Visual Planning and the Picturesque

This book is the first publication of a manuscript that had remained generally unrecognised among the extensive papers of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83).  Pevsner was one of the most prolific, influential and scholarly historians of arts and architecture of the twentieth century.  Many people will probably know of his series of county guides to the buildings of England.  Pevsner’s manuscripts and other papers have been kept at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles since his death and are available to researchers via the internet as well as in occasional publications such as this.

Pevsner was writing about an approach to town planning that he called visual planning, which he based on the picturesque tradition of landscape design.  This book confirms that Pevsner’s ideas were central to the body of thought emerging in post-war Britain that became the townscape movement.  Pevsner began his manuscript in the mid-1940s.  He altered and added to it until the early 1950s, publishing some material in the Architectural Review, which he edited.  It then remained dormant for half a century.

The book results from research into the manuscript by John Macarthur and, especially, Mathew Aitchison.  They have added an extensive introduction and bibliography.  Pevsner’s manuscript is in three parts.  The first part is mainly presented in photographs, to reinforce the nature of visual planning, as tours of parts of London, Oxford and Bath.  The second part describes the evolution of English planning principles in terms of 18th century landscape, done by a chronological series of quotations.  Pevsner’s intention in the third part, which he started, was to draw conclusions on how the picturesque had influenced the 19th century, and “occasionally” to submit solutions as to how it might influence the 20th century.  It appears that no draft text was ever completed.  In the present volume the editor has assembled texts and further pictures, based on Pevsner’s notes and published articles, to complete the work.

This fascinating and richly illustrated book adds considerably to our understanding of townscape and urban planning.  It also adds insights about Pevsner: how he read the history of the buildings around him, and how this helped formulate his views.  Pevsner was not afraid to embrace modernism.  Reading this book now, in the early 21st century, gives an opportunity to review his assessments.  Finally, the book should appeal to anyone interested in broader questions about how cultural capital is defined and handed on.  Would Pevsner get away today with his assertion, at the start of the manuscript, that “if any foreign traveller were asked what he considers the most beautiful towns of England, his answer would without doubt be Oxford and Cambridge”?  That there are some fine and well laid out buildings is amply illustrated in the book.  However, which towns of England are in fact visited most for their beauty goes unrecorded.

Reviewed by Paul Allin, Chair, Arts Research Limited

Availability: Getty Publications
ISBN 978-1-60606-001-8

Pevsner’s Townscape: Visual Planning and the Picturesque