Pevsner and the Nazis, round two

Seconds out, round two. There was a bit of a brouhaha back in 2002 when biographer Stephen Games first pointed out that beloved English art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was in fact a proud German who wanted to stay in Germany after Hitler came to power. That was in the introduction to “Pevsner on Art and Architecture”, a collection of the great man’s BBC radio talks. Enraged broadsheet commentators queued up to accuse him of suggesting that, despite his Jewish origins, this national treasure was some kind of closet Nazi. Games rebutted the charge forcibly then, and does so again here, but he clearly relished the publicity it brought. Now, finally, we have the first part of the full biography that Games has been working on for most of his adult life. More background to the revelations: expect more outrage.

Pevsner remains a pivotal figure, 27 years after his death. A most formidable intellect, he saw us with fresh eyes, and among much else single-handedly defined our architectural heritage in the post-war years through his “Buildings of England” series, originally for Penguin, still going strong today. He lectured, broadcast, wrote prolifically on art and architecture. A dogmatic early 20th century modernist by conviction, he also supported some threatened Victorian buildings such as London’s St. Pancras station. He loved old churches and always gave them pride of place in the “Buildings of England”. He was a sparring partner for Sir John Betjeman and his snobbish, xenophobic kind. They liked to describe him, when they were feeling jealous, as “the Herr Doktor Professor”, and cast him – with reason – as an obsessive cataloguer. But Pevsner was much more than that, a one-man hive of industry with a dry wit and a non-parochial, European-wide standpoint. He was unstoppable right up to the time when he finally fell victim to Alzheimer’s at the start of the 1980s.