Osbert Lancaster: a national treasure rediscovered

Lancaster’s delightfully sardonic spoof architectural histories are handsomely republished by the Pimpernel Press

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues Osbert Lancaster

Pimpernel Press, pp.304, £40, ISBN: 9781910258378

True to his saw that ours is ‘a land of rugged individualists’, Osbert Lancaster, in his self-appointed role of popular architectural historian, presented the 1,000-year history of Britain’s built environment from a resolutely personal perspective. Like the majority of his generation — Lancaster was born in 1908 and published Pillar to Post in 1938, following it with Homes Sweet Homes a year later — he cultivated a vigorous dislike of all things Victorian. Again and again he demolished the earnest conceits of 19th-century orthodoxy: ‘the antiquarian heresy’; ‘the great dreary moth of Victorian revivalism’; ‘the jackdaw strain inherent in every true Victorian’. Lancaster’s skill lay in the accuracy and apparent gossamer lightness of his touch. Even after he had fine-tuned his public persona as unreconstructed Edwardian, in middle age, he was never ponderous or bombastic. His disdain for the sins of our builder fathers and his prophetic outrage at the likely atrocities of future town councils were both heartfelt and wittily conveyed.

Lancaster was among Britain’s most popular newspaper cartoonists. For 40 years, in the pages of the Daily Express, an imaginary noblewoman, Maud, Countess of Littlehampton, served as his mouthpiece on news and current affairs. In addition, he designed for the theatre and ballet. His was an urbane, ironic, sophisticated flippancy of the Betjeman variety, though, as an unwilling television performer, he failed to achieve Betjeman’s status as national treasure. And yet, for a former generation, the three titles reissued here in slipcased hardback once occupied bedside tables and cloakroom bookshelves up and down the country. Pillar to Post explores the history of architecture; its companion volume, Homes Sweet Homes, the history of interior design. Drayneflete Revealed, first published in 1949, is a sparkling sustained spoof of local history and small-scale urban development centred on the former stomping ground of Lancaster’s fictitious Earls of Littlehampton.

‘Cleverness,’ Lancaster commented in Pillar to Post, ‘is a quality that, in architecture no less than in life, we have always been notorious for regarding with ill-concealed dislike.’ To that end he sugar-coated the didacticism and serious social and aesthetic commentary that are features of all three of these books in a combination of prep-schoolboy ebullience and sardonic archness. The result is a tone that hilariously suggests a Country Life editorial rewritten by the authors of 1066 and All That.

His disdain for the Victorian age was matched by an antipathy for the Elizabethans, whom he dismissed as cultural nouveaux riches: ‘Both were periods in which the fine arts achieved a new low.’ Instead he preferred neoclassicism in architecture and Regency interiors: ‘Full blooded yet intellectual, aristocratic and at the same time slightly vulgar.’ His anticipation of the horrors of Sixties development was far-sighted and accurate; in other ways he remained of his time. His bafflement that the London rich should prefer a ‘luxury flat’ to the more expansive comforts of a Cubitt townhouse was sincere: his only explanation was to attribute the conundrum to ‘an increased familiarity with the works of Dr Marie Stopes’.

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  • JosephJohnODonnell

    Sounds awful.