Pevsner in the pub

Pevsner at the party for the presentation of his Festschrift

 When Pevsner was touring the factories of Birmingham in the 1930s, pursuing his researches into industrial design, he was entertained lavishly by one managing director who may have believed him to be a man of influence. The director  addressed his guest bonhomously, as “my lad” and fed him chicken and and  Riesling – ‘1929 Wurzgarten – they think every German is knowledgeable about wine,’ commented Pevsner.

He was not in fact a great drinker. In 1947 he accompanied Allen Lane to America to help promote Penguin sales. They travelled on the Queen Elizabeth, pride of the Cunard Line, and although Pevsner was on B deck while Lane went first class, they dined and drank together. .  ‘Forced my pace at midday,’ Pevsner wrote to his wife, ‘and joined in with Allen  – wine and entrecote and brandy. I did not like it, but I could do it …. I don’t want to admit I’m not up to the bibbers, and so keep in a worse state than I might be.’ Some thirty years later, when the Buildings of England series was complete, Penguin’s leaving presents to Pevsner included 85 bottles of wine, as well as a trip to St Petersburg, where he had never been.

Travelling for the Buildings of England, in the days when ordering wine in a pub was highly unusual, he might settle for a half-pint of Bass. In one modest establishment in Retford,  he shared a drink with a friendly chamber maid while she stitched up his raincoat, torn as he wrestled with the starting handle of his recalcitrant Wolsey Hornet. ‘Hotel friendly, humble, smells of cat.’

It was less the beer, more the English pub itself that he really enjoyed. He first put his feelings into words when he took part in the radio programme ‘The Critics’ on the BBC’s Home Service in November 1947. Pevsner had been invited to comment as an architectural historian on Basil Oliver’s book The Renaissance of the English Public House.  Oliver, architect to Bury St. Edmund’s town council, had produced a manifesto for the modern pub. As an advocate of architecture in keeping with the spirit of the age, Pevsner might have been expected to approve. Instead, rather to his surprise, he found himself out of sympathy.

Hampshire Rose, Portsmouth. Photo: Black Telephone

He berated ‘the many new inns of the motor roadside or the new housing estate, decent, clean places, looking for all the world like post-offices … all fit to hold Sunday School in …. Well, maybe these new pubs are – and here I’m quoting the Royal Commission on Licensing – “discouraging to insobriety”. But is that quite what you want a pub to be like? – I ask you ! I shouldn’t like to have to admit that a Pub must be old-fashioned to come off. But I don’t know any, really none at all, in this country which are in our new idiom and yet would convince me. Bars, yes; restaurants, yes – but no pubs .…The Pub is a beery place, and in our climate, it must be sheltered, low, cosy – for people to stand close together .… The function of the pub is company, human nearness, full relaxation – snugness, not smugness.’

Plan of the Bride of Denmark

What Pevsner liked were the ‘overwhelmingly English’ qualities of the Victorian pub – ‘its rich Cuban mahogany, its bevelled and diamond-cut glass, its grotesque and florid lettering, its robust posters, and its wonderfully absurd old framed prints’. At the time of the ‘Critics’ broadcast, he was an habitue of one pub in particular, and he may well have had it in mind. In 1946 the proprietor of the Architectural Review, H. de Cronin Hastings, had given the magazine’s staff their own pub in the basement of their premises in Queen Anne’s Gate. Called The Bride of Denmark,  it embodied the Review‘s championing of of Victorian pub values. Inside it was all warmth and intimacy,  a series of bars, glass panels, engraved mirrors, baroque mahogany counters and screens, a ceiling cunningly faked to simulate the effects of centuries of smoking, brewers’ advertisements and wooden benches salvaged from bombed buildings.  But the Review was also at this point promoting the philosophy of the Picturesque, with its love of irregularity and surprise, and the Bride of Denmark featured a large turtle shell, a mirror signed with the names of honoured guests  – Bernard Miles, Denis Compton, Frank Lloyd Wright – and a stuffed lion said to have been rescued  from a leaking stable on Lord Moyne’s estate by Pevsner himself.

Ringwood Brewery beer mat. Photo: jj_mac

The lion was not his only contribution to pub history. In his last years as the President and G.O.M. of the Victorian Society, he surprised younger colleagues such as Julian Orbach and Peter Howells with a collection of beer mats  too large to fit in a single desk drawer – one of the more unexpected by-products of his diligent years on the road for the Buildings of England


  1. I don’t know anything about Constance Braithwaite but would like to. Are Pevsner’s letters published? I am very intrigued to read what he had to say about Bachtin. If there’s one Birmingham figure I would like to know more about, it’s Nicholas Bachtin.

    I see your book is already on Amazon, how exciting for you! Good luck with it.

  2. Thanks, Mike – I’ll chase up the book. It was good to be able to put a face to the name of someone who was so important in Pevsner’s life. I had a quick look at Sian Roberts’s thesis, which looks fascinating. I really enjoy your Birmingham blog – it keeps turning up unexpected cross-references. There is a lot of interesting stuff in Pevsner’s letters about his stay with Miss Wilson in Duchess Road, and his acquaintance with Bachtin – they made an odd couple. And of course Philip Sargant Florence gave Pevsner his first job in England, so your post on Highfield was great for me. Do you know anything about Constance Braithwaite? – another Wilson lodger in Duchess Road, a lecturer in socal economics in Florence’s Department of Commerce, who seems to have introduced Pevsner to Florence.She was also, a Quaker, and an expert on the social issues surrounding conscientious objection and author of The Voluntary Citizen: An Enquiry into the Place of Philanthropy in the Community (London, 1938).
    PS My mum was at Oxford with K. Tynan. She told me that the one thing she remembered about him was a production of Hamlet that he staged entirely on the top of stepladders. She then fell about laughing, so it can’t have produced quite the effect he was striving for….

  3. Hi There

    The photograph of Francesca Wilson you were asking about can be found on the back of her Penguin book, Aftermath. I strongly recommend reading Sian Roberts’s thesis at There are some great photos of Francesca included.

    Mike Johnston

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