Chatto and Windus £30

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, By Susie Harries

From the outside looking in: the man who opened a window on Englishness

To say a building is "mentioned in Pevsner" is no less a wow factor than a listing in the Domesday Book.

The Buildings of England series, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's 46 county guidebooks – of which he was the sole author of 32 – remains the definitive inventory of our architectural heritage.

It's quite a legacy, but as Susie Harries shows in a biography almost as comprehensive as the BofE itself, (she took 20 years; he wrote Cornwall in 1951 and ended with Staffordshire in 1974) Pevsner remained niggled by self-doubt throughout his life.

As a teenager, he described himself as "basically superficial and second-rate". Looking back on his work, he would wryly observe that whenever he saw his name in print, it would usually be preceded by the word "not", as in "19th century plasterwork – not, as Pevsner assumed, Elizabethan".

It would be easy to attribute this self-doubt to his perpetual outsider status. Born to Russian Jewish parents in Leipzig, he longed to be assimilated, only to experience life as an alien all over again on coming to England as a German. Harries has had access to Pevsner's Heftchen, his secret diaries written from the age of 14, which show him to have been his own harshest critic, an early sufferer of what Jeremy Paxman has called "impostor syndrome".

Pevsner made up for what he perceived to be his own lack of innate talent through hard graft. Described by one contemporary as a "tight-lipped eye-glassed professor", his diaries reveal that he was also capable of passion, as his intense love for his wife Lola reveals. He loved England and Englishness, but would apply a rigorous, Germanic approach to his appreciation of its art and architecture. Famously, this annoyed John Betjeman, and Harries dedicates a chapter to the supposed rivalry with Betjeman, which actually shows Pevsner at his most likeable. Harries shows how the feud was largely of Betjeman's creation: Pevsner was aware that he was disliked by him, but continued to praise his work.

The story of how Pevsner got the commission for BofE is typical of the haphazard English manner that his own rigorous work ethic so starkly contrasts. Strolling in the summer of 1945 with the publisher Allen Lane in the grounds of Lane's country home, Pevsner was asked what he would publish in a fantasy world. Off the top of his head he named two ludicrously ambitious projects: a survey of European art in "20 or 25 volumes", and an inventory of British buildings equivalent to what Georg Dehio had already done for Germany. Lane commissioned them both.

By the time Pevsner's contract with Penguin had been finalised, he had agreed to complete four separate series over the next decade. The money was not good, and he would spend the next 20 years criss-crossing England in a succession of unreliable old cars, writing up his notes every evening in some unglamorous cheap hotel.

The result was imperfect. Pevsner's ideal was that every schoolboy would carry a copy of his own county in his pocket. But few volumes are genuinely pocket-sized, and Pevsner's dry technical analysis rendered the books somewhat joyless. He was aware of his occasional mistakes and inconsistencies, and approvingly quoted Walt Whitman to describe himself: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." It's been worth the 20 year wait for Harries to bring them all to light.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones