Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life by Susie Harries

The German who taught us to look
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) is one of the great cultural heroes of the 20th century. Finding most English guide books diffuse and vague, he famously persuaded the publisher Allen Lane of the need for up-to-date county-by-county guides to the significant buildings across the whole of England, aimed at both general reader and specialist.

Work began in 1951. The first 32 volumes he wrote entirely himself. Only when he began to worry that the series might not be completed in his lifetime did he accept collaborators. By 1974, all 46 volumes of the Buildings of England had been published. This towering feat of scholarship not only enhanced public perception of England's architectural heritage but also laid down a legacy that continues to generate new and revised volumes, now renamed as The Pevsner Guides.

Pevsner's characteristics - unwavering dedication, unremitting persistence and a great love of his subject – also shine through this biography, over 20 years in the making. It is a stupendous achievement. The boy from Leipzig ("thin and long and bad at sports"), who determines to become a university lecturer and art historian, is denied a career by the Nazis, and begins again in England where for years he remains an impoverished outsider. As his life unfolds, the narrative encompasses the context in which he lived. It adds to the length of this book but is never an ounce too much.

Contained in this magnum opus is not just a uniquely productive life. but a shimmering backcloth in which are tangled the rise of Fascism, the revival of interest in national identity, post-war reconstruction, changes in taste and the cultural battles that ensue. Above all, this book hugely enhances the reader's appreciation of the built environment. Pevsner himself once remarked: "History seen around you in the streets is infinitely more eloquent than history which has to be searched out in libraries and museums." He had only to walk down a street to discern what in any period are the values and achievements of society.

Much has been written about Pevsner. Interest in the man behind the work has to some extent been met by an interim biography by Stephen Games. But Harries is the first to have had access to three trunk-loads of private papers, including dozens of small blue notebooks. In these Pevsner first began recording his teenage torments. By 16 he had filled 32 volumes and the habit continued. These notebooks provided an outlet for self-analysis and a record of his long and only intermittently happy marriage to Lola Kurlbaum.

Harries's method is a combination of intelligent sensitivity and unfailing rigour. Nowhere is this more evident than in her discussion of the marriage, troubled by Pevsner's recurrent schwärmerei for young women, the priority he gave to his work and the problems both experienced in England with assimilation. Lola's sudden death, at the age of 61, is made additionally poignant by Pevsner's desolation.

Harries never shirks difficulties. Warts (or rather boils, in Pevsner's case) and all are all here. Among his ancestors were generations of learned Russians, "probably rabbis", yet even before the Nazis came to power he wanted to leave his Jewishness behind. His conversion to Protestantism, aged 19, may have been to please Lola. Pevsner claims it was "done for me to be a normal German" and may have opened doors that might otherwise have remained closed.

Ironically, this anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler, whom he initially saw as a corrective to the decadence of the Weimar Republic, is forced to give up his lectureship at Göttingen University. He struggles to find a job in England, is joined by his wife and two sons, but his daughter remains trapped in Germany while his mother, about to be deported, takes her own life.

In London he attends lectures at which urbane gentlemen-scholars either bluff their way, Harries writes, with "a glittering but shallow field of reference", or, as in Kenneth Clark's case, make blasé jokes about Leonardo's failures. Pevsner, with his Germanic reverence for art and scholarship, hated the condescension and lack of real respect.

Obliged to teach Italian language at the Courtauld Institute, the stronghold of art-history studies, he finds himself in mid-life still on the bottom rung of the ladder. But by the late 1940s he has three books to his name, including a landmark study, Pioneers of the Modern Movement (later re-titled Pioneers of Modern Design) and his best-selling An Introduction to European Architecture. His lectures at Birkbeck, and later Cambridge, bring him further acclaim, as does his association with the Architectural Review. Yet always work remained a panacea to the conflicts within and without. "When I get into my own work, I am enveloped in stillness and fulfilment which I simply cannot find anywhere else."

Frances Spalding's 'John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art' is published by Oxford