Osbert Lancaster on Pubs, 1938

Osbert Lancaster, 1908–1986, was an influential cartoonist and cultural commentator who specialised in explaining architecture to the layman.

His work isn’t all that easy to come by and, in fact, a col­lec­tion of his work pub­lished in 1959, reprint­ed by the Read­ers’ Union in 1960, enti­tled Here, of All Places, is the first of his books we’ve ever actu­al­ly come across for sale.

It’s fun stuff, each dou­ble-page spread includ­ing a pithy note on some facet of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry and a car­toon to bring it to life. For exam­ple, ‘By-Pass Var­ie­gat­ed’ is his name for a par­tic­u­lar type of semi-detached sub­ur­ban house, while he sum­maris­es post-war Amer­i­can cityscapes, blight­ed by adver­tis­ing, as ‘Coca-Colo­nial’.

The entry that grabbed our atten­tion was, of course, ‘Pub­lic-House Clas­sic’, which first appeared in his 1938 book Pil­lar to Post.

A drawing of a Victorian pub.
Osbert Lan­cast­er’s draw­ing of a typ­i­cal Vic­to­ri­an pub.

That’s a love­ly image – we have a strong urge to tear it out and frame it, but don’t wor­ry, we won’t – and the prose that goes with it is almost as good. Here’s how it opens:

In the ear­li­er part of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry it was assumed, and right­ly, that a lit­tle healthy vul­gar­i­ty and full-blood­ed osten­ta­tion were not out of place in the archi­tec­ture and dec­o­ra­tion of a pub­lic-house, and it was dur­ing this peri­od that the tra­di­tion gov­ern­ing the appear­ance of the Eng­lish pub was evolved. While the main body of the build­ing con­formed to the rules gov­ern­ing South Kens­ing­ton Ital­ianate, it was always enlivened by the addi­tion of a num­ber of dec­o­ra­tive adjuncts which, though sim­i­lar in gen­er­al form, dis­played an end­less and fas­ci­nat­ing vari­ety of treat­ment.

He goes on to praise the engraved win­dows, giant lanterns and beau­ti­ful­ly paint­ed signs that char­ac­terised Vic­to­ri­an pubs at their best, and exam­ples of which you can still (just about) see around in 2019.

The sec­ond half of the entry, how­ev­er, is a lament for this style. First, he says, it was replaced in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by a self-con­scious­ly cul­tured facade of elab­o­rate brick­work and ‘encaus­tic tiling’; and then, in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, by…

a poi­so­nous refine­ment which found expres­sion in olde worlde half-tim­ber­ing and a gen­er­al atmos­phere of cot­tagey cheer­i­ness. For­tu­nate­ly a num­ber of the old-fash­ioned pubs still sur­vive in the less fash­ion­able quar­ters, but the major­i­ty of them are doubt­less doomed and will be short­ly replaced by taste­ful erec­tions in By-Pass Eliz­a­bethan or Brew­ers’ Geor­gian styles.

In 1938, big improved pubs were still being built, though the war stopped that in its tracks. We won­der what he made of post-war pubs – plain, small, point­ed­ly mod­ern. He was cer­tain­ly snarky about mod­ernist archi­tec­ture in gen­er­al, call­ing it ‘Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Func­tion­al’:

[The] style which now emerged was one of the utmost aus­ter­i­ty, rely­ing for its effect on plan­ning and pro­por­tion alone, and faith­ful­ly ful­fill­ing the one con­di­tion to which every impor­tance was attached, of ‘fit­ness for pur­pose.’ Admirable as were the results in the case of fac­to­ries, air­ports, hos­pi­tals and oth­er util­i­tar­i­an build­ings, when the same prin­ci­ple was applied to domes­tic archi­tec­ture, the suc­cess was not always so marked.

And there’s an inter­est­ing point: pubs are, or ought to be, con­sid­ered domes­tic, not util­i­tar­i­an, vital as they are, right? Which is what all this talk of Prop­er Pubs is real­ly get­ting at.

And odd post­script to Lan­cast­er’s brief note on pub archi­tec­ture is that thir­ty years lat­er, he revis­it­ed the con­cept for the cov­er of a book, Pub, edit­ed by Angus McGill and spon­sored by the Brew­ers’ Soci­ety.

The cover of 'Pub', 1969.

At first, we thought it was the same draw­ing but, no, it’s a dif­fer­ent piece alto­geth­er, even if the same street trum­peter makes a cameo, stand­ing under a famil­iar wrought-iron lantern.

You can buy sec­ond­hand copies of From Pil­lar to Post and Here, of All Places at quite rea­son­able prices online; and there’s a nice-look­ing reprint from Pim­per­nel Press.

2 thoughts on “Osbert Lancaster on Pubs, 1938”

  1. It is tru­ly aston­ish­ing the num­ber of pub­lished works there are on pubs and their his­to­ry, dec­o­ra­tion, archi­tec­ture and so on dat­ing from the Inter­War era. I must have about a dozen dat­ed 1917–1939- and only a hand­ful dat­ing from the Post WWII era. All are worth read­ing although a few spend a lit­tle longer than entire­ly nec­es­sary sigh­ing over what was being lost, although with­out them we might nev­er have known. The Tav­erns of Old Eng­land by HP Maskell (1927) is one which might well have been inspi­ra­tion for the rash of “Brew­ers’ Tudor” every­where of the 1930s. “Tales of Old Inns” from Trust Hous­es dat­ed 1929 is a par­tic­u­lar­ly ret­ro­grade rem­i­nis­cence although I have had present day use out of it for some sur­viv­ing pubs.

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