Nikolaus Pevsner

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Sir Nikolaus Pevsner

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Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner

(1902-01-30)30 January 1902
Died18 August 1983(1983-08-18) (aged 81)
London, England
Resting placeChurchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard, Wiltshire, England
Education PhD (1924)
Alma materUniversities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, and Goethe University Frankfurt
Occupation Art and architectural historian
Notable work
The Buildings of England
Lola Kurlbaum(m. 1923)
ChildrenUta Pevsner, Tom Pevsner, Dieter Pevsner
Parent(s)Hugo and Anna Pevsner
Awards Albert Medal (1975)

Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner CBE FBA (30 January 1902 – 18 August 1983) was a German-British art historian and architectural historian best known for his monumental 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951–74).

Fellow of the British Academy award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences

Fellowship of the British Academy (FBA) is an award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences. There are three kinds of fellowship:

  1. Fellows, for scholars resident in the United Kingdom
  2. Corresponding Fellows, for scholars not resident in the UK
  3. Honorary Fellows, an honorary academic title
History of art history of human creation of works for aesthetic, communicative, or expressive purposes

The history of art focuses on objects made by humans in visual form for aesthetic purposes. Visual art can be classified in diverse ways, such as separating fine arts from applied arts; inclusively focusing on human creativity; or focusing on different media such as architecture, sculpture, painting, film, photography, and graphic arts. In recent years, technological advances have led to video art, computer art, Performance art, animation, television, and videogames.

History of architecture field of history focused on architecture

The history of architecture traces the changes in architecture through various traditions, regions, overarching stylistic trends, and dates. The branches of architecture are civil, sacred, naval, military, and landscape architecture.



Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, the son of Anna and her husband Hugo Pevsner, a Russian-Jewish fur merchant. He attended St. Thomas School, Leipzig, and went on to study at several universities, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt am Main, before being awarded a doctorate by Leipzig in 1924 for a thesis on the Baroque architecture of Leipzig. [1] In 1923, he married Carola ("Lola") Kurlbaum, the daughter of distinguished Leipzig lawyer, Alfred Kurlbaum. [2] He worked as an assistant keeper at the Dresden Gallery (1924–28). He converted to Lutheranism early in life.

Leipzig Place in Saxony, Germany

Leipzig is the most populous city in the federal state of Saxony, Germany. With a population of 581,980 inhabitants as of 2017, it is Germany's tenth most populous city. Leipzig is located about 160 kilometres (99 mi) southwest of Berlin at the confluence of the White Elster, Pleiße and Parthe rivers at the southern end of the North German Plain.

Kingdom of Saxony former German state

The Kingdom of Saxony, lasting between 1806 and 1918, was an independent member of a number of historical confederacies in Napoleonic through post-Napoleonic Germany. The kingdom was formed from the Electorate of Saxony. From 1871 it was part of the German Empire. It became a Free state in the era of Weimar Republic in 1918 after the end of World War I and the abdication of King Frederick Augustus III of Saxony. Its capital was the city of Dresden, and its modern successor state is the Free State of Saxony.

St. Thomas School, Leipzig is a co-educational and public boarding school in Leipzig, Saxony, Germany. It was founded by the Augustinians in 1212 and is one of the oldest schools in the world.

During this period he became interested in establishing the supremacy of German modernist architecture after becoming aware of Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition of 1925. [2]

Le Corbusier Swiss-French architect, designer, urbanist, and writer

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930. His career spanned five decades, and he designed buildings in Europe, Japan, India, and North and South America.

In 1928 he contributed the volume on Italian baroque painting to the Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft, a multi-volume series providing an overview of the history of European art. He taught at the University of Göttingen (1929–33), offering a specialist course on English art and architecture.

University of Göttingen university in the city of Göttingen, Germany

The University of Göttingen is a public research university in the city of Göttingen, Germany. Founded in 1734 by George II, King of Great Britain and Elector of Hanover, and starting classes in 1737, the Georgia Augusta was conceived to promote the ideals of the Enlightenment. It is the oldest university in the state of Lower Saxony and the largest in student enrollment, which stands at around 31,500.

Birmingham University BirminghamUniversityChancellorsCourt.jpg
Birmingham University

According to biographer Stephen Games, Pevsner welcomed many of the economic and cultural policies of the early Hitler regime. [2] [3] However, due to Nazi race laws he was forced to resign his lectureship in 1933. [4]

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service

The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, also known as Civil Service Law, Civil Service Restoration Act, and Law to Re-establish the Civil Service, was a law passed by the National Socialist regime of Germany on 7 April 1933, two months after Adolf Hitler had attained power.

Later that year Pevsner moved to England, settling in Hampstead, where poet Geoffrey Grigson was his neighbour in Wildwood Terrace. [5] [6] [7] Pevsner's first post was an 18-month research fellowship at the University of Birmingham, found for him by friends in Birmingham and partly funded by the Academic Assistance Council. [8] A study of the role of the designer in the industrial process, the research produced a generally critical account of design standards in Britain which he published as An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England (Cambridge University Press, 1937). He was subsequently employed as a buyer of modern textiles, glass and ceramics for the Gordon Russell furniture showrooms in London.

Hampstead area of north London, England

Hampstead, commonly known as Hampstead Village, is an area of London, England, 4 miles (6.4 km) northwest of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland. It has some of the most expensive housing in the London area. The village of Hampstead has more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom.

Geoffrey Edward Harvey Grigson was a British poet, writer, editor, critic, exhibition curator, anthologist and naturalist. In the 1930s he was editor of the influential magazine New Verse, and went on to produce 13 collections of his own poetry, as well as compiling numerous anthologies, among many published works on subjects including art, travel and the countryside. Grigson exhibited in the London International Surrealist Exhibition at New Burlington Galleries in 1936, and in 1946 he co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts. His autobiography The Crest on the Silver was published in 1950. At various times he was involved in teaching, journalism and broadcasting. Fiercely combative, he made many literary enemies.

University of Birmingham university in Birmingham, England, United Kingdom

The University of Birmingham is one of UK most elite public research university located in Edgbaston, Birmingham, United Kingdom. It received its royal charter in 1900 as a successor to Queen's College, Birmingham and Mason Science College, making it the first English civic or 'red brick' university to receive its own royal charter. It is a founding member of both the Russell Group of British research universities and the international network of research universities, Universitas 21.

By this time Pevsner had also completed Pioneers of the Modern Movement: from William Morris to Walter Gropius, his influential pre-history of what he saw as Walter Gropius's dominance of contemporary design. Pioneers ardently championed Gropius's first two buildings (both pre–First World War) on the grounds that they summed up all the essential goals of 20th-century architecture; in England, however, it was widely taken to be the history of England's contribution to international modernism, and a manifesto for Bauhaus (i.e. Weimar) modernism, which it was not.[ citation needed ] In spite of that, the book remains an important point of reference in the teaching of the history of modern design, and helped lay the foundation of Pevsner's career in England as an architectural historian. Since its first publication by Faber & Faber in 1936, it has gone through several editions and been translated into many languages. The English-language edition has also been renamed Pioneers of Modern Design.

Second World War

Pevsner was "more German than the Germans" to the extent that he supported "Goebbels in his drive for 'pure' non-decadent German art". [9] He was reported as saying of the Nazis (in 1933): "I want this movement to succeed. There is no alternative but chaos.... There are things worse than Hitlerism." [2] Nonetheless, he was included in the Nazi Black Book as hostile to the Hitler regime.

In 1940, Pevsner was taken to the internment camp at Huyton, Liverpool, as an enemy alien. Geoffrey Grigson later wrote in his Recollections (1984): "When at last two hard-faced Bow Street runners arrived in the early hours of the morning to take [him] ... I managed, clutching my pyjama trousers, to catch them up with the best parting present I could quickly think of, which was an elegant little edition, a new edition, of Shakespeare's Sonnets." [10] Pevsner was released after three months on the intervention of, among others, Frank Pick, then Director-General of the Ministry of Information. He spent some time in the months after the Blitz clearing bomb debris, and wrote reviews and art criticism for the Ministry of Information's Die Zeitung , an anti-Nazi publication for Germans living in England. He also completed for Penguin Books the Pelican paperback An Outline of European Architecture, which he had begun to develop while in internment. Outline would eventually go into seven editions, be translated into 16 languages, and sell more than half a million copies.

In 1942, Pevsner finally secured two regular positions. From 1936 onwards he had been a frequent contributor to the Architectural Review and from 1943 to 1945 he stood in as its acting editor while the regular editor J. M. Richards was on active service. Under the AR's influence, Pevsner's approach to modern architecture became more complex and more moderate. [11] Early signs of a lifelong interest in Victorian architecture, also influenced by the Architectural Review , appeared in a series written under the pseudonym of "Peter F. R. Donner": Pevsner's "Treasure Hunts" guided readers down selected London streets, pointing out architectural treasures of the 19th century. He was also closely involved with the Review's proprietor, H. de C. Hastings, in evolving the magazine's theories on picturesque planning. [12]

In 1942, Pevsner was also appointed a part-time lecturer at Birkbeck College, London; he would eventually retire from the college in 1969 as its first professor of art history. He lectured at Cambridge University for almost 30 years, having been Slade professor there for a record six years from 1949 to 1955, and would also become the Slade professorship at Oxford in 1968.

Framing all this was his career as a writer and editor. After moving to England, Pevsner had found that the study of architectural history had little status in academic circles, and the amount of information available, especially to travellers wanting to inform themselves about the architecture of a particular district, was limited. Invited by Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, for whom he had written his Outline and also edited the King Penguin series, [13] to suggest ideas for future publications, he proposed a series of comprehensive county guides to rectify this shortcoming.

Work on the Buildings of England series began in 1945, and the first volume was published in 1951. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and 10 with collaborators, with a further four of the original series written by others. Since his death, work has continued on the series, which has been extended to cover the rest of the United Kingdom, under the title Pevsner Architectural Guides (now published by Yale University Press). [lower-alpha 1] After updating and correcting London 1: the Cities of London and Westminster for its reissue in 1962, Pevsner delegated the revision and expansion of further volumes to others, beginning with Enid Radcliffe for Essex (1965). [14] The gazetteer descriptions of revised volumes do not routinely distinguish between Pevsner's original text and any new writing, but more recent books sometimes supply his words in quotation when the revising author's judgement differs, where a building has since been altered, or where the old text is no longer topical.

As well as The Buildings of England, Pevsner proposed the Pelican History of Art series (1953– ), a multi-volume survey on the model of the German Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft, which he would himself edit. Many individual volumes are regarded as classics.


In 1946, Pevsner made the first of several broadcasts on the BBC Third Programme, presenting nine talks in all up to 1950, examining painters and European art eras. By 1977 he had presented 78 talks for the BBC, including the Reith Lectures in 1955 – a series of six broadcasts, entitled The Englishness of English Art, [15] for which he explored the qualities of art which he regarded as particularly English, and what they said about the English national character. [3] His A. W. Mellon lectures in Fine Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., were published in 1976 as A History of Building Types. [16]

Pevsner was a founding member in 1957 of the Victorian Society, the national charity for the study and protection of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and other arts. In 1964 he was invited to become its chairman, and steered it through its formative years, fighting alongside John Betjeman, Hugh Casson and others to save houses, churches, railway stations and other monuments of the Victorian age. He served for ten years (1960–70) as a member of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (or Coldstream Committee), campaigning for art history to be a compulsory element in the curriculum of art schools. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1965 and awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1967. [17]

Having assumed British citizenship in 1946, Pevsner was appointed a CBE in 1953 and was knighted in 1969 "for services to art and architecture".

Pevsner also received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1975. [18]

Death and legacy

Pevsner died at home in Wildwood Terrace, [19] Hampstead, London, in August 1983. [20] His wife predeceased him by 20 years.

His memorial service was held at the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury, the following December, with the memorial address being given by Alec Clifton-Taylor, a friend of 50 years. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard, in Wiltshire. His elder son, Dieter, was an editor at Penguin Books and co-founder with Oliver Caldecott of the publishing company Wildwood House in the 1970s. [21] His younger son, Tom, was a film producer and director who went on to work on several James Bond films.

Although Pevsner oversaw the publication of the initial volumes of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish counterparts of The Buildings of England (and in each was credited as "Editor-in-Chief", "Founding Editor" and "Editorial Adviser" respectively) he did not write any of them. As with the revisions of his earlier works, many of these volumes were the work of several contributors. Coverage of the whole of Great Britain was completed in 2016, with the Irish series still in progress.

A fictionalised Pevsner appears in the 1998 novel The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst.

Notable ideas and theories


In 1984 the Getty Research Institute acquired the Nikolaus Pevsner Papers, [22] an archive that includes 143 boxes of typed and handwritten notes, clippings, photographs, books, lecture notes, and manuscripts.


See also


  1. For a history and bibliography of the Buildings of England series, see Cherry 1998
  1. Engel 2004.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Games 2010.
  3. 1 2 Games & Pevsner 2002.
  4. Harrison 2004.
  5. Orbach, Julian, "Nikolaus Pevsner and Clyffe Pypard", My Chippenham.
  6. Games, Stephen, "3: Geoffrey Grigson", Pevsner: The BBC Years: Listening to the Visual Arts, Routledge, 2016, p. 17.
  7. T. F. T. Baker, Diane K. Bolton and Patricia E. C. Croot, "Hampstead: North End, Littleworth, and Spaniard's End", in C. R. Elrington (ed.),A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington, ed. (London, 1989), pp. 66–71. British History Online. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
  8. "A landlady in a million? Snapshots of days gone by" (PDF). Birmingham University online newspaper (57). 2005. p. 10.
  9. "Prepare to be Outraged". The Sunday Times. 28 March 2010 via Review of Pevsner – the Early Life, by Stephen Games
  10. Grigson, Geoffrey, Recollections, Mainly of Writers and Artists (Hogarth Press, 1984) quoted in Harries 2011, p. 273.
  11. Pevsner 2010.
  12. Erten 2004.
  13. King Penguin, Books and Writers Archived 2 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Harries 2011.
  15. Pevsner, Nikolaus. "The Englishness of English Art: 1955". The Reith Lectures - BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  16. Harries 2011, p. 715.
  17. Harries 2011, pp. 672–3.
  18. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". Retrieved 7 April 2016.
  19. "Wildwood Terrace". Daily Telegraph. London. 25 January 2013.
  20. Waite, Richard (6 November 2007). "Pevsner honoured with blue plaque". Architects' Journal.
  21. "Oliver Caldecott 1925-1989", Moyra Caldecott website, 29 January 2009.
  22. "Nikolaus Pevsner Papers". Getty Research Institute.

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Further reading


Papers relating to Pevsner's departure from Germany and efforts to obtain work in England are contained within the archives of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (now the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics) in the Bodleian Library. Index to the Catalogue of the SPSL.
A substantial collection of his papers is held at the Pevsner archive in the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Nikolaus Pevsner papers, 1919–1979. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.
Documents relating to his various projects for Penguin, including the King Penguin series, the Pelican History of Art and the Buildings of England, are held by the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol.
Papers relating to the work of the Victorian Society during his years as chairman are held by the Victorian Society themselves and the London Metropolitan Archives. (Victorian Society archives)