Head to Head: The Poet & the Realist; Stylistic Cold Wars - Betjeman versus Pevsner by Timothy Mowl (John Murray, Pounds 14.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

By Edmonds, Richard | The Birmingham Post (England), July 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Head to Head: The Poet & the Realist; Stylistic Cold Wars - Betjeman versus Pevsner by Timothy Mowl (John Murray, Pounds 14.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


Edmonds, Richard, The Birmingham Post (England)


When style warriors collide the battle can be noisy. From the beginning Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman were opposites, but between them they succeeded in shaping architectural opinion in Britain from the 1930s through to the 1970s.

Betjeman created 'Metroland' that world of urban villas and neat little gardens found along the tube lines with names such as Uxbridge, Bushey and Ealing Common.

Betjeman loved old churches, cinemas and the crumbling remains of the Victorian religious revival in hundreds of dusty churches and chapels.

He melted with delight over splendid brickwork and tiles, neo-Gothic interiors of the 19th century and atmospheric churchyards and the bends of rivers. He was a romantic and his poetry - particularly Summoned by Bells - reflects the man perfectly; it was an anti-intellectual approach coloured by warmth, compassion and human sympathy.

Pevsner, crop-headed and austere, could not have been more different. A refugee from Hitler's Nazi Germany, he was already well established as an art historian when he arrived here in 1933. Pevsner supported minimalism in terms of the German Bauhaus architectural ideal. A white concrete wall flanked by a tubular steel balcony with a small metal table and a simple metal and wood chair might be an image to conjure up. Something closer to home might be the Tecton concrete curves which housed the entrance to Dudley Zoo - functional but heartless, man as machine - and it was all destined to lead on to the urban squalor of 1950s brutalist architecture.

Like Betjeman, Pevsner worked in this country for the Architectural Review. Pevsner's tastes were much more in sympathy with the magazine than Betjeman's ever were. Betjeman left eventually working much more fruitfully on the Shell County Guides with his friend, the artist John Piper, who was clearly responsible for Betjeman's appreciation of the strange, the poetic and the atmospheric in everyday buildings.

It was Betjeman who went on to make films on the aspects of England he and Piper adored, perhaps the Regency influence in dainty English towns such as Cheltenham or Leamington or the wild, rich landscapes of the different counties. …

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