Monday 29 November 2010

Underrated Great: Osbert Lancaster

Thanks to my old pal Bob Crowe and his merry band of Tube strikers, I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning from Victoria to Kensington. As I was going up Pont Street, with its rows of tall, elaborately gabled mansions in red brick and terracotta, the phrase 'Pont Street Dutch' came into my head. It was coined, along with other similarly useful descriptive phrases (Stockbroker Tudor, Bypass Moderne, etc), by the great and much underrated Osbert Lancaster. This cartoonist and illustrator, author, art critic, stage designer and light-touch historian of English architecture and taste was not only versatile but extremely productive, and he made it all seem quite effortless. Everything he did was done with delicate wit and irony; he took nothing - least of all himself - very seriously, and his work was never less than entertaining. All of these qualities are, of course, precisely those that lead posterity to underrate you, and so it has been with Lancaster. His many books offer (among other things) a thoroughly enjoyable, satirically tinged introduction to English building design, the development of towns, the ways of the aristocracy and the vagaries of English taste, Lancaster's elegant prose matched by equally elegant and fabulously accomplished draughtsmanship. There is really no one like Lancaster for reducing a building to its essentials - his line is amazingly assured - and at the same time expressing its character (see, for example, Pillar to Post and Home Sweet Homes). And he is just as effective in townscapes (Drayneflete Revealed, Progress at Pelvis Bay, etc) and in his pastiche portraiture (The Littlehampton Bequest). His books are simply delightful things to leaf through - and most of them can be picked up amazingly cheap in charity shops, secondhand bookshops, or online. Surely they will one day become collectible - but for now I'd advise snapping up any that you see.
In his later years, Lancaster and his old friend John Betjeman would sit in on GLC meetings at which the fate of London historic buildings was discussed. By this time, Lancaster was (or pretended to be) very deaf, and if he was bored by anyone's 'expert' testimony he would turn to Betjeman and bellow 'What's the damn fool talking about now, John?' That's the spirit.


  1. Ah, great post, Nige, on a subject you know I enjoy. Really delighted to read this. I picked up a collection of Lancaster's cartoons just last week, never having come across him before. I see an expensive night on Abebooks ahead of me.

  2. thanks for introducing me to Lancaster Nige!

  3. Never heard of him, but he sounds like my sort of dude.

  4. Amazed that neither Brit nor Worm had heard of him (age?). My mum took the Daily Express and I seem to remember that, along with the possibility of a picture on page 3 of a debutante getting out of a car, it was to the Maudie Littlehampton page that we usually raced. But I had forgotten OL, and what this post illustrates yet again Nige, is your skill in directing us all to old passions long forgotten; don't stop.

  5. 'Tis true - Brit and I are but young scamps

  6. just wanted to add that more people should definately be called Osbert

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