Nikolaus Pevsner and a ‘geography of art’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the types of artworks shown in Pictures for Schools, many of which are paintings depicting national landscapes and past-times, wondering whether they represent a certain version of Englishness (and Britishness/Welshness in the case of Pictures for Welsh Schools) and what sort of version of national life the artists involved sought to portray to schoolchildren. I’m also curious to map how they fit into a changing tradition of English art.

For some inspiration, I’ve been reading the Englishness of English Art, written in 1955 and based on a series of Reith Lectures of the same name broadcast on the BBC, in which Nikolaus Pevsner, a German emigre, sets out to define whether there is ‘geography of art’, a ‘cultural geography of nations’. He sets out by defining a geography of art as being ‘what all the works of art and architecture have in common, at whatever time they may have been made’, explaining that another way of seeing this is ‘national character as it expresses itself in art’. He makes some interesting points about certain national characteristics he has identified as an outsider, a newcomer to the country, which arise from factors such as the English landscape and climate, before describing their effect on the country’s art.

It’s no surprise that temperance, reasonableness, moderation, conservatism and illogicality are among these essential English qualities identified by Pevsner (for Pevsner, climate is fundamental to character and the qualities of temperance and moderation arise from the English landscape and climate). These qualities, he observes, manifest themselves in practicality, self-discipline and, in art, disembodiment. These qualities have both good and bad implications where art is concerned. England has produced no outstanding genuises in the mould of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Durer or Grunewald, argues Pevsner, and England is a country of amateur painters, ‘from maiden aunts to Prime Ministers’, because it is characterised by the amateur rather than the specialist, because its painters lack the ‘violent compulsion towards singleminded self-expression to which a lifetime must be devoted’, and because tolerance and fair play win out over fanaticism and intensity. Although Pevsner appreciates the ‘specifically English’, ‘romantic topography’ of Christopher Wood, John Piper and Eric Ravilious, he does not see them as great artists of the twentieth-century, with English painting reflecting rather than leading Continental developments in art (Pevsner thought that even the Festival of Britain of 1951 lagged twenty years behind a similar exhibition in Germany).

England’s tendency towards moderation also counts agains it; it does not tend to overthrow traditions wholesale, as in other countries. When revolutions take place, they are unbloody, notes Pevsner, and the outer appearance of things stays the same even as everything changes. Similarly, some of England’s political characteristics, such as rule by committee and unquestioning faith in the majority vote, are detrimental when applied to art-making, leading to timidity and inertia. Furthermore, reminds Pevsner, committees can not be relied upon to make good aesthetic judgements (an interesting point to bear in mind in relation both to the Arts Council, which was set up after the Second World War and run by committee, and Pictures for Schools, where artworks were selected by committees of artists).

Pevsner links the English characteristic of conservatism to certain aspects of England’s culture which remain grounded in past tradition, from the Judge’s wig to the Cinque Ports, but also paints a picture of England as an old-fashioned country full of outdated modes of living:

“One cannot be proud of all of them – not of obsolete railway stations with unspeakably shabby and dreary waiting rooms, nor of antediluvian dust carts scattering more garbage than they collect, nor of museums in provincial towns – to return to art – where stuffed birds live side by side with paintings of some value and the snuff-box of some citizen of the town.”

In art, this conservatism implies a lack of will to believe in the new, a trust in the tried-out, distrust of experiment for experiment’s sake, faith in continuity and a dislike of breaks.

However, what English artists do excel in, suggests Pevsner, is understatement, as seen in water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale. He identifies that most of the great British work throughout history is either portrait or landscape, with the artist taking the role of an observer. Painters such as Constable tended to focus on atmospheric qualities such as the dew and breeze. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century the sporting picture was a speciality. Other distinctly English styles are the open-air portrait and the Picturesque, arising from the English passion for landscape gardens and gardening. Rather than imaginative, the art of the English is informative, narrative, repetitive and incorporeal.

For Pevsner, one of the difficulties of trying to identify a national character in art is that some countries are more likely to seek expression in certain fields than others, and that even where countries do express themselves through art, it cannot express everything about a country. Generally speaking, Pevsner does not see the British as a great artistic nation, however, due in part to an anti-aesthetic streak, which distinguishes between the utilitarian and the ornamental, useful art and useless art; he says that England is stronger at practical activities such as building then in sculpture and painting.

Another difficulty is that, at some times, this national character is stronger than at others, as there is also always, coexisting, a ‘spirit of an age’, which can either reinforce or work against national character. Part of the reason why Britain is not a leader in twentieth century art, argues Pevsner, is because of its dislike of violence and belief in evolution. The spirit of the age, and by extension its art, is violent, confrontational and fragmentary in form, qualities which are in direct opposition to those associated with Englishness.

To bring this back to Pictures for Schools, while some artists did respond to topical events, reflecting the physical and social changes that were going on in the post-war landscape – in 1954, for example, Fred Uhlman submitted ‘Coronation March’, one of several works inspired by the Coronation, and in 1950 John Berger offered a painting of ‘South Bank Concert Hall in Construction’ – a glance at any of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues shows that many of the artworks depict subject matter of a fairly traditional, conventional, timeless nature which represented Britain at home and at work, at play and at leisure. Artworks dealt with both the manmade and the natural and represented both the urban and the rural aspects of British life. Although some artworks were abstract and in later years a couple of op art pictures were included in the exhibitions, many of the pictures stayed closer to the styles and subject matters you might expect to see in an amateur art exhibition or local painting show, rather than representing the cutting edge of materials and forms, perhaps because these subjects were easy to understand and appreciate and more radically modern art would have been considered too challenging for children. Popular subjects at Pictures for Schools exhibitions included animals and images of children, still lives, landscapes, cottages and country houses, beach scenes, gardens and forests, the high street and individual shops such as the butchers, cultural references and customs such as dancing around the May pole, pigeon houses and fish and chips, games such as football, cricket and hockey. Also common was imagery relating to industries and occupations such as hay making, hop picking, crab boiling potting, net mending, canal barges, railway men, ironworks, gasworks, steelworks, quarrying, mining and smoking chimneys, not to mention the austere mill scenes and northern cityscapes of LS Lowry. One artist went as far as to take this inoffensive, easy-on-the-eye version of everyday Britain to its natural conclusion, offering up a painting of that most utilitarian and easy-to-overlook bits of design, a pedestrian crossing, while Mary Hoad considered it appropriate to depict ‘A Filling Station in Hertford’.

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