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Pevsner and Englishness

Pevsner was reared as an art historian on the idea of national character in art. He was then required to specialise in English art while still lecturing in Göttingen, and first came to England in 1930 to gather background material: ‘Englishness, of course, is the purpose of my trip,’  he told his wife.


By the time he was asked to propose a topic for the Reith Lectures of 1955, he had already written articles for both German and English papers on typically English characteristics: humour, reliability, matter-of-factness, informality, tolerance and adaptability, naturalism, rationality, close observation of everyday life and reticence in the expression of sensibility, fantasy or religious feeling. These qualities he found in English art and architecture – Hogarth, Reynolds,  Constable, Perpendicular parish churches and the ‘imposed geometry’ of Blake and Soane, medieval carving and the Picturesque garden planning of the 18th century.


He was not attempting to prescribe how the English should build or carve or paint : ‘Why should I, with a never-fully-conquered foreign intonation, I who am not too certain of the difference between a centre forward and a leg volley, stand here to talk to you about the Englishness of English art?’ But he suggested that the interloper may have a clearer view: ‘In order to see clearly what’s what in national character, it is perhaps a good thing at one stage to have come in from outside and then to have settled down to become part of it.’  However far he had settled in since 1934, the Reith Lectures had the effect for many of turning him back into an outsider again. ‘I have heard it suggested,’ remarked ‘Pharos’ in the Spectator, ‘that Dr Pevsner’s Reith lectures on “The Englishness of English Art” should properly be entitled “Die Englischheit der Englischen Kunst”.’

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