Archive for the ‘ Biography ’ Category

Mr Troup Horne presents his compliments

G. F. Troup Horne

G. F. Troup Horne

One of the gifts of google to the biographer is the ability suddenly to put a face to someone who has just been a name.  Birkbeck College has put online a collection of its historical photographs, and amongst them is an image of George Francis Troup Horne, who was Secretary to the college and Clerk to its Governors from 1919 to 1952.

He was also one of the most significant contacts of Pevsner’s life, in that it was Troup Horne,  a neighbour in Hampstead, who seems to have suggested to Birkbeck that they might use Pevsner as a lecturer during the war, when many of the college’s regular staff had been called up. Pevsner’s first lecture at Birkbeck, early in 1940, was entitled ‘Enjoyment of Architecture’. By the time he gave his second, he had been briefly interned as an enemy alien and spent an equal number of months clearing the remains of bombed buildings from the streets of North London.

Photo: Herbert Mason

The first talk was not followed by any offer of regular employment, and Pevsner’s second appearance was not in Birkbeck’s lecture hall but on its roof – again, probably thanks to Troup Horne. After the devastating fire bombing of the City on December 29, 1940 – the ‘second Fire of London’ – compulsory firewatching was introduced. Standing between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane, Birkbeck  – then in Bream’s Buildings –  had been lucky to escape the worst of the damage in the City and it was now anxious to comply with the regulations. Pevsner was signed up, and saw it as a welcome release from rubble-shovelling: ‘It is by no means the kind of return to academic surroundings that one would fancy,’ he wrote, ‘but it is a decided improvement’.

Bream's Buildings

Troup Horne also took his turn on the roof, and seems to have put the time to good use. A portly man, he was an excellent cook and selected members of the college would sometimes receive a welcome invitation: ‘Mr Troup Horne presents his compliments and has prepared a pigeon pie’.

Troup Horne would feature again as a mentor after the war, this time as one of the four sponsors of Pevsner’s naturalisation as a British citizen. He is commemorated in London I: the Cities of London and Westminster, published in 1957, four years after his death: ‘To the memory of G. F. Troup Horne and the nights of 1941-1944 at the old Birkbeck College in Bream’s Buildings’.


Buildings of England encapsulated

Illustration by Gerald Nason

'With Pevsner in England' - drawing by Gerald Nason, 1984

On the Bibliography page of my website I have used – with the kind permission of the artist, Gerald Nason – a marvellous drawing of Pevsner, composer of The Buildings of England, which is itself composed of a multitude of the buildings. (Click on the image to see it reproduced at a size where you can appreciate the detail.) The drawing originally appeared in the Architectural Review in October 1984 accompanying an article by Professor Robert Harbison entitled ‘With Pevsner in England’.

The Buildings of England - a CelebrationYou will also find the drawing reproduced in Bridget Cherry and Simon Bradley’s ‘The Buildings of England: a Celebration’. That volume was compiled to mark fifty years of the BoE series – now coming up to its 60th anniversary.

Pevsner and the spirit of the ant

Crematogaster distans r. pevsnerae

Pevsner did not greatly care for the methods of Auguste Forel, the Swiss psychiatrist to whom his mother regularly turned when depression overcame her. ‘The whole cure was wrapped in secrecy… The room, the techniques of suggestion and hypnosis – we had no way of knowing about them,’ he wrote later.

Nika c. 1912

Forel – Nobel laureate, socialist, teetotaller, and an expert on sexual problems – was also a leading authority on the behaviour of the ant. He was impressed by the grim resolution of the younger Pevsner and in 1912 paid him (or his mother) the compliment of his own sub-species: Cremastogaster [sic] distans r. pevsnerae, a Venezuelan version of a type of ant found from Texas to Argentina. ‘Plus petite que l’espèce typique,’ according to Forel, at 2.8 – 3.2 millimetres long.

Pevsner’s diaries – a question of evidence

In her review of Pevsner – the Early Life: Germany and Art (Stephen Games, Continuum, 2010), Rosemary Hill makes a shrewd and accurate observation. ‘It may be true, if unpalatable to some, that Pevsner had some sympathy with the political right in Germany before 1933, and little interest in himself as a Jew. But the evidence that would confirm or refute it, as well as cast light on his feelings about his family, must be in the diaries he kept at the time.’    

A page from Pevsner's teenage diaries

 I have been lucky enough to have been given exclusive access to Pevsner’s diaries, along with his personal correspondence – an extraordinary resource, as I have explained on my website, . As well as supplying the dates that establish the timing of key events and the detail of private thoughts and feelings that bring Pevsner’s portrait to life, they also provide the context which makes it easier to weigh his public pronouncements. 

Annie Pevsner

Pevsner’s  diaries reveal, for example,  that he adopted conservative political views, as a teenager, at least in part as a reaction against his mother’s strident liberalism. Throughout the First World War – the years when the young Nika was entering an uncomfortable adolescence – she proclaimed pacifist views, worked for pacifist causes, and supported his older brother in his defiantly antipatriotic sentiments. ‘We had “Tipperary” amongst the files of music,’ Pevsner remembered, and he lived in dread that she would sing it in public. She was prone to remark to the rest of the family that an English victory would be a good thing, and she would have been just as happy to see their father naturalised a Swiss citizen as a German. ‘She shows warm sympathy for communism and things like that – a bit incongruous, with her mouth full of  …. good Schnitzel.’ ‘She accuses the Kaiser of being solely responsible for the war,’ he lamented. ‘She says of the German people’s sufferings, “They deserve it, it doesn’t matter”.… She  compares the Germans to the Conquistadores …. She doesn’t believe this rubbish, of course – but it makes any dealings with her impossible. I have to get away from her, I have had it.’    

Pevsner in his teens

 As for his interest in himself as a Jew –  gangling and awkward in his teens, Pevsner was chronically aware of his appearance and his inability to fit in, and part of this was anxiety about his Jewishness. He remembered having gone once to a Tanzstunde or formal dance at the house of a friend, and then never again: ‘It was  probably anti-semitism – did I know?’  He was certainly aware that the mother of one friend was unwilling to receive another of his classmates in her house. ‘Someone got cross and said, “Judenbengel (Jewboy)”. That’s nasty .… It’s hurtful, and makes P gauche and uncertain of himself.’ ‘Why don’t I find my own acquaintances?’, he wrote miserably at eighteen. ‘Because I am solitary, I abhor people impinging too much, and I fear anti-semitism.’    

At the same time, he detected the same kind of anti-Jewish sentiments in himself, and, as part of the unflattering self-portrait he was determined to draw, he did not shrink from documenting them. ‘I can only get over this,’ he wrote at the age of eighteen, ‘by becoming a christened non-Jew, amongst other non-Jewish Jews. Once I can ignore the solidarity that is being forced on me, then perhaps this anti-semitism will become less raw and aggressive.’    

This was, in fact, precisely what happened. In later life, as a Lutheran convert of thirty years’ standing and a recently naturalised Englishman, Pevsner would remind his children, ‘The fundamental fact you must keep in mind is that you are, to put it in the Nazi way, 75% Jewish.’ He never sought to deny his Jewish descent, but he almost certainly felt that, after his conversion, he was a ‘Hitler Jew’, someone whom only Hitler made a Jew. For this reason, among others, he refused ever to seek sympathy by classing himself as a refugee from anti-Jewish persecution. ‘I am not … the refugee settled successfully,’ he wrote to Francesca Wilson in 1961. ‘My case was to a large extent one of losing a job (for whatever reasons) and deciding to go to a more promising country to start again. I went through a difficult year or two and then got my family over complete with removal vans.’   

People may not always directly tell the truth about themselves – although Pevsner was more scrupulous than many diarists – but in the words they use and the facts they choose to reveal (or conceal), they give themselves away, in the best as well as the worst sense, and an archive of  the richness of Pevsner’s personal papers is a biographer’s dream.

Bringer of Riches


Pevsner in Birmingham, 1934

Bringer of Riches is the title of my biography of Nikolaus Pevsner, recently completed and forthcoming from Chatto & Windus. Pevsner’s habit of keeping diaries and correspondence over a long and astoundingly productive life created far more material than I could possibly include in the main text, or even in the footnotes. So this blog is the place to add footnotes to the footnotes, and to share – and invite – more information about this extraordinary man. The first post will follow shortly.