Saturday, September 17, 2011
Pevsner in Oxford: Part One
This is the first of two guest posts by Susie Harries, author of the recently published Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, that I’m honoured to publish. Pevsner’s work is indispensable to students of English art, architecture, and design. His An Outline of European Architecture has introduced countless students and amateurs to the subject; books such as Pioneers of the Modern Movement and A History of Building Types still engage specialists; above all, his monumental survey of The Buildings of England (over 40 volumes, county by county) is the guide and one of the most important art-historical projects ever. And yet Pevsner was an outsider to England, a German who showed the English what to look for in their architecture and helped shaped the culture he described. Susie Harries’s fascinating biography explores this remarkable character and his work. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve read in the last few years.
In this post, Susie Harries looks at Pevsner’s reaction to Oxford.
Nikolaus Pevsner was never at home in Oxford as he was in Cambridge, a more austere and Protestant place, although he learned to come to terms with what, on his first encounter, he called Oxford’s ‘ghastly miasma of humanism’. As a congenital outsider, in his own mind at least, he always had a deep-seated desire to belong, and Oxford is notoriously a hard place to infiltrate. ‘Every sentence, every lecture, every book, every conversation here means something quite different from what it would mean at home,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘The words mean something different, the brain itself is wound differently.’
On his first visit to England in 1930, three years before he was obliged to leave Germany for good, Pevsner had been a guest of the 2nd Viscount Harcourt at Nuneham House, a Palladian mansion in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown with views over the water meadows to the towers and spires of Oxford. Its park was the setting for several scenes in Through the Looking Glass, and Pevsner –who was spending the rest of his English stay in low-grade B&Bs – found himself frequently as bemused as Alice by the customs and conversation of the natives. ‘One Oxford college has a motto – Manners Makyth Man’, he told his wife, implying that this was a rule of life in the locality. Not only was his own appearance at lunch at Nuneham ceremoniously announced by the butler, so was the arrival of every course, and dessert was interrupted by a liveried servant to enquire whether the hostess would care to send a wreath for Lord Birkenhead, who had passed away. ‘Just like the films,’ Pevsner told his wife, ‘and I’m in the midst of it. I have to be very careful not to make any faux pas.’
Forty-four years later, when his Oxfordshire was published in 1974, he was, it seems, still afraid of the faux pas. ‘To an Oxford man no doubt gaffes of nomenclature and gaffes in the little snobbery concerns which one disregards at one’s peril have been left in my text, apart from more serious mistakes.’ His social unease may perhaps have jaundiced his overview of the city in his introduction, where he is very bracing indeed about the image of the ‘dreaming spires’: ‘Nonsense in every respect. Surely, in spite of St Mary, All Saints, and the cathedral, and now Nuffield, Oxford is remembered less for them than for Tom Tower, the Camera, and Magdalen tower. It is the variety of the shapes which makes the skyline. And as for “dreaming”? Stupor say the enemies, inertia say even some of the friends, serious search for truth among the undergraduates, search for knowledge among the dons, less serious search for publicity – single out what you will, dreaming is not a figurative Oxford quality, by criteria either of the mind or the eye.’
Pevsner’s opprobrium was, of course, directed more against the people than the place. Oxfordshire does contain some of his most scathing epithets – ‘elephantine’ (Sir Thomas Jackson at the Examination Schools), ‘retardataire’ (Sir Edward Maufe with his Dolphin Quadrangle at St John’s), ‘totally unrousing’ (G.G. Scott in his additions to Magdalen) but equally it is full of loving descriptions of buildings – not least, his favourite of all contemporary university buildings, Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College. ‘Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and its parts and felt wherever one moves or stops... It has a clarity of structure and at the same time a serenity such as no other new college building has.’
What appealed perhaps most to Pevsner about Oxford, however, was less the individual college buildings, ‘incomparably beautiful’ as they were, than their relationship to one another. Again and again he would take Oxford as a prime example of the Picturesque planning he so much admired – a place that had evolved organically, but not without design.
The university as it had developed over the centuries now possessed all the key qualities of the Picturesque – surprise, variety, intricacy, irregularity, with formal quadrangles set next to narrow, twisting lanes, Baroque college buildings next to workmen’s cottages and Victorian chapels. Set pieces like the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera were not designed to dominate, as they might have done in a more rigid, classicising layout, but were placed as accents in an informal composition. The High (above) achieved its effect not as a single triumphal statement but as a series of small disclosures, making it ‘one of the world’s great streets. It has everything. It is on a slight curve so the vistas always change.’