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.