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Friday18 August 2017

exhibition

Celebrating Osbert Lancaster, a past master of all trades

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Trying to encompass all the facets of Osbert Lancaster’s career into one exhibition may seem like a losing game.

Cartoons & coronets: The genius of Osbert Lancaster
Wallace Collection, London W1
Until January 11, 2009
3/5

If the word multifarious did not already exist, it might have been invented in an attempt to describe him: wit, dandy, traveller, cartoonist, historian, social critic, clubman, satirist, writer, musician, designer. Some of his delightful stage designs for the Royal Opera House were revived to great acclaim a couple of years ago, but he has otherwise perhaps slipped into relative obscurity since his death. 2008 is the centenary of Lancaster’s birth; in tribute James Knox has curated an exhibition at the Wallace Collection, selecting from the vast archive of Lancaster’s work amassed by publisher John Murray.

Even if his name has been eclipsed from public view, many readers of BD will know of Lancaster, because of his sardonic and perceptive analyses of architectural styles, illustrated with brilliant drawings. We might refer to an opulent 1920s olde worlde style house as “Stockbrokers’ Tudor”, or perhaps use “Pont Street Dutch” as shorthand for the buildings of Richard Norman Shaw and his disciples. When speaking about anything architectural, from Perpendicular gothic to the Paris exhibition of 1937 and beyond, his cartoons are invaluable illustrations, summing up precisely the essential aspects of a design movement or a fashion moment.

The terms mentioned above appeared, along with many other apt descriptions, in Pillar to post, 1938, and Homes Sweet Homes, 1939. The former dealt with exterior appearances, the latter with interior styles. Lancaster’s original illustrations for these works feature strongly in the architectural section of the exhibition, as well as a few “serious” architectural sketches.

Lancaster was fortunate in the circumstances of his birth, his family had inherited wealth, living in comfort in bourgeois Notting Hill. He claimed to remember his nurse wheeling the infant Osbert in a perambulator through Hyde Park, as depicted in a drawing at the beginning of the exhibition. After a conventional middle class upbringing; prep school, Charterhouse, and Oxford, he initially bowed to family persuasion to read for the bar, his fourth class degree being no barrier.

A fortunately-timed illness meant he was allowed by his indulgent mother to escape from the law’s chilly embrace to the Slade School of Art. Training there was followed in rapid succession by marriage—liberating in those days—and, in 1934, a job at the Architectural Review under Hubert de Cronin Hastings. At the “Archi Rev” Lancaster was part of a dream team that included Jim Richards, John Betjeman, and Robert Byron, shaking up a cocktail of equal parts modernism, whimsy, and humour—with a dash of Edwardian bitters.

Lancaster began to contribute a daily cartoon to the Daily Express immediately before the second world war. He was able to maintain this activity despite his war service as a “Whitehall Warrior” in the Foreign Office. Naturally, a good deal of space in the exhibition is devoted to these cartoons. The key figure in these daily cartoons was Maudie Littlehampton, who eventually begat a whole dynasty. Roy Strong showed the drawings, known as the Littlehampton Bequest, at the National Portrait Gallery in 1973. Of those on show at the Wallace, readers may enjoy “Capability” Littlehampton as painted by Pompeo Batoni while on the Grand Tour.

James Knox has written a useful companion volume to the exhibition, published by Frances Lincoln, which illuminates Lancaster’s long career. The text is mostly fine, with some new revelations and a good section of personalia, but the small format and Lancaster’s large output means that many of the illustrations are frustratingly tiny.

Original print headline - Celebrating a past master of all trades

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