Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Like Prince, Madonna and Pele, Pevsner only needs the one word name to convey meaning. Have you got a Pevsner? I've only got one unfortunately, and a boring one at that: Surrey (I got it cheap). Nikolaus Pevsner's classic 46-volume of guides to the buildings of England has been called (by Jonathan Meades) 'the greatest endeavour of popular architectural scholarship in the world' but that's not really saying that much, is it? I mean, there's no alternative. It's the only endeavour, surely.

Born a Jew in Leipzig in 1902, Pevsner was slow to see the tyranny of Nazism, and arrived in England as a refugee in 1933. It wasn't until 1951 that Pevsner was commissioned by Allan Lane of Penguin books to write the series of books (which Penguin foolishly sold to Yale University Press) which made him a household name. Covering every important building in every county in England with multiple guides to major cities (six to London), the series took Pevsner over twenty years to compile. A workaholic, he visited every building himself and wrote almost every guide in between lecturing at various colleges and working on other books at the same time. The guides total some 20,000 pages.

A biography of the great man entitled Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, has just been published. That it took its author, Susie Harries, just three years less to write than it took Pevsner to write all his guidebooks (twenty three years) is a fact probably not lost on Harries. At 886 pages, it is certainly the most comprehensive biography of the man we will ever see; Pevsner himself would have been pleased with its exhaustiveness.

Packed full of facts and anecdotes, it's doubtful I'll ever read it, but I wonder if it includes a Pevsner anecdote I heard first hand. I used to work in a bookshop where the manager, a man in his fifties, went to university with Pervsner's grandson in the 1970s. They used to visit Nikolaus in his house in Hampstead. There were original Leonardo cartoons on the walls. One day they introduced the old man to marijuana. He didn't like it and never did it again.


Stewart said...

Di Caprio?

Barnaby said...

Close. Da Vinci.

Stewart said...

I don't know him. What films has he been in?

Barnaby said...

The da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks is a dead ringer for him.