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Osbert Lancaster: The original style guru

Osbert Lancaster’s brilliant books and inspired cartoons educated the nation in architecture and design. Next month, his genius is being celebrated in a new exhibition at The Wallace Collection. Not before time, says Peter York

How do you get a visually unaware nation like 1930s Britain talking about architecture and interior design? You write and illustrate a cartoon version of the History of Architecture, of course. Fill it with funny, but accurate, drawings of buildings, townscapes and interiors, with the learning worn lightly in witty commentaries. And you animate the scene with, say, cartoon cavaliers or Thirties sophisticates at home. And for a nation that likes smart phrase-making, you immortalise building styles with names like "Stockbroker Tudor", "Wimbledon Transitional" or "Pont Street Dutch". Such phrases are all part of the architectural language now.

Sir Osbert Lancaster (1908-86, knighted 1975), cartoonist, painter, theatre designer, architectural historian, travel writer and more, gave the British middle classes their primary education in architecture and a vocabulary to talk about it. He knew that if you want Brits to take a subject seriously, you have to make it funny. Lancaster was certainly the best part of my architectural education. On the one hand, Sir Bannister Fletcher's History of Architecture, and a collection of dour Modernist bibles; on the other, Lancaster. It was Lancaster that stuck. I see building styles through his eyes now because he brought them to life – with the mannered statuary in front of the palace façades and the late-Georgian clothes in the contemporary chorus line that he'd people the scene with.

And he was just as good with interiors. He drew and cast his cartoon interiors like stage sets, deadly accurate but usefully highlighted to make a point. The characters' clothes and expressions are always telling. And there's more brilliant phrase-making – like "Curzon Street Baroque", a fashionable Twenties style characterised by overwrought iron and Knole sofas, "forests of twisted baroque candlesticks" and pickled-oak occasional tables with the early southern-German look inspired by the arty Sitwells. This interior, from Lancaster's book Homes Sweet Homes of 1939 (the companion to his earlier architectural primer Pillar to Post), always strikes me like a brilliantly lit set as the curtain rises. There she is, marvellously smart and thin. There he is, in white tie, pleased with himself and pleased to have her and his cutting-edge Mayfair drawing-room. All done with a few lines (but not that few; you see the bullion fringe on the sofa, you get the pattern of the iron-work).

Cara Lancaster, Osbert's daughter, was recently stung enough by a newspaper description of her father as "a typical upper-class twit" to write back that he was anything but and that he'd been completely, ignorantly misread. But you can see how the Lancaster façade – that calculated, dandified Edwardianism, that tremendous comedy moustache (somewhere between Kitchener and Harold Macmillan) and the sheer apparent Woosterishness of him – could've been misunderstood two generations down. His writing has some of that Edwardian quality too. Densely plotted, long sentences packed with sub-clauses and amusing archaic forms, it often sounds older than his contemporaries. Like the dress-code, it contributed to the delicious illusion of a buffer, a fogey.

In a world where class nuances come across so differently, that Lancaster look, constructed in the Thirties by a shy, arty, urban upper-middle-class boy who loved the Edwardian world he'd seen from his pram – with total recall – and the Victorian one he saw through his relations and their friends, is in danger of being seen as seriously unreconstructed. But for men like Lancaster, and his Oxford contemporary and close friend John Betjeman, attitudes to things Victorian were hugely ambiguous, complicated by a real knowledge of Modernism – they both worked on the Architectural Review in the Thirties – and fashionable design.

Betjeman's famously conservationist stance was a cunning mixture of sentiment, snobbery and pioneering irony. It operated in the same way that fashionable people collected "amusing" Victoriana from the Thirties to the Fifties – papier-mâché furniture, wax fruit under glass domes, sparkly lustres, reproductions of The Stag at Bay – and Victorian typefaces were lifted for fashionable graphics. In the same way, Savile Row bucks took up the Edwardian look of long jackets, tight trousers and curly brimmed bowlers in the late Forties (but gave it up when the Teddy Boys aped them in the Fifties). It's the sensibility of, say, the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

It's also the sensibility of the delicious, informed spoof and of the first generation (as Lancaster noted) to use design symbols "firmly displayed between inverted commas". You can trace the endless retro references of post-war fashion and interior design – from Jarvis Cocker's super-nerd charity-shop look to Shoreditch artists' flats with kitsch gilded furniture – to that small pioneering group, with Lancaster at the centre, who felt funny about the Victorians.

But since his death in 1986, Lancaster – arguably Britain's most popular newspaper cartoonist, certainly our most effective, popular architectural historian and illustrator and one of the most inspired 20th-century theatre, opera and ballet designers – has been largely forgotten. People under 40 don't know him. But they do know Betjeman, who was constantly on TV being avuncular, covering archly demotic themes like Metroland. We've all seen him wheelchair-to-camera in Cornwall. And his regretful wish in old age – that he'd had more sex – is on all the quote sites.

Another smart contemporary, Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), has maintained his currency with a body of hugely collectable early fashion photography and through his designs for big Hollywood films like My Fair Lady – as well as through his biographer Hugo Vickers, the clever keeper of his flame.

But the visual polymath Lancaster has been sliced and diced as either a popular cartoonist from another age or a Man of Letters who wrote about buildings in an old-fashioned way. As Lancaster's widow, his second wife Ann Scott-James, says: "Osbert didn't like TV and he wasn't good at it."

But now there's a new, massively illustrated biography, James Knox's Cartoons and Coronets, and a major retrospective at The Wallace Collection covering the life and work, from architecture and cartoons to stage design and travel writing. As Knox says, "people will see his achievement in the round for the first time". They'll see Middle-Eastern landscapes that remind you of Edward Lear's topographical watercolours, glamorous and historically correct stage design. Work at scale and in colour.

And they'll begin to see how, though Lancaster didn't master electronic media, he set the agenda for a completely 21st-century debate about architecture, planning and design. And how he predicted the impact of architectural orthodoxies and public-sector planning on the "built environment" back in 1949. In Lancaster's spoof local history Draynflete Revealed, the official plan for "the Draynflete of tomorrow" is an alienating nightmare that anticipates all the planning horrors of the 1960s.

There's a class subtext, of course. Like his urban upper-middle friends Betjeman, Waugh and Beaton, Lancaster was fascinated by the upper-classes – their houses, clothes, attitudes and speech patterns. In the daily front-page pocket cartoons Lancaster drew for the Daily Express from 1939 until the late Seventies, his main mouthpiece is Maudie Littlehampton, a brilliantly realised comic impersonation. Lady Littlehampton, married into a fictitious earldom with Norman origins, spoke for her class and generation, but at the same time allowed the Express's lower-middle-class readers to identify with her, to see her as a friend. Maudie was witty, well-dressed and well-informed in that keep-it-light-let's-not-get-Boringly-Serious way sophisticated women of her class were. So Maudie's take on everything from the nuclear threat to teenage fashions struck a chord in Belgravia but also in deferential suburban Britain. The subtext is that British Life Goes On, because you have to, and a mass of new institutions and language are inherently nonsensical, to be kept at bay by wit. So there's Maudie, as late as 1979, the final year of the Express pocket cartoon, agelessly fashionable as ever, asking a City Gent the question the nation wanted answered: "Tell me, is 'Quango' an unmentionable disease or a People's Republic?"

Lancaster was brilliant on class and its peculiarly British expressions. He knew how it looked – the cartoons and illustrations always get the social detail right. But he also knew how it worked. In the first of his two autobiographical accounts, All Done From Memory (1953), Lancaster describes how he was brought up in a time-capsule as an upper-middle-class Edwardian, a Forsyte, a class grouping which he says became "an empty drawer" after the First World War. And he saw the rise of a distinctive interwar intelligentsia on the European pattern – through the BBC, advertising, cinema and the artier reaches of the public sector – "a vast army of salaried culture-hounds, an army which recruited its main strength from the younger generation of the upper-middle-class".

Lancaster was the obvious choice to illustrate the books of writers who wrote about class for an audience obsessed with it. Nancy Mitford's best-selling Noblesse Oblige of 1956 (the original "U and non-U", or upper-class and non-upper-class, guide book) is jacketed and illustrated by him, as is a lot of P G Wodehouse, along with novels by Anthony Powell and Simon Raven. Lancaster's big set pieces – like his cover design for the 1960 Glyndebourne programme or his later, hugely detailed drawing of the Glyndebourne audience – catch exactly that particular English Dance to the Music of Time. Everyone's there in the Glyndebourne audience, from types like the Civilised Toff, the Glamorous Actress and the American East Coaster to unmistakeable real-life power-brokers like Lord Goodman. It immediately makes you think of a later generation of socially conscious cartoonists including Posy Simmonds and the late Mark Boxer.

The spread of work in the show may surprise you. Lancaster was astonishingly prolific. He drew every day. He drew everywhere. He drew throughout the war while he was working in the Foreign Office's news department. He wrote and illustrated 15 books of his own, and produced jackets and illustrations for dozens more. The daily pocket cartoons in the Express ran for 40 years and were published in 26 collections. And he spent 20 years on set and costume designs, for Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Old Vic. The latterday pocket cartoonist Matt says he feels positively lazy when he sees the output.

The Forsytian relations' work ethic meant they'd originally condemned the arts life as insubstantial. Lancaster's biographer James Knox quotes his uncle Jack as saying, "It's all very well drawing funny pictures, but it don't get you anywhere". Real work for the Lancasters, according to Knox, meant long hours in an office. But the Forsyte origins – a 19th-century insurance tycoon on his father's side, a Hong Kong tai-pan (or foreign businessman) on his mother's – provided the money that discreetly underwrote his career before he became a national treasure. It allowed him to do more of what he wanted. And it let him travel. He used it well.

If Lancaster presented what media shrinks love to call a "constructed persona" there's no evidence that it arose from any profound childhood hurt or that it remotely oppressed anyone. Rather it amused him. A mass of first-hand accounts from family, friends and colleagues all agree on his generous mood-lifting quality.

"He could be funny in his sleep," says Ann Scott-James. "He made something worthwhile out of everything he touched, [whether he was] travelling or digging potatoes. He had a brilliant memory for detail and total concentration. He always saw the one amusing or ironic thing in whatever he was looking at. If you were with him you saw things differently too."

Cartoons & Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster is at The Wallace Collection, London W1, from 2 October to 11 January 2009; www.wallacecollection.org