Soft spots – 1 : E.B. Lamb

Pevsner prized his principles; he also enjoyed violating them on occasion. Some of his best descriptions are of architecture he obviously relished against his better judgement, where there is guilty pleasure in his voice whatever harsh words he may be using. This is the first in a series of ‘soft spots’, buildings Pevsner didn’t mean to like.  

St Martin, Vicars Road, St Pancras. E.B. Lamb, 1866. Photo: George P. Landow

‘ST MARTIN, Vicars Road (B), 1866 by E.B. Lamb, one of Mr Goodhart-Rendel’s ‘rogues’, and indeed the craziest of London’s Victorian churches, inconfutable proof, if proof were needed, that the Victorians were not mere imitators in their ecclesiastical architecture. For here, although individual elements can easily be traced back to period precedent, their mixture with completely original ones results in an unprecedented whole which is both striking and harrowing.   

The attitude has rightly been compared with that of the innovators of Art Nouveau about 1900. The exterior is comparatively harmless, of Kentish rag, low, but with an uncommonly tall N tower close to the W end. The tower has a yet taller stair turret (total height 130 ft). The church itself has tall Tudor windows, many gables, and a polygonal apse, narrower than the shallow also slightly polygonal S transept. (But the N transept is straight-ended).  

A sight never before seen

The inside is a mixture of the longitudinal and the central …. Hammerbeam roof running right through, with the fussiest, busiest details, and resting on shafts which do not go down to the ground, but start from Cistercian-looking brackets.    

The square piers between nave and aisles have four such bracketed shafts attached to their four sides (a sight never before seen).’


Pevsner at the pictures

Odeon cinema, Sutton Coldfield, 1935-36. Image courtesy of Richard Coltman at Ellettra Designs

Pevsner notoriously neglected cinema architecture, largely because of its leanings towards the moderne, of which he was not a fan. But before the war, and before the Buildings of England took over his leisure, actually going to the cinema was one of his chief entertainments. On his own in Birmingham, or escorting his eccentric but generous landlady, he tried a variety of films, with mixed results.

Elisabeth Bergner, 1935

Elisabeth Bergner, herself now settled in England, was a favourite, and Pevsner went eagerly to see in Birmingham a film of hers which he would have been unable to see in Germany: Bergner was Jewish, and Catherine the Great had been banned by the Nazis in 1934. He admired her performance, but balked at Douglas Fairbanks as Grand Duke Peter and was irritated by the melodrama of the film itself. 

More to his taste was Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.  ‘1750 to 1!’, shouted the trailer. ‘ Always out-numbered! Never out-fought! These are the Bengal Lancers … heroes all … guarding each other’s lives, sharing each other’s tortures, fighting each other’s battles.’ ‘Very tendentious but fabulous all the same,’ enthused Pevsner. Even if the three leading Lancers were all American, this, he felt, was a picture of British imperialism at its best. 

Understatement and reasonableness were qualities that would always appeal to him in the British character, and he responded to them even when the filmmakers were pointing a contrast with the country of his birth.  His sympathies were uncomfortably torn by what he described as  ‘a war story with spies, set in Belgium, very English but fair and good. When ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ was played, I was quite kaput – not just a few tears but like that time in Rome – oh hell. My neighbours must have wondered.’  

Fredric March, 1934

Walter Gropius

No such high emotion for David Selznick’s Anna Karenina (see trailer). Garbo as Anna left him cold – ‘Sometimes she is just beautiful and nothing else’- and Fredric March’s Vronsky he could not take seriously because March had an uncanny resemblance to Walter Gropius. ‘I have such a wild veneration for this man,’ Pevsner wrote of Gropius at this time, ‘the way he holds himself, what he has achieved, and his manner of speaking.’  This was not reverence that he could easily transfer to March, or to MGM’s take on Tolstoy. ‘Disappointing,’ he wrote home sadly to Lola about his night out.

‘O welche Lust!’

The old Leipzig Gewandhaus, 1883-4

 Leipzig, Pevsner’s birthplace, had one of the strongest musical traditions in Germany. Bach had worked at the Thomaskirche for a quarter of a century, Mendelssohn founded Germany’s first music conservatoire in the city, Robert Schumann taught there, Mahler composed his first symphony while working in Leipzig, Wagner was born in the street where Pevsner’s father had his fur business. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra had already been in existence for over a century and, as Pevsner was growing up, it was enjoying a second heyday with Artűr Nikisch as its principal conductor. 

Nikisch in 1910

With his dash and charisma, Nikisch has been presented as one of the founders of modern conducting. He was a regular visitor at the after-concert crab suppers laid on by Pevsner’s mother in the generous family apartment on Schwägerichenstrasse in the heart of Leipzig’s Musikviertel or ‘Music Quarter’, five minutes’ walk from the Gewandhaus and the Academy of Music and Theatre. The flat had a music room appointed in Louis Quinze style, not overly appreciated by the young Nika Pevsner as he wrestled with his scales. During one family holiday he had been enthralled by the hotel’s automatic piano and was inspired to take piano lessons from Lis Knauth, a young friend of the family. To his chagrin, the inspiration faded fast. ‘I used to practise on the grand piano – fervently, for two hours on end, and in a roaring fury, because I was so totally devoid of talent… No rhythm, no singing voice, no anything.’   

Interior of the old Gewandhaus

The Pevsners had a box at the Gewandhaus, looking sideways over the orchestra, and Nika was a frequent, if reluctant, visitor. ‘When P[evsner] was eleven or twelve and went to the Gewandhaus, his whole reaction was a fake,’ he wrote sternly in his diary, some five years later. ‘He had to fight back the yawns, and counted the lamps and bulbs and the organ pipes in the hall.’ But even as he made the confession, he was beginning to develop a love of music that would endure all his life. ‘When P hears a symphony he knows very well,’ he noted, ‘it gives him more intense pleasure than anything else in the world.’   

Denis Mahon

As a young academic in Göttingen, when he wished to entertain his seminar students, it was orange juice and biscuits and an evening of music on his wind-up gramophone. Again, during his lonely years in Birmingham, music was one of his greatest comforts. One occasion he reported in detail to Lola. He was giving private lessons on the Italian baroque to the young Denis Mahon, a member of the Guinness Mahon banking family then enrolled at the Courtauld Institute, and had gone after an evening tutorial to his pupil’s home, to listen to records till midnight. ‘Lola, you can’t imagine, about 1000 records, complete operas, like Chenier. We played part of that, then a lot of Forza, and then Otello. Dear God, this is where one can really envy his money. Of course he listened to everything with piano score in hand. “Any time”, he said. All the old, true memories came back.’

Beecham, c. 1910

While he was in Birmingham, Pevsner went to concerts as often as time and money allowed, and was able to report confidently of a programme conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (Rossini, Delius and Mozart) that it was ‘marvellous – perhaps the best to be heard in England. Beecham, of course, I knew from having met him at the Munros [in Oxford] – a terrific chap. True, he dances around like nobody’s business, but he has charm, rhythm, and a marvellous piano .... His Mozart is superb .… I suppose I was ripe for this kind of pleasure.’ 

Conchita Supervia

The Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia, on the other hand, was not as easily forgiven for frivolity. Some critics felt that her vitality and sense of fun compensated for a an exceedingly fast vibrato. Pevsner disagreed. ‘A scandal,’ he wrote severely. ‘Good voice, but Spanish songs in three different costumes, and flowers all over her,  fat with red hair – impossible, pure music hall.’  

Music continued to be a consolation during Pevsner’s complicated war years. Though his internment camp, a newly finished housing estate in the Liverpool suburb of Huyton, did not have the Amadeus Quartet (who were interned at Onchan on the Isle of Man), it did have a resident composer in Viennese musician Hans Gal. In Huyton Gal composed his Huyton Suite (Op.92) for flute and two violins (the only instruments that were available in the camp).  Later, while working as a rubble-shoveller and ARP warden, alongside his job as temporary assistant editor of the Architectural Review, Pevsner enjoyed  Sunday night concerts at the Orpheum, Temple Fortune, an enormous 3000-seat cinema meant to rival the Hippodrome, Golders Green. ‘We are making up for years of musical starvation,’ he told his son in February 1942. ‘It is lovely to hear real music again after all the tinned or canned music of the wireless.’   

The surest indicator of how much music meant to him as an emotional outlet was the fact that he found himself unable to go to concerts after Lola died in 1963.   ‘I don’t cry any longer,’ he wrote in January 1963, ‘though I would, if I went to concerts.’ Two years later he gave away a large part of his record collection to the BBC for distribution to ‘musical old people, and offered a fat bundle  of piano music – Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin – to the Principal of the Guildhall School. At his own memorial service in 1983, though, the organist played familiar music: Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’, the overture to Handel’s Fireworks Music, and ‘O welche Lust!’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Pevsner in Jerusalem

 File:Panorámica de Jerusalén desde el Monte de los Olivos.jpg 

  In 1970 Pevsner was invited to take part in one of the most important international exercises in post-war urban planning.  The Jerusalem Committee had been created by Mayor Teddy Kollek as his personal advisory body, to test and reflect international opinion on Israel’s plans for the redevelopment of its capital city. Kollek’s vision of Jerusalem was as a world spiritual centre, where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live in harmony, and he supported the Master Plan produced by professional planners, which proposed a staged development over forty years.  

 The Israeli government, on the other hand, was anxious to build on the hills surrounding Jerusalem as quickly as possible to establish the unity of the city under Israeli rule in the wake of the Six-Day War. Kollek called his committee together to consider the Master Plan, presumably with a view to their endorsing it and strengthening the city planners against encroachment both from commercial interests and from the central government – but he was in for a shock.  

 The Committee was a large one of some thirty people, each distinguished in his own field and none a shrinking violet. It included, besides Pevsner,  architects Max Bill, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn, landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Isamu Noguchi, historians Lewis Mumford and Bruno Zevi, and Isaiah Berlin as all-purpose wise man. 

Pevsner revelled in what was his first visit to Jerusalem. The committee members were shown all over the city, by air, by bus and on foot in groups, but he also got up early in order to explore the Old City on his own.  The business side of the trip, however, was more trying. He  liked committee meetings to move along briskly— at the Victorian Society, he was notoriously impatient with points of procedure and speeches masquerading as questions— and he was made uncomfortable by the high emotions which the Master Plan provoked in some of his colleagues. 

What was being proposed by the Israeli planners was a new, functional high-modernist Jerusalem, eight times larger, with a green belt surrounding a heavily built-up centre. The Old City would be pedestrianised; there would be a new business centre around the Damascus Gates and a hotel on the Mount of Olives.  A ceremonial expressway would run from a western suburb to the Jaffa Gate, halting in an underground car park. The members of the international committee were aghast. Diverse as they might be in their professional perspectives, the majority shared a belief in the unique status of Jerusalem as a spiritual centre, and they saw many aspects of the Master Plan as a threat.   

File:Philip Johnson.jpg

Philip Johnson. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

Philip Johnson, not a man to hold his tongue, felt the proposals were timid and pedestrian.     ‘Let’s make big plans. You have to dream big. Once when our country was young and energetic like Israel, we had crackpots who dreamed.’ There was no grand idea, no aspirations for Jerusalem as a depoliticized world capital or a centre for education, let alone a spiritual centre. The plan appeared to be dictated by roads rather than buildings, cars rather than people, and it lacked definition. ‘ Action is imperative in Jerusalem,’ steamed Johnson, ‘before American sprawl starts dribbling the city out into the hills.’

 The public was allowed into the final sessions in which the committee presented the results of their deliberations on the Master Plan, and Arthur Garmaise, a Canadian lawyer living in Jerusalem, recalled the atmosphere. ‘ “For God’s sake, don’t mess it up!”  It did not take the form of these exact words, but this would be an accurate paraphrasing of the choked utterances of Bruno Zevi crying ‘chaos’, ‘insult’, and Lawrence Halprin crying in frustration in his hotel room. It was Louis Kahn asking repeatedly for the ‘theme’ of the city to be expressed, for the ‘unmeasurable’ to be evident and Buckminster Fuller talking explicitly of humanity’s love for Jerusalem and of the ‘centrality of this place for man’.  ‘It is ironical,’ observed Garmaise, ‘that Israel, founded on a dream as powerful as any that have stirred men in the 20th century, should, at this point in time, have to be lectured by outsiders on the value and importance of dreams and visions…  The irony is underlined by the fact that this warning came mostly from Americans, whom it has been the fashion for decades to call the ultra-materialistic, super-pragmatic of the nations.’

Lawrence Halprin in 1970. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

  Fuller spoke of synergy, the mystery of mass phenomena, Kahn ‘a mystical sense of theme, a pith, a life-blood not derived from an advantageous present’ . Halprin wanted a more ecological approach, based on the harmonic principles of light, land and hills. The Israeli planners, he felt, were relying on European functionalist ideas that were now outdated rather than relying on their own indigenous models which were in fact beginning now to be emulated in other countries – ‘the Mediterranean cluster of buildings organized into intricate three-dimensional architectural villages, dense, urban, related to the landscape, inward-turning, environmentally sound’.

None of this was exactly how Pevsner would have put it; but it was with Bruno Zevi that he had the biggest problem. Although, as Zevi’s obituary (see link above) makes clear, they had several tastes in common — a resistance to classicism, for instance — temperamentally they could not have been more different. Pevsner saw Zevi as a professional provocateur, and took particular exception to his near-hysterical denunciation of the Master Plan. ‘Collective hara-kiri,’ Zevi called it, ‘an instrument against Israel ready for use by its enemies… the architecture of cowardice….an architecture of abdication’.  ‘If [Zevi] hadn’t been there, escalating himself into these inflammatory speeches, tolerance would have had a better chance,’ fumed Pevsner.   

But he too felt strongly about the need to preserve the ancient character of the city. When the Committee reconvened in 1973, he chaired some of the architecture and planning sessions in which the group called the Mayor to account on the actions that had been taken — or not taken — on the recommendations that had been made in 1970.  The Committee had been most outspoken against the impact of high-rise building on the Old City. High building, they argued, should be limited to eight storeys in the Central Business District, and mostly four storeys in residential areas, getting lower towards the ancient city walls. The walls themselves should be bordered by a park. Some attempt should be made to find a coherent architectural idiom for new housing estates; and no cars other than emergency vehicles should be allowed into the Old City. Teddy Kollek had been taken aback, and not a little angered, by the Committee’s first response. ‘The criticism presented was much more devastating than anyone expected,’ he admitted. ‘Anyone who says he likes criticism is a hypocrite,’ said Kollek, and he retaliated: ‘You would like to drive up in big cars but you want us in Jerusalem riding on donkeys.’ Nevertheless, once called ‘the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod’,  he would be heavily influenced by his Western advisers in his beautification of Jerusalem, and Pevsner would remain a friend until his death.   

The panorama of Jerusalem is taken from Wikipedia, licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Pevsner’s reading list

Pevsner kept diaries for over sixty years. For the first six of these years, between the ages of 12 and 18, before he had other and larger projects to catalogue, he not only wrote the diaries every day but kept minutely detailed indexes to what he had written, almost more revealing than the entries themselves.    

The diarist

 ‘Abhorrence of a vacuum’   is followed by ‘longing for a brown complexion’,  ‘nailbiting’  and  ‘the first drink’.  ‘Pevsner the poseur’ is counterbalanced by ‘dealings with his conscience’.  His views on  ‘the coming rise of the proletariat’  sit side by side with thoughts on the relative merits of trousers and bare legs. He both confesses his fear of having no talent as a scholar and congratulates himself on his new-found self-assurance.     This blog will aim, like the diaries, to provide insights into Pevsner’s character as well as angles on his work. But it won’t be indexed and the entries will come in no particular logical or chronological order.    

The reading list

 Some early clues to his interests. He thought it was worth the effort to make a list of what he had been reading: Thomas Mann above all, Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Strindberg, Dostoevsky — not many laughs here — but also Longfellow, Poe, Molière, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw and Shelley. In contrast with the Buildings of England years, when he complained that he never read a novel at all, the young Pevsner seems to have tried to keep up with recent fiction as well, some of it racier than one might have expected.    

Herman Bang

Peter Altenberg (right) with Adolf Loos, c. 1905

Danish novelist Herman Bang was described by Monet as ‘the first impressionist author in the world’; his novel Families Without Hope (1880), centred on a young man’s love affair with an older woman, was banned. Peter Altenberg, Austrian poet and essayist, an influential member of the ‘Young Vienna’ movement, was a professional bohemian given to aphorisms very likely to appeal to a teenage diarist: There is only one thing indecent with nakedness, and that is to find nakedness indecent, Art is life, life is life, but to lead life artistically is the art of life, and so on.     

Richard Dehmel, 1905

Frank Wedekind (Fotografie, um 1917)

Frank Wedekind, 1917

The poet Richard Dehmel (author of the poem which Schoenberg set to music as ‘Verklärte Nacht’) was another author to cause a scandal through his championing of sex as the weapon with which to break the bonds of bourgeois morality.  Arnold Zweig was an anti-war activist, Frank Wedekind a satirist and cabaret artist who had gone to prison at the turn of the century for lèse-majesté.  Arthur Schnitzler had just written a play – Professor Bernhardi (1912) – attacking anti-semitism, and was one of the first writers in German (he was Austrian) to experiment with the stream-of-consciousness narrative.   

Theodor Storm had been consumed by his love for a very young girl – an echo, perhaps, for the sixteen-year-old Pevsner of his love for the fourteen-year-old Lola. Storm believed in the therapeutic effect of reminiscences: hard to know if Pevsner found his diaries therapeutic, but they were a habit that he would find very hard to break.    









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.

Pevsner and the Beatles

As Chairman of the Victorian Society in the 1960s, Pevsner issued frequent invitations to     membership. One was to John Lennon. ‘From your book and otherwise,’ wrote Pevsner on 8 March 1965, ‘I have a strong feeling that you would make an ideal member of the Victorian Society.’  Quite why he thought the Beatle would be interested is not clear. It can’t have been the Windsor ‘granny’ glasses, because Lennon wore these for the first time in 1966, nor the song (Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’) based on a Victorian circus poster, because that only appeared on the Sergeant Pepper album in 1967. Any thoughts on the inspiration that Pevsner might have found in In His Own Write would be welcome.