Nikolaus Pevsner

Nikolaus Pevsner
Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner
Born 30 January 1902(1902-01-30)
Leipzig, Saxony, Germany
Died 18 August 1983(1983-08-18) (aged 81)
London, England
Resting place Churchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard, Wiltshire
Nationality British
Alma mater Universities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt/Main
Occupation Art and architecture historian
Notable works The Buildings of England

Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, CBE, FBA (30 January 1902 – 18 August 1983) was a German-born British scholar of history of art and, especially, of history of architecture. He is best known for his 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951–74), often simply referred to as "Pevsner".



The son of a Jewish fur trader, Nikolaus Pevsner was born in Leipzig, Saxony. He studied art history at the Universities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt/Main, completing a PhD in 1924 on the baroque merchant houses of Leipzig.[1] In 1923 he married Carola ('Lola') Kurlbaum, the daughter of distinguished Leipzig lawyer Alfred Kurlbaum. He worked as an assistant keeper at the Dresden Gallery (1924–28). During this period he became interested in establishing the supremacy of German modernist architecture (according to the first volume of Stephen Games's biography Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art[2]) after visiting Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition of 1925. 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.

According to Games's biography, op cit, and an earlier summary of this in Games's introduction to Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks,[3] Pevsner welcomed many of the economic and cultural policies of the early Hitler regime, but was caught up in the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state shortly after Hitler's accession to power and was required to step down from Göttingen in autumn 1933. Later that year he moved to England. His first post was an eighteen-month research fellowship at the University of Birmingham, found for him by friends in Birmingham and partly funded by the Academic Assistance Council.[4] 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.

By this time he had also completed Pioneers of the Modern Movement: from William Morris to Walter Gropius, his influential account of the 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 twentieth-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. This false view of it has long been institutionalised and almost as long been challenged. 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

In 1940, Pevsner was interned as an enemy alien in Huyton, Liverpool, despite having been included in the Nazi Black Book as hostile to the Hitler regime. He 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 sixteen 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 1943–45 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 (see the introduction to Mathew Aitchison's edition of Pevsner's Visual Planning and the Picturesque[5]). 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, Hubert de Cronin Hastings,[6] in evolving the magazine's theories on Picturesque planning.[7]

In 1942 Pevsner was also appointed a part-time lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London; he would eventually retire from the college in 1969 as its first professor of art history. He lectured at Cambridge for almost thirty years, having been Slade professor there for a record six years from 1949–1955, and would also hold the Slade professorship in 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, 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 4 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).[8] As well as The Buildings of England, Pevsner also proposed to Penguin 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, titled The Englishness of English Art,[9] for which he explored the qualities of art which he regarded as particularly English, and what they said about the English national character.[10] 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.

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

Lola Pevsner died in 1963. Pevsner himself died in London in August 1983 and 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 fifty years. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard in Wiltshire.

Notable ideas and theories

  • "A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal." From An Outline of European Architecture, 1943.
  • Pevsner also described the three ways aesthetic appeal could manifest itself in architecture: in a building's façade, the material volumes, or the interior.


  • Academies of Art, Past and Present (1940)
  • An Outline of European Architecture (1943)
  • The Leaves Of Southwell, (King Penguin series), Penguin, 1945
  • Pioneers of Modern Design (1949; originally published in 1936 under the title Pioneers of the Modern Movement)
  • The Buildings of England (1951–74)
  • The Englishness of English Art (1955, BBC Reith Lectures)
  • The Englishness of English Art (1956, print edition)
  • The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968)
  • A History of Building Types (1976)


  1. ^ See Dr Ute Engel, ‘The Formation of Pevsner’s art history: Nikolaus Pevsner in Germany 1902–33’, paper delivered at centenary conference 'Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner', Birkbeck College, 12-13 July 2002 and subsequently published in ed. P. Draper, Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner (Ashgate, 2004).
  2. ^ Stephen Games, Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art, (Continuum, 2010)
  3. ^ ed. Stephen Games, Pevsner on Art and Architecture, (Methuen, 2002; revised Methuen 2003)
  4. ^ 'A landlady in a million? Snapshots of days gone by', BUZZ, Birmingham University online newspaper, No.57 (2005), p.10.
  5. ^ Nikolaus Pevsner, ed. Mathew Aitchison, Visual Planning and the Picturesque (Getty Research Institute, 2010)
  6. ^ See Susan Lasdun, 'H. de C. reviewed – importance of architect Hubert de Cronin Hastings to the Architectural Review', Architectural Review, September 1996.
  7. ^ See for example Erdem Erten, 'Shaping "The Second Half Century": The Architectural Review, 1947–1971', PhD. thesis, MIT, 2004.
  8. ^ For a history and bibliography of the Buildings of England series, see Bridget Cherry, The Buildings of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Penguin Collectors Society, 1998).
  9. ^ "The Reith Lectures: Nikolaus Pevsner: The Englishness of English Art: 1955". BBC Online. Retrieved 30 June 2011. 
  10. ^ See Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, op. cit.

Further reading

  • Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: the Life, (Chatto & Windus, 2011).
  • Stephen Games, Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art, (Continuum, 2010). (Pevsner biography, Volume 1.)
  • Stephen Games, 'Introduction', in: Nikolaus Pevsner, Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, (Methuen, 2002; revised Methuen 2003).
  • Professor Brian Harrison, 'Nikolaus Pevsner' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • ed. Bridget Cherry and Simon Bradley, The Buildings of England: a Celebration, (Penguin Collectors Society, 2001).
  • ed. Peter Draper, Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner, (Ashgate, 2004).


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)

External links

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