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The real Nikolaus Pevsner

Susie Harries’ biography of the art historian overturns his image as a hapless, workaholic professor and finds a man desperate to belong, writes Steve Parnell

At the age of 16, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his Heftchen, the diary started at 14 and kept throughout his life, ‘This is what I love in people - everything I am not.’ So begins Susie Harries’ biography of arguably England’s greatest art historian.

Earlier the same year he confided in his Heftchen, ‘Art history? I don’t think I have many of the qualities I would need.’ Such self-doubt, even self-hatred, recurred throughout Pevsner’s life. He countered it with a robust work ethic and determination to succeed. ‘I must just carry on working, with no pleasures,’ he wrote. ‘My whole vision of the future depends on my success in my work.’

Even his suicidal thoughts were methodical: he started a savings campaign to buy a revolver for when he decided he was unfit to live.

Yet Pevsner’s nature was well suited to being a historian, despite his misgivings. He documented his own life in detail and usually referred to himself in the third person or as ‘P’ , in the Heftchen. This lifelong running commentary made him both biographer’s dream and nightmare.

Pevsner was born in Leipzig in 1902 to Russian Jewish parents and received his doctorate in Art History under Wilhelm Pinder at the university there in 1924. The previous year, he had married his childhood sweetheart, Lola, after getting her pregnant. There are moments of genuine affection revealed in the relationship, but Pevsner still confessed to his Heftchen in 1959, ‘Married life still not happy.’

There is no doubt that his self-absorption had something to do with this situation. He was married primarily to his work, which itself made Lola jealous, but that wasn’t his only selfish trait: randy Nik was continually becoming infatuated with other women. More callous than this, is the fact that he worked through his escapades in letters to Lola. The infatuations remained unrequited however, and the marriage endured 40 years, leaving him desolate when his lifelong companion died in 1963.

Pevsner came to England in 1933, having been forced to resign from his academic position in Leipzig due to Nazi policy on the state employment of Jewish people, just as his career was taking off. Yet myopic concentration on his work and his political naivety led him to believe he could still achieve his academic ambitions in Germany.

He longed to belong. To this end, he initially wrote an ingratiating apologia of Nazi ‘culture-politics’. His complete obliviousness to the Realpolitik was a weakness that led to him sending his three children back to Germany for a holiday in, amazingly, August 1939. Two managed to return via Scandinavia, but his eldest had to spend the war in hiding, only returning to England once the war was over.

In England, Pevsner spent years failing to find suitable work, even becoming a rubble-shoveller during the war. However, his persistence paid off and his talent for writing and educating, even in his third language, was starting to be recognised. He became understudy to Jim Richards at the Architectural Review during the war and it was Richards who introduced him to Allen Lane, owner of Penguin, who published his hugely successful Outline of European Architecture.

His most audacious achievement started on 20 June 1946 when Lane commissioned him to write a county-by-county tour of the country’s architecture, which became his Buildings of England. Pevsner had clearly picked up his business nous from whomever he got his grasp of politics, because for the entire series he received only £900 a year, out of which he had to pay for his own secretary and expenses.

Though Pevsner destroyed the 40 years of Heftchen on his married life, access to his personal papers and letters sets this biography apart and brings Pevsner to life. We all expected the tale of an assiduous workaholic with a confused identity, a man who knew he had precisely 17½ minutes on the Tube home in which he could write. Perhaps we also expected the hapless professor who failed his driving test so many times that the driving school offered him a discount.

What is unexpected is the humour, whose warmth and personality complements the depth of research. Despite Pevsner being hopeless at telling funny stories, having to note down jokes, Harries takes every opportunity to inject smiles into the pages. Some anecdotes, like the time he sneaked out of the family home to call the latest object of his infatuation, only to ring his own number, would not be out of place in a Peter Sellers film. There are many similar instances and I would not be at all surprised if Hollywood calls. At 800 pages and more than 20 years in the making, it is a work of which the great historian himself would surely approve.

Steve Parnell is completing a PhD in architectural historiography at the University of Sheffield

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life by Susie Harries, Chatto & Windus, August 2011, £30

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