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 bibliography

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.

Where’s Pevsner?

Pevsner’s architectural excursions were notorious for their length and strenuousness. As often as not they were designed to take in a cathedral or two – but where is Pevsner this time? and who is he with? Do let me know if you can place him, or identify any of the faces. Or, especially, if any of them is you.

Pevsner update

Book cover - Nikolaus Pevsner: The LIfeI’ve been submerged in proofs for weeks, but with publication of the biography now only two months away, on August 18, posts here will be more frequent.

In the meantime, I’ve posted a couple of related Pevsner pieces on the Links page of the  pevsner.info website. One is the notes for a talk I gave on ‘Pevsner and Penguin’ at the Penguin Archive Project conference last July.

The other is a piece written for the journal of ASHTAV – The Association of Small Historic Towns and Villages – on Pevsner and Townscape.

This reminds me to flag up a conference on the Architectural Review and Townscape that is coming up in July –

Townscape symposium flyerMore details at the organiser’s website – http://www.uq.edu.au/atch/townscape

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


 

Pevsner at Christmas

Christmas Eve is traditionally the focus  of a German Christmas, with the dressing of the Christmas tree, the opening of the presents and the evening feast.      

Menzel, Bescherung

Adolph von Menzel, Weinachten: Bescherung im Familienkreis

   

   

   

For Pevsner, however, Christmas Eve was rarely a high point in his youth.  His family, as non-observant Jews, did mark the festival. ‘Extremely opulent presents at Christmas and birthdays, that is how I built my library,’ he commented later. But the celebrations were rarely conventional. For years in his teens the family took their  early evening meal at the teetotal vegetarian restaurant that his mother had set up under the influence of entomologist and sexologist August Forel – 70 pfennigs a head – before going back to the house for their presents.      

 Nor was Pevsner proof against the traditional Christmas family row. Christmas Eve in 1922 was the occasion for one of his worst fights with Lola, not long after they had become formally engaged. They had been to a party and were walking home for the present-giving ceremony.  She was by nature far less inhibited than he was; her dancing had embarrassed him and he told her so. ’Quite unexpectedly she hits me… a really nasty box on the ears. I don’t know what to do; I’m defeated by this. She is immediately full of shame and regret, but what’s the use?… I have been hit in public.’     

Pevsner, Lola and Uta
Pevsner, Lola and daughter Uta in 1925
Holy Night

Carl Larsson, Julaftonen (Der Heilige Abend)/ Holy Night

  

  

  

   

   

In the 1920s, with small children, he was able to enjoy more traditional family Christmases. But in 1933, under Hitler’s  Act for the Restoration of a Professional [ie. non-Jewish] Civil Service,  he lost his teaching post in Gottingen and found himself in November in Birmingham, looking in vain for a permanent job and bitterly homesick. ‘In another month I will again be among Germans …. I am looking forward beyond all reason to seeing you, just sitting peacefully beside you, and to the children and to the Gewandhaus, and to the German-speaking and the warmth.’    

That Christmas was spent together, but it was a snatched time, and all too soon Pevsner had to go back to a climate in England which ranged from froideur to outright hostility towards Germans. It was an attitude that made him feel defensive and more German than ever, and the following Christmas he abandoned his plans to bring his sons the toy soldiers he had promised them. ‘All I’d get would be Tommies,’ he wrote furiously.     

 By Christmas 1939, Pevsner’s father had died and his mother was living in a Judenwohnung, an apartment block designated under Nazi law specifically for Jews. Shortly after Christmas 1941, she took her own life, having been informed that she was to be transported to a German concentration camp in occupied Poland. Uta Pevsner, meanwhile, was living with Lola’s sister Marianne in Germany, having been stranded there at the outbreak of war without a visa to return to England. Her position- sheltered among Marianne’s children, who had only one Jewish grandparent – became increasingly precarious. Described as their maid, she was exempted from the more gruelling forms of war work; but around December 1944, she was denounced by a neighbour, and only escaped disaster through the decision of a local official to turn a blind eye. That Christmas their tree was decorated with lametta made from strips cut from a bombed barrage balloon.      

Lyons Corner House, StrandAfter such traumas, with the family reunited after the war, Christmas became extremely important in the Pevsner household as a a way to exorcise the past and  – for Lola, who never stopped missing her native land – a means of continuing German traditions. She insisted on an unvarying sequence of events. An expedition to the National Gallery and inspection of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square was followed by the seasonal service for poor children in the church of St Martin in the Fields and, finally, supper at Lyons’ Corner House on the Strand. One room in the family home became the Christmas room, locked until the tree was decorated, and people sang carols as they entered; each person had their own pile of presents on a table or stool.   
 
Lola’s Christmas present list ran to sixty names. After her death, Pevsner did his best to keep up her routines. He kept tiny, detailed notes in the back of his diary as prompts, but would never find present giving easy. For his grandchildren he could be inspired. On his travels, he would look out for items that might suit. In New York it was trooper hats; an American friend also remembered being sent two pieces of string, carefully measured, as a guide to the purchasing of postmen’s caps. But with adults he was less sure of touch. One of his secretaries remarked, ‘For a man whom one would have thought knew about good taste ….  Once he came in and said, “Mary, I couldn’t think what to buy you, I hope you will find this useful.” It was a celery jug.’ For another, it was trays for the oven.    
 
 
 

William Morris

D.G. Rossetti, sketch of William Morris as King David, entitled 'The Seed of David'. Photo: Birmingham City Art Gallery

Flemish Angel

Flemish Angel lectern, All Saints, Landbeach. Photo: Rev. Steve Day

Christmas cards were easier. He had them specially printed and took trouble in selecting the illustrations. Once it was a sketch of his hero William Morris, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another time a gryphon by William de Morgan. In 1961 he used a photograph of Swaziland from the tour of South Africa which he and Lola had made the previous summer, followed the next year by a painting of their road in Hampstead, by Kenneth Rowntree. More often than not, however, the Christmas card was a clue to the progress of The Buildings of England – a funerary monument by Thomas Rickman from Buckden in Bedfordshire: the fan vaulting from Hartwell Church in Buckinghamshire (annotated gloomily ‘now alas collapsed’): the hogback tombstones at Brompton, North Riding of Yorkshire; the Flemish Angel which forms part of the lectern in the church of All Saints, Landbeach, Cambridgeshire. One particularly fine one included a spoof BoE entry with a line drawing of ‘The Collegiate Church of St Aldate and St Ursula, Candleford Magna’ from the Barsetshire volume, ‘(now out of print)’.  

 His Christmas card was always the first to come,’  one of his pupils remembered. ‘I think he wrote them all and posted them on December 1st – they always arrived either on the 2nd or the 3rd – always a very nice card – but just ‘Nikolaus’, not ‘to Denis’ or ‘from Nikolaus’ or ‘Cheers’ or anything. We always knew Christmas was round the corner.’