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‘That Prussian pedant’, ‘Herr Professor Doktor’: these were two of the jibes John Betjeman levelled at Nikolaus Pevsner, who, it must be said, received them with great restraint. Betjeman and Pevsner were polar opposites, the one giving voice to an alluring threnody for the destruction of our historic landmarks, the other articulating the case for international modernism. Their different outlooks are most obviously manifested in the Shell County Guides, edited by Betjeman, and the magisterial Buildings of England series, which within the confines of impeccable scholarship, represents Pevsner’s credo. The former is imbued with a most agreeable dilettantism that is strikingly successful in capturing ambience, the latter brilliantly and in compelling detail anatomizes individual buildings.
Betjeman and Pevsner personified two opposing sensibilities and in this most engaging book Timothy Mowl shows how the two rivals became, behind a polite façade, irreconcilable foes who fought for the supremacy of their alternative visions until the same fatal illness struck them down.
‘This entertaining analysis of Betjeman’s dislike of what he believed Pevsner stood for is a subtle and unique contribution to twentieth-century English social and cultural history. Mowl has written an absolutely gripping story, full of irony and surprise, about two men who were so similar yet so totally different.’ David Watkin
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