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A talent to amuse

<strong>Cartoons and Coronets: the Genius of Osbert Lancaster</strong>

James Knox


It is given to few scholars and historians to name indelibly the great movements of art and architecture. Thomas Rickman, a Regency pedant, laid out the sequence of medieval Gothic: Norman, followed by Early, Decorated and Perpendicular English, an awkward nomenclature that somehow stuck. But it was the great cartoonist, wit and dandy Sir Osbert Lancaster who anatomised later English building styles and offered us a pin-point-sharp litany of names - still widely used today - in his classic book of 1938, Pillar to Post. In this impassioned little polemic, cunningly disguised as a jeu d'esprit, he described, among others, Kensington Italianate, Municipal Gothic, Pont Street Dutch, Wimbledon Transitional, Pseudish, Bypass Variegated and, most enduringly amusing of all, Stockbrokers' Tudor.

Lancaster's understanding of Englishness was rich and intuitive. It had been his good fortune to be born an Edwardian in the confident, comfortable circumstances of the "good old Upper Middles", as he put it. But he was also encouraged in his artistic interests both at home and at his school, Charterhouse. There, he discovered the books and caricatures of another Old Carthusian, Sir Max Beerbohm, henceforth both hero and model for the young Osbert.

He thus went up to Oxford already armed with a Max-like poise and a similar sense of being both a product of the Establishment and a critic of it. In 1926, the "Brideshead Generation" had only lately departed and their pose of aestheticism and precious theatricality still lingered, encouraged by dons such as Maurice Bowra and "Colonel" Kolkhorst, whose Beaumont Street gatherings perpetuated the spirit of the 1890s. In this atmosphere Osbert thrived, becoming prominent in the Dramatic Society and publishing in Isis some of his first humorous drawings, a series of "Little-Known Gems of Victorian Art". These witty sketches, forerunners of all his books about taste, cemented what would become a lifelong friendship with his undergraduate contemporary John Betjeman based upon shared obsessions, sense of humour and love of fun.

With no academic inclinations and having worked not at all, Lancaster left Oxford with a well-earned Fourth and set about making his mark in London. He had long ago been seduced by the charms of Mayfair life, having had a Damascene moment when he caught a glimpse of two short-skirted and bob-haired "flappers" in a shiny Hispano-Suiza parked outside an 18th-century doorway in Hill Street. Now he joined Betjeman at the Architectural Review, where he contributed not only drawings but also surprisingly mature articles full of sound judgements about contemporary art and architecture.

At this date, both were modernists at heart, but they worried about what the planners were doing to our old towns. And, no doubt partly as a result of this, their initially amused "Oxford" attitude to Victoriana ripened into a real love of the era. Osbert, now also much in the company of his publisher Jock Murray, rapidly began to assume the character of the suave clubman. His innate dandyism manifested itself in ever more beautiful suits, flamboyant ties and, always, a subtly overstated show of cuff. In these years, too, he honed his carefully cultivated persona of the flâneur who merely sauntered to his own office or into Murray's in Albemarle Street to toss off a drawing; in fact, he was working immensely hard, creating a constant stream of cartoons, illustrations, book jackets and, later, stage designs.

After the bomb, Lancaster was seen emerging from the wreckage, his finest silk dressing gown covered in dust, looking like a moustachioed melodrama villain

During the war Osbert served as a press officer at the Ministry of Information, working and often sleeping at Senate House. One night he was almost killed by a bomb, only to be seen emerging from the wreckage, with his finest silk dressing gown covered in dust and him looking, it was reported, like the moustachioed villain of a Victorian melodrama. In the last period of the war, he was posted to Athens. There he won over even the most seasoned and cynical journalists with his wittily laconic morning briefings and spent evenings holed up in the British embassy with Harold Macmillan, who read aloud from Thucydides, substituting the names of current Greek leaders for those of the ancients.

In an age in which the confident celebration of all things English is no longer fashionable - perhaps hardly even possible - Lancaster is no longer the universally recognised figure he once was. But for 40 years his beautifully drawn little single-column-width "pocket cartoons" were a feature of the Daily Express. Eagerly awaited and as avidly discussed as the news, the cartoons always seemed brilliantly perceptive and of the moment. In the war years he mercilessly satirised Hitler and his sinister or oafish crew. In the 1950s he was one of the first to see how distant from the modern world our political grandees were becoming, and in the following decade he became a keen observer and wry critic of 1960s trendiness. Over time he invented and deployed an exquisitely contrived cast of characters - including the much-loved Maudie, Lady Littlehampton - to comment on the foibles of the day.

Today, it is difficult to assess Lancaster. An exhibition of his drawings now at the Wallace Collection in London will undoubtedly do much to revalue his reputation, revealing as it does the superb quality of his draughtsmanship. His art occupies a similar position to Betjeman's poetry, much loved but not taken quite seriously enough. Osbert, too, was at times a fine writer, not least in his two volumes of memoirs.

A previous biography, written by a friend and neighbour of his last years, Richard Boston, was a warm-hearted, anecdotal portrait. In this shorter book James Knox (who previously wrote a superb life of the Oxford aesthete Robert Byron) attempts something broader. Placing Lancaster the man and Osbert the "character" in a cultural context, he also introduces sections on his friends, his enthusiasms and the various areas of his work. The generous selection of illustrations, many taken from the original drawings, includes several important sequences in full, and a good number of forgotten images. Such a wonderful anthology will certainly delight those who love Osbert already; it may well win over those discovering him for the first time, too.

Stephen Calloway's most recent book is "Obsessions: Collectors and Their Passions" (Mitchell Beazley)

"Cartoons and Coronets" is at the Wallace Collection, London W1, until 11 January 2009

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism