Pevsner: The early life, Germany and Art

The first volume of a biography of the doyen of modern architectural commentary reveals an unlikely artistic stance

By Oliver Kamm, May 27, 2010
Nikolaus Pevsner in 1954: he imbibed English culture but appeared unwilling to reject Nazi artistic notions

Nikolaus Pevsner in 1954: he imbibed English culture but appeared unwilling to reject Nazi artistic notions

By Stephen Games
Continuum, £20

Nikolaus Pevsner was the most celebrated architectural historian of his generation. Born in Leipzig in 1902, he settled in Britain at the age of 31. He became the pre-eminent cataloguer and critic of England's architectural heritage. As Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge from 1949 to 1955, and in his teaching at Birkbeck College, he embodied a concern for Englishness.

Pevsner's 46-volume work, The Buildings of England, has been much revised but never surpassed. No mere chronicler of the past, Pevsner was a theorist for the times. He looked forward to the possibilities of post-war reconstruction drawing on the English tradition of the picturesque.

An advocate of what came to be called Modernism, he perceived its roots (not altogether convincingly, but far from destructively) in William Morris. Modern architecture has notoriously become associated in the public mind with ugly concrete bunkers. Pevsner stressed instead that urban planning needed to be sensitive to its purpose.

Stephen Games's biography places Pevsner in a tradition of notable Germans, such as Holbein and Handel, who made England their home and shaped the nation's cultural life. Games was contracted to write a biography when Pevsner, diminished by Alzheimer's, was incapable of being interviewed (he died in 1983). It has been an exhaustive task. This volume deals only with Pevsner's early life, in Germany.

Games handles his subject with skill and a deep knowledge of architectural thinking. He writes illuminatingly of, among much else, Pevsner's elucidation of the artistic importance of Leipzig's Baroque buildings.

But the most potent issue of the book is a darker facet of Pevsner's life. In the last months before his long exile, Pevsner wrote respectfully and even sympathetically of the artistic notions of Goebbels. Games writes that Pevsner "gave no sign of wanting to reject anything about the new politics, only of wanting to remove the obstacles to his becoming more involved with it".

Pevsner, having Jewish parents, was unable to continue his vocation in Germany. His dismissal and move to what appeared to be the "academic wasteland" of England conclude this part of the story. But in an appendix Games recounts a media furore of a few years ago when the Evening Standard - running an extract from a volume of Pevsner's radio talks that Games had edited - provided the headline: A Nazi in England. It was an unsubtle interpretation, which provoked numerous commentators to defend Pevsner and accuse Games of making scurrilous claims.

Games feels aggrieved by his treatment, and here defends himself capably. It is not Games's claim that Pevsner was a Nazi; but the notion that Pevsner was merely naïve will not do either.

Pevsner was a great figure of English culture, but it was a tradition that he imbibed as well as interpreted. The German nationalist and authoritarian presuppositions that Nazism fed on and appropriated were widespread. They were decisively banished from German public life with the post-war founding of a great democracy on the ruins of barbarism. Until then, they formed a historical undercurrent that even victims of it such as Pevsner did not fully escape.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011