Osbert Lancaster

Skewering social stereotypes through interior decor

Laura Freeman

Osbert Lancaster had decided views about young women who decorated their flats after William Morris. Having papered her walls in Morris’s Strawberry Thief or Acanthus designs, “soon the Blessed Damozel was yearning down from between pendant Japanese fans”. Meanwhile “the cast-iron mantelpiece, tastefully incised with sunflowers by Mr Walter Crane, supported two Chinese ginger jars and a vase of Satsuma ware . . . Surrounded by such testimonies to her sensibility as these the intellectual young woman could safely relax and lend a properly appreciative ear to the patter of Pater and whispers of Wilde.”

This description appears in Lancaster’s Homes Sweet Homes, recently republished with From Pillar to Post and Drayneflete Revealed in handsome sunflower-yellow bindings by The Pimpernel Press (Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues, £40.) As I read his spoof of the “Greenery Yallery” tendency, with its facing cartoon of a sitting-room blooming with bamboo sofa legs, palm fronds and flower-bower walls, I looked up sheepishly at my own bedroom papered in William Morris willow bough. Oh dear.

How easily and elegantly Lancaster had skewered the interior design tastes of this particular Damozel. He’d got me down even to the Chinese ginger jar lamp on my desk. Mortifying.

“Greenery Yallery” by Osbert Lancaster

“Functional” by Osbert Lancaster

Giggling in recognition at the stereotypes in Homes Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post — “Cultured Cottage”, “Aldwych Farcical”, “Vogue Regency”, “Curzon St Baroque” — is all very entertaining until — gulp! — you come across your own pretensions reclining in a wicker basket chair.

Still, it’s jolly funny when you’re not the butt of the joke. The Cultured Cottage cluttered with “genuine examples of peasant handicrafts coming from Czechoslovakia by way of an interesting little shop, run by gentlefolk, in the Brompton Road”. The Functional Flat (drippy, Liberal owner in scratchy jacket and spectacles, reading the New Statesman) where “the cactus sprouts where once flourished the aspidistra and the rubber plant, the little bronze from Benin grimaces where smiled the shepherdess from Dresden, and in the place of honour formerly occupied by the kindly Labradors of Sir Edwin Landseer there now prance the tireless horses of Monsieur Chirico”.

Lancaster is often tart, but seldom unkind. There is generally affection and amusement. And he really does know his “dubious Boucher” from his “tasselled curtains of Genoese velvet”. Is there any satirist today to match his knowledge of Fabergé eggs and Nottingham lace and what they betray about their owners?

We remain obsessed with social stereotypes. Think of all those quizzes in the weekend supplements: “How Sloane is your Aga?”;  “Are you Sandi-new or Scandi-noir?”; “Nigel, Nigella, or Deliciously Ella?” Think of Francesca Hornak’s Sunday Times column and book History of the World in 100 Modern Objects (Portico, £12.99), which reveals just what your Dualit toaster or Roberts Revival radio says about you. Think of Victoria Mather in the Telegraph doing Modern Stereotypes sketches and Nicky Haslam drawing the distinction between Old Common and New Common. (Common, surely, to mention it at all?)

But they none of them quite match Lancaster’s wickedness and élan. What would he have made of today’s Farrow and Ball paint charts? London’s Gherkin, Shard and Versace Towers? You long to let him loose on the Iceberg Basement.

“First Russian Ballet Period” by Osbert Lancaster

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"