Cartoonist Osbert Lancaster was at his most prescient when defending British architectural heritage. Hazel Blears take note
I wonder how many people these days know about Osbert Lancaster (see opposite page). Not Hazel Blears, I fancy. But now the Wallace Collection is about to put on an exhibition of his drawings, the first ever apparently, and I commend it to her. She might learn something. We all might.
He is not an obvious touchstone for New Labour. A Brideshead figure, he presents as a tweedy dilettante who never quite secured the permanent cosy berth in the nation’s imagination occupied by his lifelong friend John Betjeman. Throughout the 1930s he produced hugely popular picture-books about architecture and interiors, introducing terms such as Stockbrokers’ Tudor and Pont Street Dutch that we still use.
As a Daily Express cartoonist he pioneered the pocket cartoon in Britain – he did 10,000 in all, rattling them out each day on a piece of writing paper in 15 minutes – and in the 1950s he designed productions at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden.
The theatre work looks dated now – all mid-century pastels. The endless parade of funny aristos in the cartoons is wearing too, and many of the topical cartoons are baffling. As he himself observed: “Nothing dates so quickly as the apt comment.”
But he could be acute and prescient, sometimes eerily so. In one cartoon, a child in a station points to a poster advertising the Swiss railways: “Look Mummy! Trains which work in the snow!”
But what he was most passionate – and most prescient – about was this country’s built heritage. His light touch with word and pen concealed a serious purpose: the preservation of our historic buildings, the need to check the ambition of “speculative builders, borough surveyors, government departments and other notorious predators” and to staunch the spread of modern houses over the downs – “especially designed to harmonise with the beautiful landscape”.
Now that is apt. He could be writing about the banal housing that will creep over the Kent marshes in the name of Thames Gateway regeneration. Or the Government’s bonkers Pathfinder scheme that sees perfectly good Victorian terraced housing destroyed in the name of “neighbourhood renewal”.
He knew what the problem was: ignorance and a public who “when confronted with architecture .?.?. remain resolutely dumb – in both the original and transatlantic senses of the word”.
Never mind the public. For services to cynical, grasping philistinism step forward Hazel Blears, worthy successor to John Prescott as “Communities Secretary”. Last month, despite opposition from English Heritage, Westminster Council and an independent planning inspector, she approved plans for the 470ft Doon Street tower – pithily described by the Georgian Group’s director as a “one-finger salute” – on the South Bank, which has the distinction of wrecking London views from every possible direction.
While acknowledging the damage to the environment, Blears apparently feels it’s worth it because the developer says this pile of 300 or so luxury flats “will help fight obesity [it has a sports centre in the basement], gang culture and unemployment”.
Osbert Lancaster knew all about this kind of special pleading. In 1938, in Pillar to Post, he illustrated two almost identical buildings – giant, boxlike – distinguished only by the hammer and sickle on one and the swastika on the other. “It is immediately apparent that the proletarian and the Fascist both labour under the same misapprehension – that political rhetoric is a sufficient substitute for genuine architectural inspiration.” Plus ça change.