The Genius Of Osbert Lancaster At The Wallace Collection

By Freya McClelland | 20 October 2008
a cartoon showing a woman in a mini skirt holding a placard saying save Dr Spock. she is asking a woman with a baby if she may borrow her baby

Osbert Lancaster, Please might I borrow one just for half-an-hour for demonstration purposes?’ 16.10.1968. Courtesy of The John R Murray Charitable Trust. © Anne Lancaster

Exhibition Review - Cartoons and Coronets: The genius of Osbert Lancaster runs at the Wallace Collection, London until January 11 2009.

Marking the centenary of his birth, the drawings and cartoons of Sir Osbert Lancaster (1908-86), architectural satirist, illustrator, theatre designer and pioneer of the daily newspaper pocket cartoon, are currently on display for the first time.

The Wallace Collection, rich in aristocratic history and aesthetic beauty, is the perfect place to host the works of this upper class dandy - who also popularised British architecture.

One of the most famous artistic personalities of his day, Lancaster was photographed by Cecil Beaton and Lee Miller, and was one of the only cartoonists ever to be knighted. The exhibition celebrates the astonishing range of Lancaster’s work as an artist and as a chronicler of style and fashion, and his many experiments in style and form.

Osbert Lancaster became a household name thanks to his pocket cartoon in the Daily Express and was the precursor and peer of the greatest post-war cartoonists from Marc and Michael Heath to Matt and Matt.

For over forty years, he entertained the nation with his daily dash of wit, conveyed through a cast of characters, headed by the beloved Maudie Littlehampton.

a cartoon shwoing two women passing a newspaper board with the words Fares Shock

Osbert Lancaster, Fares Shock, 1969. ‘Isn’t it odd how every time we have a trade surplus everything goes up?’ Courtesy of The John R Murray Charitable Trust. © Anne Lancaster

His fascination with the Littlehamptons is well documented. The collection of ancestral portraits in the manner of famous painters from Hilliard and Gainsborough to Hockney and Bratby, reveals Lancaster’s skill as a parodist.

Lancaster first came to prominence in the 1930s with his witty illustrations of architectural styles published in two books, Pillar to Post and Homes Sweet Homes. Many of his definitions such as Stockbrokers’ Tudor, Pont Street Dutch and Vogue Regency have passed into the critical canon and illustrations of these ironic stereotypes can be viewed here.

For the first time, a group of Lancaster’s original illustrations are also displayed. His satirical and acutely observed drawings from a related volume Drayneflete Revisited, which traces the impact of changing (and declining) architectural fashions on a typical market town from the Restoration to post-war planning.

The war years saw the start of Lancaster’s career as a cartoonist. It led Anthony Powell to describe him as one of Britain’s ‘great war artists’ because he could cheer up and jolly along a Britain in the midst of war. One of the highlights of this exhibition is his powerful anti-Nazi drawings, which he executed for the Sunday Express.

Lancaster also loved sending up his own persona, well aware of the British love of self-deprecation and disregard of those who take themselves too seriously.

a cartoon showing a crowd of men in Arab dress outside a souk

Osbert Lancaster, (no date) Outside the Souk in Tunis. Courtesy of The John R Murray Charitable Trust. © Anne Lancaster

In 1944 he was posted to Athens, where he played a key role as a propagandist against the communist insurgency. Lancaster developed a great love of Greece and for adventure in general. Two travel books were the result of this interest: Classical Landscape with Figures and Sailing to Byzantium. Original drawings from both are displayed.

There are also illustrated manuscript diaries of other journeys in Greece, Egypt and France.

After the war Lancaster, in another change of direction, became one of the leading designers for Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, building on his training at the Slade. His acclaimed designs for La Fille Mal Garde for Frederick Ashton are still staged. Original scene and costume designs, never before exhibited are on view.

There are unpublished photographs of Lancaster working with some of the greatest operatic stars and examples of his murals including those for the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum and the Zuleika murals for the Randolph Hotel in Oxford.

Witty and talented, he was much in demand as an illustrator working with friends and contemporaries. He designed recognizable book jackets for Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time amongst many others, and illustrated classic works by Nancy Mitford, Simon Raven and very fittingly, P.G. Wodehouse.

Lancaster’s close circle of friends is commemorated with a series of portraits by Osbert of John and Penelope Betjeman, John Piper, Freya Stark, Benjamin Britten, Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm.

a cartoon showing a couple at the breakfast table discussing a newspaper headline that reads No Big Cabinet Reshuffle

Osbert Lancaster, Big Cabinet Reshuffle, 1953. ‘Darling, do let’s work out the number of letters of congratulation we’re not going to have to write.’ Courtesy of The John R Murray Charitable Trust. © Anne Lancaster

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.

Despite fame during his lifetime, within ten years of Lancaster’s death his widow lamented ‘Osbert’s work is forgotten now'. His skill as a pocket cartoonist he felt to be transient: ‘nothing’, he wrote, ‘dates so quickly as the apt comment'.

To the contrary, Matt Pritchett, award winning Daily Telegraph cartoonist said: “We can admire Osbert’s draughtsmanship, social commentary and attention to detail, but what is most impressive is his marvellous wit and how sharp and relevant Osbert’s work is today.”

If you are in London it is well worth a trip to the Wallace Collection to rediscover this comic architectural talent.

Late night opening on Friday. Admission is free.

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