Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster, introduced and selected by James Knox
It is a cliché of book-reviewing to write, of a humorous book, ‘I began reading it on a train. It made me laugh out loud several times, to my embarrassment in the crowded carriage.’ Well, it happened to me recently with In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley.
What started me off were Leigh Fermor’s variations on William Blake’s couplet:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
Leigh Fermor’s first conceit made me cackle:
Blackbirds fluttering from a pie
Cause four-and-twenty cheers on high.
When a pig wanders from its pound
The angels call for drinks all round.
He goes on to record angels’ delight over emancipated bed bugs, moles, moths, rodents, weevils and death-watch beetles. By the end I was, to sustain the cliché, a gibbering wreck. Osbert Lancaster’s humour was rather like that — sending up the over-the-top, pricking the pretentious. Blake’s indignation, though justified, was that little bit soupy.
At the age of 11, in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, I was taken to Pineapple Poll, the ballet designed by Lancaster, and to the Battersea Pleasure Gardens, designed by him and John Piper. I quoted him copiously in my 1968 book on Art Deco. (Thanking me for a copy, he wrote: ‘Now I shall be able to hold my head high alongside Pevsner.’) I reviewed Richard Boston’s biography of him for this magazine. I wrote the entry for him for The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. And this year I was asked to write a piece on ‘The Osbert Lancaster I knew’ for Cornerstone, the magazine of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In the article I mentioned his Queen Mother-like partiality for gin and Dubonnet, and the stentorian sniff with which he punctuated his witty sentences, ‘like a small boy draining a milk shake through a straw at Fortnum’s’. Rousseau, on his deathbed, is said to have told a priest: ‘Go away — I have nothing left to confess.’ Would I have anything left to say about Osbert Lancaster?
The answer is yes. James Knox’s book has rekindled all my delight in the man, his art and his wit. What a polymath he was: ‘pocket cartoonist’ in the Daily Express for almost 40 years; architectural pundit and parodist; theatre designer; travel writer; illustrator; diplomat; autobiographer; boulevardier. The old canard about cartoonists is that those who can draw are no good at jokes, and vice-versa. Lancaster excelled at both, creating in Maudie, Countess of Littlehampton, an iconic figure to rank with Low’s Colonel Blimp and Giles’s Grandma. I was always told that Maudie was based on Patsy Jellicoe — who was a countess, the wife of the unfaithful second Earl Jellicoe, son of the first world war admiral. She certainly looked a lot like Maudie, and was as funny and engagingly scatty. But Knox convincingly suggests that in fact Maudie was based on Pru Wallace, an ex-actress and diplomat’s wife with whom Lancaster had a fling in the mid-1940s. The photograph of her in profile in this book shows a dead ringer for Maudie.
The book is linked to a centenary exhibition at the Wallace Collection (how that venue would have pleased Lancaster, the Laughing Cavalier of the 20th century). It is almost as lavishly illustrated as one could wish, with plenty of colour plates; the only absentee I would have liked to see included is Lancaster’s dust-jacket for a 1959 book by his friend Lord Kinross, about the Americans — The Innocents at Home. That was the year I went up to Oxford and first encountered American men, some of them intent on discussing ‘phlarzvy’ over the cornflakes at breakfast. On the Kinross wrapper Lancaster captures the two telltale characteristics of American males of the late Fifties: they had crew cuts, and the collars of their shirts were buttoned down. (The latter superfluity was later adopted by some British shirtmakers.)
James Knox has written a first-rate biography of the architectural historian and travel writer Robert Byron — a friend of Lancaster’s and in many ways his rôle model. Knox’s biographical portrait of Lancaster in this book is slightly less successful. His problem is that, unlike Byron, who died young, Lancaster wrote two delightful volumes of autobiography — All Done from Memory (1963) and With an Eye to the Future (1967). Shakespeare: ‘A substitute shines brightly as a king / Until a king be by …’
Clearly, Knox’s task was to gut what Lancaster wrote; but he does not always gut it to best advantage. For example, all Knox tells us about the headmaster of Lancaster’s prep school, Stanley Harris, is that he was ‘worshipped by the boys, ranked as one of the greatest all-round players in the history of amateur sport, excelling at soccer, rugby and cricket’. What an admirable personage, you might think — until you turn to Lancaster, who tells us that Harris was ‘neither an intellectual nor a man of the world’; that he beat boys with a sjambok; and that he was hopeless at sex education. Lancaster adds: ‘Many a widowed mother was encouraged … to dream dreams which, I now realise, were in the highest degree unlikely ever to be fulfilled.’
From prep school, Lancaster went on to Charterhouse; and Knox rightly dwells on the apostolic succession of cartoonists at that school: Thackeray, John Leech, Max Beerbohm and Lancaster. ‘Max’ was Lancaster’s idol, and lived long enough to write him an encouraging letter about his murals, in the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, of scenes from Zuleika Dobson. When I was saleroom correspondent of The Times I reported on an auction of caricatures Max had made of masters, including the formidable headmaster, Dr Haig-Brown, when he was a Charterhouse schoolboy.
As ever, Knox writes very well, and he carries us briskly through all the Lancastrian vicissitudes up to the artist’s death in 1986 — though again I feel he misses a trick in covering Lancaster’s wartime service with the Foreign Office. For a time Lancaster was based at the Senate House of the University of London. Knox writes:
Osbert … cut a considerable dash during Britain’s darkest hour. Michael Bonavia, a senior official at the University of London, recalled that: ‘One night there was a particularly loud bang nearby and, getting up to investigate, I encountered in the corridor Osbert Lancaster — black moustache, eyebrows and all — gorgeous in a superb plum-coloured silk dressing-gown, looking exactly like the villain of some Victorian melodrama.’
Lovely stuff; but Knox leaves out the punchline with which Bonavia ends his anecdote in his 1990 memoir, London Before I Forget:
The same thought struck a ribald Press censor, who fell on his knees in front of this apparition crying, ‘Spare my daughter, Sir Jasper!’
I feel the salt is missing there, as in the old saying — not applicable to the bewhiskered Lancaster — ‘A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt’.
A baby born in the year Osbert Lancaster died, over 20 years ago, may now be at university; the time is ripe for an appraisal of his achievement. On which of his many talents will his fame rest? It could rest on the topicality of the pocket cartoons — his ironic, reactionary eye on the Swinging Sixties, for example. Some of his stage sets are still in use. But I think he will be best remembered for his satire, in both drawings and words, of the way British townscapes were spoilt (not quite ruined), first by doctrinaire modernism, then by the New Brutalism in architecture. If we hadn’t laughed with him, we’d have cried. q
The Wallace Collection exhibition of Osbert Lancaster’s work opens on 2 October.