Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pevsner and Oxford: Part Two

This is the second of two guest posts by Susie Harries, author of the acclaimed new biography, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life. Having introduced Pevsner’s attitudes to Oxford in her first post, Susie now shows how his appreciation of Oxford developed in the 1940s, and how this appreciation was bound up with the idea of the ‘picturesque’, which became a key concept in planning as architects turned their thoughts to reconstruction after World War II.

Pevsner’s ideas on Oxford were set out long before the publication of the Buildings of England volume, most conspicuously in an article published in the Architectural Review in August 1949 entitled ‘Three Oxford Colleges’. The article appeared as the fourth in a series of ‘reassessments’ in which the Review attempted to persuade readers to look differently at familiar buildings. In Pevsner’s case, the aim was to look not at individual buildings but at the layout of colleges as a whole, and of the university as a whole. What would later delight him in St Catherine’s – a uniformity of mood and style, the sense of an engineered unity embracing every detail – was quite absent from the three colleges he had chosen, and yet there was no lack of plan. ‘It can safely be assumed that those who added new to old buildings, and new to old quad were fully aware, as a rule, of what they were doing, and delighted in the same surprises, contrasts and incongruities as we do.’

Corpus Christi College, Oxford, front quad

Each of the three colleges – Christ Church, Corpus Christi, St Edmund Hall – is a man-made landscape, wrote Pevsner, of a quintessentially English kind, deriving its harmoniousness from the English virtues of tolerance, humour and flexibility rather than from any superimposed order – displaying the instinctive manners by which Oxford, it seemed, set such store. There is little that is symmetrical about Christ Church: it was Wren’s enjoyment of the ‘free mixing of contrasts’ that prompted him to create Tom Tower. The ‘dramatic rough mass’ of the Library contrasts sharply with the smooth Palladian finish of Peckwater Quad. Again, at Corpus a ‘comfortable, businesslike’ quad leads into one that is compressed and intricate, classical leads into Tudor and the cosy into the forbidding. St Edmund Hall, ‘the epitome of collegiate picturesqueness’, is a jumble of different colours, textures and heights. ‘One’s curiosity never flags as one walks from one court to another, coming suddenly, for instance, from a dark passage into an open square,’ and, concluded Pevsner, ‘the same experience can be had in most of the other colleges, unless they are as exceptionally unlucky as Balliol’.

‘Three Oxford Colleges’ was one of the few finished products of some thinking that Pevsner was doing for a book in these immediate post-war years. At the instigation of the Architectural Review’s proprietor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, he was exploring ideas on the English tradition in planning with a view to advocating the principles of informal picturesque planning as a guide in post-war reconstruction. The book never appeared, but in 2010 Pevsner’s draft was edited and filled out from his notes by Mathew Aitchison and published as Pevsner’s Townscape: Visual Planning and the Picturesque.

Oxford features prominently, and to support the book Aitchison and the Getty Institute have wonderfully recreated online the Oxford perambulation which Pevsner recommends to anyone wanting to get the full effect of a very English form of planning. (An interview with Mathew Aitchison elaborates.) Using the photographs by Hans Gernsheim which were taken to illustrate the original ‘Three Oxford Colleges’ piece, a slide show helps us to replicate ‘the spatial experience, an experience undergone in time, as one walks along and looks this way and that’, an experience which, in Pevsner’s words, ‘reveals some of the qualities that the 20th century, with its deeper understanding of the English landscape tradition, is beginning to appreciate as the result of something more than happy accidents.’


CarolineLD said...

Thank you for two lovely posts - I look forward to reading the biography.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Caroline. Enjoying your Open House posts, by the way.