Pevsner and civic hara-kiri

‘Never, surely, in all The Buildings of England, did Pevsner express himself so angrily about the treatment of a historic town as he did in the Worcestershire volume, published in 1968.’  Pevsner was slow to wrath, if quick to scorn or irritation, but Gavin Stamp is quite right to note that the ‘development’ of Worcester incensed him.

‘C20 Worcester was a cathedral town first and foremost,’ wrote Pevsner, ‘and that makes it totally incomprehensible that the Council should have permitted the act of self-mutilation which is the driving of the busiest fast-traffic road through in a place a few yards from the cathedral.’  The road, designed to take more traffic to the Severn Bridge, took a dual carriageway within 200 feet of the cathedral walls, brought an outstandingly unattractive roundabout within yards of the west door and cut the cathedral off from the city’s High Street and what remains of its historic core. 

The old lych gate, c. 1910

Lychgate development from the cathedral tower

 As for the cathedral’s lych gate – the last surviving example in England – that was destroyed in the mid-1960s, along with the Georgian facades of the south-eastern end of the High Street and the timber-framed buildings of Lich Street, in the cause of 215,00 square feet of shopping: originally the Lychgate Centre, now euphemistically entitled Cathedral Plaza.  

Public Hall, 1966

Public Hall site, 2004

 In the Cornmarket, the Plough Inn was replaced by a Jaguar garage. The Public Hall there (originally the Corn Exchange, 1849)  played host to such people as Charles Dickens, Dvorak and Edward Elgar, before being demolished in 1966 to make way for road development and a new car  park. Further south, looming over the remains of medieval Friar Street, is what has been called ‘possibly the ugliest car park in the country’. 

 The wrecking of Worcester is the subject of the final chapter in Gavin Stamp’s riveting and deeply depressing Britain’s Lost Cities: a chronicle of architectural destruction (Aurum, 2010),  an illustrated necropolis of loved and interesting buildings.  ‘Development in this place is hara-kiri by the city, not murder by the architects,’ raged Pevsner. ‘The crime is the planners’, not the architects’, and the planners would of course have been powerless without the consent of the City Council.’
Pevsner was no foe to planning, as the recent publication of his unfinished manuscript Visual Planning and the Picturesque makes clear. But sensitivity was a critical component of the kind of planning he favoured – sensitivity to how well streets and buildings function as well as what they look like, respect for historical tradition and religious sensibilities, consideration for the people who inhabit a place as well as those who park in it.

St Peter's Church, Worcester, 1890s

St Peter's Street, Worcester, 2004


Pevsner pictures

Pevsner in the Pyrenees

I have started an archive of photographs of Pevsner on my flickr account, at

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.

Pevsner and the Picturesque

 Pevsner has been caricatured by the less perceptive of his critics as a rigid prophet of modernism, somehow indirectly responsible for every soulless estate, every multi-storey car park and every decaying tower block erected since the war. In fact, the evidence has always existed to support a more finely nuanced picture of his views on modern architecture, not least in Buildings of England entries of the 1960s that express serious reservations about high rise building: ‘Do we really want these towers of flats everywhere? Do tenants want them? Should they be accepted as living conditions by any but bachelors, spinsters, young couples without children, and old people? Will they not be the slums of fifty years hence?… It is surely not all that unlikely that in the 2060s these high blocks will be looked at with as much scandalised curiosity as we feel when looking at the low-cost housing of the 1860s.’  (South Lancashire)
When he wrote this in 1967, Pevsner had already been hinting for a decade that he could not be happy with the way in which modern architecture had developed since the 1950s. ‘What I call modern architecture is no longer modern architecture’, he had written as early as 1956 in an article entitled ‘On Finding Oneself Out of Date’.  ‘My wishes have been fulfilled to an alarming degree,’ he added eight years later,  ‘and, in many of the fulfilments, hit back at me. For most of what is going up points in a direction quite different from what I expected or pleaded for.’
He disliked many of the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s just as vehemently as his critics did. The massive roughness of Brutalism, the random fenestration and swooping parabolas of neo-Expressionism  were symptoms for him of an aggressive individualism that was the antithesis of what he felt the architect’s stance should be. 
‘I am a man of the thirties,’ Pevsner declared, ‘ I like things square.’ But even in the thirties he was not an absolutist in his views on modern architecture. In the spring of 1939 he spent considerable time preparing a proposal for a special double issue of the Architectural Review that would feature a complete survey of contemporary architectural styles in Britain from 1924 to 1939. It would not be confined to the Modern Movement – it would cover the British Imperial style which held a grisly fascination for Pevsner, as well as the successors of his Arts and Crafts pioneers.  And though it would hope to demonstrate that in the most recent Battle of the Styles, modernism had won a modest victory, this would be  a very British version of the Modern Movement: ‘practical without any modern engineering romanticism, impressive but not fussy, self-certain but not boisterous, dignified but not over-bearing – in short, British in every respect and as immediately convincing as an accumulation of the best British qualities can make them’. 
The special issue was never published: the war saw to that. But the manuscript survived – and has been edited by Alan Powers and published by the Twentieth Century Society – as proof of a more flexible and open-minded approach to modern architecture than had been suspected of Pevsner.
And now another previously unpublished Pevsner manuscript has been brought to light, this time one from the late 1940s-early 1950s that goes to the heart of his postwar thinking about contemporary architecture. Visual Planning and the Picturesque, edited by Mathew Aitchison, sets out to show that Pevsner was not merely involved in the Townscape movement spearheaded by the Architectural Review in the 1950s, but a central figure in it. The job he was given by the Review’s editor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, was to find historical precedents for Townscape in the Picturesque movement of the eighteenth century. This new publication makes it clear that Pevsner went beyond historical research to reflect on how the Picturesque tradition might be of value in shaping postwar reconstruction – a theme he would pick up again in the last of his Reith lectures in 1955.  
The landscape planners of the 18th century had delighted in variety, contrast and irregularity. Those in charge of Britain’s post-war reconstruction, Pevsner felt, should take their cue from an approach to planning that had been flexible, pragmatic, sensitive to feelings as well as intellect, and essentially democratic in its respect for all tastes. It is hardly the stance of an ideologue, and Aitchison has done Pevsner a service by publishing a document that should help to shift the stereotype.

Art Thug

Oskar Kokoschka, self-portrait 1917 © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/VBK, Wien 2008

 In later life, had Pevsner ever compiled a single contacts list it would have read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the world of art history, with supplementary entries branching beyond art, architecture and academia into politics, planning and philosophy. Many of these contacts came through his activities as a campaigner for conservation and a representative of the arts on public bodies, and his social life as a Grand Old Man of art history. Some, however, dated back to his earliest years. 


Oskar Kokoschka, for instance, he may well have met at the age of eight, at the house of  Auguste Forel in the Swiss village of Yvorne, south-west of Lake Geneva. (Hear Kokoschka talking about his life.) 

Forel, a fanatical teetotaller, socialist and authority on the behaviour of the ant, was also a sexologist and psychiatrist, whom Pevsner’s mother consulted regularly. So dependent did she become on him that she persuaded her husband to let her buy a cottage near his house, to which she took the children on holiday visits. She was there in January 1910 when Forel was visited by ‘a mad young painter’. Kokoschka had been brought to Switzerland by the architect Adolf Loos, whose plan was for him to paint portraits of titled consumptives and other wealthy individuals seeking cures in Swiss clinics. 

Auguste Forel portrait by Kokoschka, 1910. Photo Kunsthalle Mannheim.

 Whether or not this scheme worked, Kokoschka certainly painted Forel himself.  (An intriguing article by two Dublin gerontologists explores the relationship between the painter and his subject, and suggests that the portrait predicts the strokes that Forel was shortly to suffer.) 

Although Pevsner did not much enjoy the atmosphere at Yvorne, he would remember the family link with Kokoschka. Fifteen years later when he was working as an unpaid assistant at the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden and making a little money on the side as a freelance art critic for the Dresdner Anzeiger, Kokoschka was one of the artists whose work he praised most highly. What Pevsner valued in Expressionism was what he later described as ‘the direct outpouring of feelings which is often so uncomfortable to English observers of German art’. Kokoschka’s work had all the qualities to which he could most easily respond –  directness, vitality, richness of colour, joy in paint, and a warmth which atoned for the quite obvious self-regard. 

Anna Kallin Photo: Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Pevsner may have been suspicious of Kokoschka the man: Lola later maintained that he had prevented Kokoschka from painting her portrait, because he was afraid that the ‘Art Thug’ –Georg Grosz’s phrase – would seduce her. (Pevsner would have been reminded of the Thug’s track record by his long association at the BBC with producer Anna “Niouta” Kallin,  an acquaintance from his childhood in Leipzig who had been the painter’s mistress in the mid-1920s, after Alma Mahler and before Marguerite McBey.) 

But this did not stop him from collaborating with Kokoschka in the 1960s on a monograph devoted to the man who had brought them together in the first place. Adolf Loos : pioneer of modern architecture (Thames & Hudson, 1966) by German authors Ludwig Munz and Gustav Kunstler, appeared ‘with an introduction by Nikolaus Pevsner and an appreciation by Oskar Kokoschka’.  







Soft spots – 2: Monument to ‘a lady’


Effigy of a lady, St Giles, Hartington.

Bored by brasses,  Pevsner was never able to resist the appeal of  a good tomb in a church. One that intrigued him is to be found in the church of St Giles, Hartington, some ten miles south of Buxton in the Derbyshire Peak District.

‘Effigy of a lady under trefoiled arch,’ he wrote. ‘She is only visible to the height of her folded hands; the rest is hidden by the slab as if she were tucked in under a blanket. C13.’
Others – including jmc4 at flickr, who took this photograph – suggest that the anonymous lady might be Margaret Ferrers, lady of the manor, and that she is holding her heart.

A huge smiling pussycat

Tom Boase (1898-1974) Photo: Courtauld Institute

Nikolaus Pevsner might have been expected not to care for Thomas Sherrer Ross Boase, second director of the Courtauld Institute. He had regarded Boase’s predecessor W. G. Constable with some suspicion , and when appointed in 1937 Boase was not a professional art historian in any sense that Pevsner would have recognised. He was in fact a medieval historian, an expert on the Crusades, who was appointed to the Courtauld by Viscount Lee of Fareham precisely because he had few links with the inbred English art establishment of the 1930s.

 Boase was a close friend of Anthony Blunt, who succeeded him as the third director of the Courtauld when Boase moved to become President of Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a man of smooth manners, detested by Maurice Bowra on the grounds of pomposity and pretentiousness and described by him as ‘a man of large public virtues and small private parts’. (Bowra, aware that Boase hated roses, talked a rich American patron into installing a rose garden opposite Magdalen and dubbed it the ‘Boase Garden’.)  To Antonia Fraser he was ‘a huge smiling pussycat of a man but…perhaps more tiger than domestic pet’.  (He had put her down without mercy when, as a nervous sixteen-year-old, she had ventured a rash remark about Trollope over dinner at High Table.) 

 But Boase was also a champion of refugee scholars, associated with the work of the World Council of Churches in its concern for the fate of academics in Germany under Hitler, and Pevsner was one of those for whom he intervened.  ‘A young art historian of exceptional analytical power and range of learning,’ wrote Boase to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning in 1934, and twelve years later he would be one of Pevsner’s sponsors for naturalisation.

 Even though the Oxford History of English Art, edited by Boase, might have been seen as a competitor in some respects for Pevsner’s Pelican History of Art – often criticised for giving too much space to English art – the two men remained friends all their lives. Boase, as a former Vice Chancellor of Oxford, played a major role – or so Pevsner belived – in securing him the Slade Professorship in 1968.

 ‘A great scholar,’ wrote Pevsner in 1970, returning the compliment Boase had paid him some thirty-five years earlier. He was writing to the research library at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, asking for its facilities to be extended to Boase  – ‘a very charming man’.