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Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, CBE, (30 January 1902 – 18 August 1983) was a German-born British scholar of history of art and, especially, of history of architecture. He is best known for his 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951–74).


The son of a Jewish merchant, Pevsner was born in Leipzigmarker, Saxonymarker. He studied art history at the Universities of Leipzigmarker, Munichmarker, Berlinmarker, and Frankfurt/Mainmarker in Germanymarker (PhD 1924), worked at the Dresdenmarker Gallery (1924–28) and taught at the University of Göttingenmarker (1929–33). According to Games (2002), he was an admirer of some of the economic policies of the early Hitler regime, but was caught up in the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state shortly after Hitler's accession to power and was required to step down from Göttingen in May 1933. Later that year he moved to Englandmarker where friends found him a research post at the University of Birminghammarker. In the early 1940s he joined the academic staff at Birkbeck Collegemarker, University of London, becoming a professor, and was later a visiting lecturer at both the University of Cambridgemarker and University of Oxfordmarker. He assumed British citizenship in 1946.

After moving to England, Pevsner found that the study of architectural history had little status in academic circles, and the amount of information available, especially to travellers wanting to inform themselves about the architecture of a particular district, was limited. He conceived a project to write a series of comprehensive county guides to rectify this, and gained the backing of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, for whom he had written his Outline of European Architecture. Work on the Buildings of England series began in 1945, and the first volume was published in 1951. Pevsner wrote 32 of the books himself and 10 with collaborators, with a further 4 of the original series written by others. Since his death, work has continued on the series, which has been extended to cover the rest of the United Kingdom, under the title Pevsner Architectural Guides. As well as The Buildings of England, Pevsner conceived and edited the Pelican History of Art series (1953–), many individual volumes of which are regarded as classics.

In 1946 Pevsner made his first of several broadcasts on the BBC Third Programme, presenting nine talks in all up to 1950, examining painters and European art eras. Pevsner continued to broadcast on the BBC, and by 1977 had presented more than 78 talks including for the Reith Lectures in 1955 ("The Englishness of English Art").

He was Slade Professor at Cambridge (1949-1955). In 1958, Pevsner was invited to become founder chairman of The Victorian Society, the national charity for the study and protection and Victorian and Edwardian architecture and other arts. He was also an early active member of the Georgian Group founded in 1937. He was granted the CBE in 1953 and was knighted in 1969.

He died in Londonmarker in 1983 and his memorial service was held at the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsburymarker the following December.


Research papers and correspondence relating to Pevsner's first job in a British university, after leaving Germany, can be found at the University of Birminghammarker Special Collections but are as yet uncatalogued. A substantial collection of his papers is held at the Pevsner archive in the Getty Research Institute, Los Angelesmarker. Nikolaus Pevsner papers, 1919-1979. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.

Notable ideas and theories

  • "A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedralmarker is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal." From An Outline of European Architecture, 1943.
  • Pevsner also described the three ways aesthetic appeal could manifest itself in architecture: in a building's façade, the material volumes or the interior.

Selected bibliography

  • Academies of Art, Past and Present (1940)
  • An Outline of European Architecture (1943)
  • Pioneers of Modern Design (1949; originally published in 1936 under the title Pioneers of the Modern Movement)
  • The Buildings of England (1951-74)
  • The Englishness of English Art (1956)
  • The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968)
  • A History of Building Types (1976)
  • Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, edited and introduced by Stephen Games, (Methuen, 2003)


  1. BUZZ (2005)


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