Down with Cosmopolitanism

Gillian Darley

  • Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman v. Pevsner by Timothy Mowl
    Murray, 182 pp, £14.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5909 X

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.

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