Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner: A Centenary Conference
At Birkbeck College, London, on 12-13 July The study of the history of art history is currently an engrossing subject. Its appeal beyond the limits of those professionally involved was evident at the well-attended 'Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner' conference at Birkbeck College, where Pevsner himself taught from 1942 to 1969.
Pevsner's life story, from his birth in Leipzig in 1902 to his death in London in 1983, was a connecting thread along which individual topics were strung by a variety of specialists to provide a broad coverage. Joining up the pieces had to be done by the audience in discussion and in retrospect.
Pevsner was one of many German art historians who reached England as refugees from Hitler, and his work was always characterised by his focus on formal characteristics in art or design, linked to broad concepts of spirit of the age and the geographical formation of culture. There was virtually no overt discussion of methodology in Pevsner's writing, which may have endeared him to anti-theoretical English audiences. He wrote passages of self-explanation, but seldom revised earlier texts. Even his embarrassing plea for totalitarianism in Academies of Art, written in Germany in 1933, remained in a reprint of 1973.
Adrian Forty contended that, in his Outline of European Architecture, Pevsner had stripped the subject of an earlier aura of professional mystery, and speculated on how Pevsner might have reviewed himself in a book such as his Architectural Writers of the 19th Century. As Alexandrina Buchanan suggested later, however, Pevsner's method of reading, although typically industrious, was restricted by his focus on predetermined issues, such as the search for a new style. This effectively excluded any non-conforming material that might be deemed necessary today, such as knowledge of how these writers' works were received and by whom they were read, let alone those writers with whose views he had no sympathy.
While Pevsner never seemed able to uncouple his task as a historian from his missionary role, the zealous fact-finder convinced most of his readers that he possessed objective authority whereas, as Nicola Coldstream revealed in a discussion of his writing on mediaeval architecture, his approach was strangely partial. In relation to this topic, he omitted almost all questions of authorship and patronage in order to sustain a belief in the anonymity of the work. 'His head went one way, his heart went another, ' she concluded.
The second day of the conference revolved largely around Pevsner's themes of Modernism and Englishness. He underwent a substantial change of views during the 1940s, when he learnt how to project a believable synthesis of the two themes in the form of the revival of picturesque theory.
Contributions from the floor asserted that this was less on his own initiative than on that of the dedicatee of The Englishness of English Art, who did most to broadcast the idea, noted simply as 'H de C'.
This was Hubert de Cronin Hastings, Pevsner's employer at The Architectural Review, whose influence, said Pevsner, 'went deep, just as deep as in the German years and in the efforts to analyse Mannerism and the Baroque the influence of Wilhelm Pinder had gone.' The result was important both for Pevsner and for England, notwithstanding Reyner Banham's raspberry in the form of his Pevsner festschrift article of 1968, 'The Revenge of the Picturesque', mentioned in the closing paper by Nigel Whiteley.
Lynne Walker discussed Pevsner's equally unpredictable, but popular turn, towards Victorian architecture. The proposition that its selective preservation might enliven a modern townscape originated in the painterly outlook of the AR in the war years, but Pevsner's authority, and his engagement as chairman of the Victorian Society, helped to make it happen, however inconsistent it might seem with his previous positions.
Pevsner's friend of many years, Geoffrey Grigson, felt that in this, he 'helped to betray a lyrical extension of those deeper 'modern' values we had accented in England only piecemeal'. I am guessing that for Grigson, such 'modern' values were in no sense limited to the work of the 20th century, but were transhistorical, in a way that Pevsner's depersonalised and highly structured sense of the past found difficult to appreciate.
Was Pevsner 'a theoretician who was not a deep thinker', as Coldstream suggested?
Compared to a later generation, his range of theory seems limited, but lack of depth may be a justified criticism.A clip from a 1970 TV interview confirmed his charm of manner, and accounts were given of his lively and rapid style of lecture delivery, but Pevsner's early acquisition of 'great man' status created a certain petrification.
Pevsner developed breadth in place of depth. The industry and persistence that produced the Buildings of England series has kept his memory green while shielding shortcomings in other respects.Was work a way of avoiding too much introspection? 'Immer fleissig [always busy], Herr Doktor, immer fleissig', Kenneth Clark once quipped to the figure hunched over his notebook awaiting a meeting. Pevsner told the story against himself, but two forthcoming biographies of Pevsner (by Susie Harries and Stephen Games) ought to ask what disorder (if any) lay below the obsessively orderly surface.
To criticise Pevsner still causes sharp intakes of breath, which I heard during Coldstream's lecture. Such protectiveness does him and his subject matter no favours.
Despite the excellence of the papers, including others by Stefan Muthesius, Seymour Slive, Andrew Causey, Ian Christie, Gillian Naylor and Michela Rosso, our general understanding of the context in which Pevsner worked needs further development before we can fully evaluate his significance.
Some Architectural Writers of the 20th Century may be the book required.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian