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Telling the truth about old stones

22 November 2011

William Whyte enjoys a massive biography of our greatest architectural historian


Nikolaus Pevsner: The life
Susie Harries

Chatto & Windus £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

ODDLY enough, the past few years have turned out to be a golden age for biographies of the great his­torians of the last century. There have been a slew of books about such figures as the brilliant Isaiah Berlin, the ghastly A. L. Rowse, and the pugnacious A. J. P. Taylor. Not only has Hugh Trevor-Roper been the subject of two biographies and numerous other appreciations, but the reopening of his archive has en­sured that he has published much more dead than he ever did alive.

Given this avalanche of scholarly biographies, it is little wonder that the story of the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner has proved irresistible to writers. A Russian Jew who converted to German Protestantism, he was forced to flee Nazi persecution, and ended up an English national treasure. To this day, possession of a “Pevsner” — one of the black-bound Buildings of England books — is proof of a certain intellectual serious-mindedness.

Just a year ago, Stephen Games produced the first of a projected two-volume biography of Pevsner. Two decades in the writing, it followed him to the moment when the great man became an exile. Now Susie Harries has published a massive single-volume study: one that has taken just as long to write, and which tells the whole story of Pevsner’s life. It weighs in at a monumental 866 pages.

The obvious question to ask is whether this new biography is necessary. If someone has already covered half the life, and expects to deal with the rest of it soon, then is this rival book really needed? The answer is an unconditional “Yes”. Stealing a march on Games, Harries has obtained access to Pevsner’s private papers — and especially to his remarkably revela­tory diaries. The result is an extra­ordinarily impressive account of Pevsner the man as well as the his­torian.

This is a truly great biography, one that can be enjoyed even by those who have barely heard of its subject. It paints a picture of Pevsner — insecure yet self-confident, romantic yet driven — that rings true, and yet is often entirely un­expected. It is one of the books of the year.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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