The Life opens with the small ‘Nikolai Pewsner’ growing up in a Russian-Jewish family in the Kaiser’s Germany and closes in Hampstead with ‘Sir Nikolaus’, seeming pillar of the British establishment. It is a story of aspirations thwarted and unexpected success. Pevsner failed to become what he wanted and expected to be. What he became instead was altogether more remarkable.
Childhood in Leipzig: an adolescence dominated by a passion for Lola and confused ambitions to be an artist: a promising career as a young academic in the Weimar Republic, dislocated by the rise of Hitler : the book illuminates the events leading to Pevsner's move to England in 1933. It explores the truth about his sympathies with elements of Nazi thought, his internment in England as an enemy alien, his mother’s suicide in a Leipzig ‘Jews’ House’, and his own return to occupied Germany in 1946 in a British uniform.
Pevsner ‘s research into British industrial design made him a reluctant pioneer in design history. The Life describes his struggle to find a foothold in art history and his relations with the English inner circle – Blunt, Clark, et al.– and the academic refugees who were transforming the discipline. His involvement in the Penguin post-war campaign for popular education would lead him from King Penguins to his best-selling Outline of European Architecture and on to the odyssey that was The Buildings of England. Pevsner was a key figure in the evolution of the conservation movement as a champion of Victorian architecture. At the same time he was cast as both spokesman and scapegoat for modernist architecture, exposing him in the last years of his life to a sharp revisionist backlash.
Through his notorious Reith lectures, Pevsner would be an early leader in the attempt to define ‘Englishness’, but he would always be a prime target for professional Englishmen who liked to deride the ‘Herr Professor Doktor’. The Life dismantles the stereotype of the dour, moralising Teutonic workaholic to reveal a vulnerable and inconsistent man, with a romantic streak and an emotional, humorous, provocative private voice. Pevsner's career is a prism through which to view the evolution of art history in Britain – while his life as an outsider/insider at the heart of English art history illuminates both the predicament and the prowess of the continental émigrés who did so much to shape post-war British culture.