Suggestion for a secondary school assembly
Nicolaus Pevsner: a distinguished immigrant

What buildings do you think of as especially great and especially British? Perhaps on holiday you have been to visit some.

You might think of the Tower of London, or Durham Cathedral, or Conway Castle, or the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Or you might think of a country house like Blenheim Palace. Or the home of a writer like Walter Scott's home, Abbotsford House. Or perhaps you think of a local church or chapel.

Where can we find interesting information about historic buildings? You might well look first at one of Pevsner's architectural guides. (Show pupils the guide to your own area.)

Nikolaus Pevsner started out in 1951 to put together guides to the interesting buildings in every part of Britain. Over the years these were published by Penguin Books as a series called The Buildings of England. It was a brilliant idea and it led to a very successful set of forty-six volumes.

But Pevsner himself was not English at all. He was a Jew and was born in 1902 in Leipzig, in Germany, where his father was a fur trader. He studied at the Universities of Leipzig, Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt. His main interest even as a young man was in architecture. He wrote a thesis on the merchants' houses in Leipzig. He became a teacher at a German university.

You will know that in the 1930s the Germans persecuted Jews. Pevsner was banned from teaching. Before anything worse could happen, he moved to England, in 1933. In 1940 he was interned for a short time as an 'enemy alien' but he was released to work for the Architectural Press.

Pevsner rose to be Professor of the History of Art at London University and to be Slade Professor of Fine Art, first at Cambridge and then at Oxford.

But of course, Pevsner was an immigrant. He became naturalized as a British citizen in 1946 and in due course he was awarded such honours as a knighthood (in 1969).

So some of the best guides to English buildings are by a foreigner. We ought not to think of that as strange. Very many other immigrants have contributed to what we think of as British culture. They include other historians, writers, painters, musicians, and sportspeople.

We should celebrate the contribution they have all made to British culture.

Find out more about the Pevsner architectural guides

Find out more about the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Find out more about Abbotsford

Return to the Celebrating immigrants index page