- Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues: ‘Pillar to Post’, ‘Homes Sweet Homes’, ‘Drayneflete Revealed’ by Osbert Lancaster
Pimpernel, 304 pp, £40.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 910258 37 8
Arriving at his prep school in the bleak winter of 1918 the ten-year-old Osbert Lancaster was made even more miserable than the average new bug by the fact that St Ronan’s, Worthing was a spectacularly sporty school. The headmaster, Stanley Harris, had captained England at football and was also a distinguished cricketer and rugby player. Lancaster, an only child who had lost his father two years earlier at the Battle of the Somme, proved himself as the terms came and went to be uniformly hopeless at every game. He might have cut a pathetic figure, but instead he began to display the unshakeable urbanity that would characterise him as an adult. A heartier contemporary from a local school remembered playing St Ronan’s at rugby. As he thundered towards him about to make a try, Lancaster did not move but politely inquired: ‘Do you wish to pass me on the left or on the right?’ The incident, which Richard Boston recounts in his biographical memoir of Lancaster, captures something essential about a man who, as a cartoonist and writer excelled in capturing types, human and architectural, yet himself remained hard to typify.
Pillar to Post and Homes Sweet Homes, the first two of these reprinted volumes, appeared in 1938 and 1939 and were described by Ernst Gombrich as comprising ‘the best textbook of architecture ever published’. The foreword or ‘Order to View’ of Pillar to Post opens with the sentence: ‘This is not a textbook.’ Like all great satirists Lancaster had his finger on the pivotal point at which irony occurs, when something is both true and not true to the same extent at the same time. Thus he immortalised much of what he criticised. ‘Bypass Variegated’ and ‘Stockbrokers’ Tudor’ have passed into the language; ‘Pseudish’ and ‘LCC Residential’, if less familiar, once seen are easily identified. The intention was to make readers realise, like the bourgeois gentilhomme discovering that he has been speaking prose all along, that everything built is architecture, ‘the cathedral, the dean’s house in the close and the public convenience in the market square’ and that anyone is entitled to have an opinion about it. Lancaster was no egalitarian, he mourned the passing of the upper middle class and the dwindling influence of the Anglican church, but he had the English dislike of experts and ‘the vast army of salaried culture-hounds’ who had introduced to Britain that hitherto exclusively foreign concept, the intelligentsia. Pundits, he thought, had fenced off the critical high ground with specialist terms until people were made to feel they couldn’t understand their own high street.
The books proceed chronologically and democratically, with each style allotted the same space: one page of text and one illustration. Pillar to Post deals with exteriors, Homes Sweet Homes with interiors. Otherwise there is no attempt at fairness, which is fatal to humour. Like his friend and contemporary Kenneth Clark, Lancaster felt the Edwardians’ horrified fascination with the Victorians in general and the Gothic Revival in particular, that ‘crazy antiquarianism’ which began with Ruskin, ‘whose distinction it was to express in prose of incomparable grandeur thought of an unparalleled confusion’, after which all hell broke loose. The ‘monstrous union that begot the Albert Memorial’ later spawned the ‘olde Tudor tea shoppes and Jacobethan filling stations’ to be found all over Britain. Lancaster’s taste, however, was only partly typical of his time. He was no respecter of styles, however academically lauded, disliking the west front of Salisbury Cathedral and almost everything Egyptian, from the ‘striking and offensive motifs’ in the painting and furniture that has ‘unfortunately been preserved all too well in the tombs of the pharaohs’, to the pyramids themselves which, though individually possessed of ‘size, dignity and durability’, were nevertheless ‘a trifle monotonous’. The point is made with a drawing of a very large pyramid beside a very small palm tree and three minuscule camels. Somehow, though drawn with the barest possible outline, Lancaster manages to make the pyramid look both smug and domineering while in the distance another one, identical, heaves over the horizon.
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