Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman v. Pevsner 
by Timothy Mowl.
Murray, 182 pp., £14.99, March 2000, 9780719559099
Show More
Show More

John Betjeman was the voice of postwar Englishness: at best, humorous, quirky and enthusiastic about some of the oddest things; at worst, parochial and smug shading into bitter. How ironic, in view of later developments and the argument of Timothy Mowl’s book, that Nikolaus Pevsner’s first visit to England, in 1930, was to research a new topic: Englishness in art.

For all its claims to be polemical, from the typographically ingenious dust-jacket inwards, Stylistic Cold Wars is little more than an architectural spat, based on the profound difference of temperament and experience between a giggly English prep school master turned poet and an émigré German art historian. Mowl is a far from even-handed chairman of the debate. You have only to look at the photographs: a snap taken by a friend (his publisher) of Betjeman laughing fit to bust and scattering papers left and right from his deck-chair, set against a carefully posed publicity shot of Pevsner balancing two towering pillars of the volumes of Buildings of England and looking pensively into the distance. The lettering on their respective gravestones, the one all curlicues, the other coolly spelled out in classic script, makes the same point.

Their tracks first crossed at the Architectural Review in the early 1930s, where Betjeman was for a few years an assistant editor. While preparing the pages of the magazine, then only recently transformed by its odd and near invisible editor Hubert de Cronin Hastings, Betjeman’s jocular, impressionable soul was temporarily stolen by the hard men of the Modern Movement. Then, after Betjeman resigned, along came Pevsner, to hammer home the determinist message with which the magazine was obsessed. Or that is how Mowl tells it.

Yet when one reads those seventy-year-old issues of the Review today, the impression one gets is of a balanced and catholic editorial policy, healthily excited by the new, politically and socially aware, but able to accommodate Robert (son of Edwin) Lutyens’s stores for Marks and Spencer as well as Richard Neutra’s blonde American beach houses. Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Freya Stark, even Penelope Chetwode (Mrs Betjeman) shared the pages with respected authorities on building materials, the English town (‘one must not be too gay or too aggressive in a country town’) and building types. There were passages from Ruskin, odds and ends in a section called Marginalia and plenty of good humour. Alongside the crisp black and white photographs of pristine new buildings were colour pages, showing Shell posters or School Prints, work by Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash. As early as May 1930, another editor, Betjeman’s mentor Philip Morton Shand, part of whose enviable brief was to travel Europe in search of articles to translate and buildings to publish, but who also pursued his own parallel interests in wine and food, may have surprised his readers by noting that the architectural ‘revolution is settling down to an inevitable restoration of those abiding values which can never be more than temporarily eclipsed’.

That was the year of Pevsner’s first visit to England. A lecturer in the history of art and architecture at Göttingen University, he was planting the seeds which grew into his Reith Lectures of 1955 and the book The Englishness of English Art, which he would dedicate to ‘H de H’ (Hastings). Pevsner may well have read the Architectural Review and encountered the early offerings of the new young assistant editor and recent convert to Quakerism, John Betjeman.

In 1933, Pevsner was back in England. Born a Jew (albeit, like his wife, a Lutheran convert), he had been dismissed from his post in Germany. Almost 32, with three children, he headed for Birmingham, where he had contacts, in the hope that soon his family could follow. While Betjeman was wooing Penelope Chetwode against the background of her parents’ intense disapproval, publishing his first volume of poetry, Mount Zion (paid for, intriguingly, by the Surrealist patron, Edward James), and, with the Shell Guides, moving into broadcasting and publishing, Pevsner was restarting his working life from scratch. He was studying the hide-bound establishments of British industry in the West Midlands, interviewing with amazement Kidderminster carpet manufacturers who blithely admitted their loathing of the fussy, hideously patterned products that kept them in business. To a man for whom the Bauhaus was the future, this tumble into the manufacturing brambles and the narrow, unenlightened world of the studio-bound designer was a painful landing. It was only slightly softened by his employment as a fabric buyer for the furniture-maker Gordon Russell, whose firm was valiantly trying to blow the cobwebs out of the English home, through its ersatz latticed windows.

With immense effort, Pevsner had mastered an increasingly idiomatic English by 1936, turned his early work for the department of commerce at Birmingham University into a series of articles for the Architectural Review and published his first book, Pioneers of the Modern Movement (reissued later as Pioneers of Modern Design), the volume in which he traced the roots of the Modern Movement back to William Morris. With his well salaried job for Gordon Russell, he could afford to bring the family over to join him in London. The pressures which drove him to such extremes of industriousness, then and later, were unimaginable to Betjeman.

Pevsner quickly became the all too serious Herr-Professor-Doktor mocked at every opportunity by the cuddly Poet Laureate-to-be, whose wit and public popularity masked a disappointed man. Mowl’s Pevsner, like Betjeman’s, is almost a caricature. While Betjeman simply joins the Architectural Review, the German art historian ‘infiltrates’ it. Mowl ignores the breadth of Pevsner’s interests, revealed in his wartime editorship of the distinguished series of King Penguins, and particularly in his own contribution, The Leaves of Southwell, a little book devoted to the celebration of the naturalistic foliage carvings in the chapter-house of that most hidden of English cathedrals.

The Shell Guides, conceived in the mid-1930s as an inducement to petrol consumption, a carrot for the new touring motorists, was an inspired series produced by the dream ticket of Betjeman’s enthusiasm (and pen) married to John Piper’s eye (and camera). Nevertheless, they and the largely still-born series of Murray’s Guides bear little relation to the approach taken in the huge, slightly later Buildings of England, a proposal which Pevsner had first put to Allen Lane in the early 1940s. Nevertheless, Pevsner referred to ‘a vague gentleman’s agreement’ with Piper and Betjeman ‘to keep away from each other’s counties for the time being’. In 1951, the first Buildings of England volumes appeared, for Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex. Thereafter they rolled out with the regularity of the seasons. ‘But,’ writes Mowl, offensively, ‘should a man with no English social background have been encouraged so quickly to a position where he could exert an unwise and, in a very real sense, an “alien” influence?’

From the beginning, the Shell Guides were essays, often highly subjective accounts of certain counties, while the series which became simply known as ‘Pevsners’ was primarily a carefully introduced gazetteer of buildings, with the unifying thread of its editor’s didactic tone and a strong emphasis on church architecture and artefacts. The information for the early volumes of Buildings of England was produced on index cards by a couple of redoubtable German researchers. The next stage was Pevsner’s progress, with his apparently inexhaustible wife Lola at the wheel. It was a massive undertaking compressed into the spring and summer holidays from Birkbeck College, where he had begun to teach in 1942.

After Lola’s early death, Pevsner’s biographical details on the jackets of his books always began with the fact that he was a widower, but proudly included his three children (one of whom took the role of driver for some time) and nine grandchildren. There is humour in the many thousands of entries but it is dry: ‘a terrible building, in spite of goodwill all round’. There is enthusiasm but it is measured, as in North Brink, Wisbech, ‘one of the most perfect Georgian streets in England’. There were no anecdotes, little social history and a complete absence of fairytales. The photography was sparing.

Throughout his life, John Betjeman used avuncular charm and boundless enthusiasm to disguise a rock-sized chip on his shoulder: his lack of a university degree. He was diffident about having a father in trade, displeased with his public school (Marlborough), disappointed in his failure at Oxford (ironically enough, because he couldn’t pass the compulsory divinity examination). At every opportunity he poured scorn on graduates, thesis-writers and, especially, art historians.

Instead, he sought amusing mentors and changed skins, soon dropping his Quakerism for a more architecturally congenial Anglo-Catholicism. When ‘John’ resigned from the ‘Archy Rev’ in 1934 (Mowl enjoys these disconcerting familiarities) he swerved to the side of almost anyone who crossed his path. Mowl offers some interesting pointers to the sources of Betjeman’s much improved later writing style – in particular the influence of Edith Olivier. At this time his passions were instinctive but still uncertain and his facts quite often wrong. Pevsner may have judged the young Betjeman to be an immature dilettante – but he never let on. Betjeman, by contrast, never let up on the Herr-Professor-Doktor. When Alec Clifton-Taylor wanted to publish a favourable review of an early Buildings of England volume in Time and Tide, Betjeman refused to run it. Clifton-Taylor’s furious and steadfastly anti-Victorian stance, evident in everything he published and broadcast, may well have been hardened by this thwarted defence of a man who became his close friend and colleague.

When in Decline and Fall Evelyn Waugh evoked the bespectacled figure of Otto Silenus, the Modernist architect from Vienna, he created a wickedly funny caricature. But parochialism shades all too easily into xenophobia and the internationalism of the Modern Movement, its ‘cosmopolitanism’, hangs heavily over these pages. Pevsner, so proper, honourable and orderly, was a warmer, more enthusiastic man than he is allowed to appear here. Interviewing the 80-year-old C.F.A. Voysey (a hero to both Betjeman and Pevsner), he lamented the lack of appreciation, the silence that had ‘descended on the life of so outstanding and so lovable an artist’. Pevsner was not cold, but he occasionally revealed a deep pessimism. He pinned his faith on the possibilities of a socially aware architecture and distrusted the maverick, self-regarding tendencies of architects with every bone in his body. Yet he was by no means unwilling to see promise when he met it, even in unlikely quarters. He admired architects working in a contemporary vernacular, such as the Norfolk practice, Tayler and Green, whose council estates and old people’s bungalows were built of brick and tile, had pitched roofs and were described by him (in the early 1950s) as ‘almost Post-Modern’.

Inevitably, Pevsner’s terms of reference were far from insular. He compared Waterloo Station with Helsinki, Leipzig and Stuttgart railway termini, London’s County Hall with Copenhagen Town Hall. At the Festival Hall, just completed in time for his second volume on London, he found ‘chiefly in the staircases, promenades, superimposed restaurants etc ... freedom and intricacy of flow, in their own way as thrilling as what we see in the Baroque churches of Germany and Austria’. He worried about suitably contemporary ornament but conceded that the ‘bare functionalism’ of the 1930s was inadequate for postwar architecture.

Only wilful misreading of a despairing paragraph or two of Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design can make him the arch-priest of totalitarian architecture that Mowl, faltering in the more confident steps of David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture (1977), paints. The idea of a modern Englishness, a battle hard fought and well described in David Matless’s Landscape and Englishness (1998), is not welcome here – especially, the inference is, if promoted by foreigners.

Betjeman, admirable advocate of the odd and the delightful, doughty fighter for the threatened, never fully engaged with the world of contemporary architecture. He was a populariser, even a breaker of taboos (notably those against Victorian and Edwardian architecture), and, as a preservationist-publicist-poet who might pop up on a long-playing record, the radio or on TV, a charming and persuasive media figure in his shabby mac and sat-upon hat. By dint of the throw-away line or a killer observation (usually in verse), he could summon up a world in which E.F. Benson and Stevie Smith might both have felt at home. A kind of celluloid distance lies between him and the harsher aspects of reality, including the new architecture emerging around him. Yet after the Victorian Society was established, and during the major conservation campaigns of the 1960s, the two elderly adversaries stood shoulder to shoulder, although they had arrived at their positions from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Since Timothy Mowl is consciously setting up a ‘battle of the styles’ it is surprising that he doesn’t touch on anything much beyond the work of the ‘Big Three’ in the 1980s: Stirling (who was, as he fails to mention, Morton Shand’s son-in-law), Foster and Rogers. A more up-to-date assessment might force an admission that a loosely derived form of Modernism, in more relaxed dress and performing to new environmental standards, is now setting the pace, in commercial and industrial buildings as in institutional and cultural ones. And we can still find inspired patrons and enlightened designers to celebrate, whether in new housing for the Peabody Trust or in the stations along the Jubilee Line Extension.

It is in the shopping malls and retro-rustic supermarkets, the new ‘villages’ which fly in the face of green thinking, with their bargeboards, leisure-wear patterned brickwork and tarmac turning circles, that poor design and sloppy planning have won the day. There, in a cynical nod to the creed of ‘in keeping’, architecture has got out of hand and social responsibility has died another death. Yet it would be as unjust to hold Betjeman responsible for all of this as it is to lay the mistakes of 1950s and 1960s architecture and planning at Pevsner’s feet.

In Morality and Architecture, David Watkin argued tenaciously that Pevsner’s pursuit of progressive ideals, embodied in the architecture and social objectives of the Modern Movement, and his belief in the zeitgeist had been a dangerous, destabilising brew. Mowl fully acknowledges his debt to Watkin, but his own book turns out to be less a scourge of Modernism and ‘the lefties of the style world’, as he quaintly terms the architectural intelligentsia of the 1930s, than a gossipy, warmed-over dish of old disputes between old men, both dead some years.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences