris Opéra. Prisons, Sing Sing and others around the world, belong between the New York University Bellevue Medical Center and the Savoy Hotel in London.

For further reading: Celebrating Pevsner: New Research on Cornish Architecture, edited by Paul Holden (2017); Pevsner: The BBC Years: Listening to the Visual Arts by Stephen Games (2015); Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life by Susie Harries (2011); Pevsner - The Early Life: Germany and Art by Stephen Games (2010); Pevsner on Art and Architecture: The Radio Talks, edited by Stephen Games (2002); 'An Enquiry into Pevsner's Enquiry' by P. Madge, in Journal of Design History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1988) Morality and Architecture by D. Watkin (1978); 'Pevsner, Sir Nikolaus (Bernhard Leon),' in  World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Contemporary Authors 9-10 (1964); Itinerant Ivory Tower by G.E. Hutchinson (1953) 

Selected works:

  • Leipziger Barock, 1925
  • Die italienische Malerei vom Ende der Renaissance bis zum ausgehenden Rokoko, 1928-32
  • Pioneers of Modern Movement, from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1936 (rev. in 1949 as Pioneers of Modern Design)
  • An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England, 1937
  • Academies of Art, Past and Present, 1940
  • An Outline of European Architecture, 1943
  • Visual Pleasures from Everyday Things, 1946
  • C.R. Mackintosh, 1950
  • High Victorian Design, 1951
  • The Englishness of English Art, 1957
  • Sources of Modern Art, 1962
  • The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design, 1968
  • Concerning Architecture, 1968
  • Studies in Art, Architecture, and Design, 1968 (2 vols.)
  • Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, 1971
  • Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century, 1972
  • Buildings in England, 1951-74 (46 vols.)
  • A History of Building Types, 1976
  • Pevsner on Art and Architecture: The Radio Talks, 2002 (ed. and with an introduction by Stephen Games)
  • Visual Planning and the Picturesque, 2010 (edited by Mathew Aitchison)
  • Pevsner: The Complete Broadcast Talks: Architecture and Art on Radio and Television, 1945-1977, 2014 (edited by Stephen Games)
  • The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design, 2024 (second edition; foreword by Kenneth Frampton)

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