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Cartoons & Coronets : the Genius of Osbert Lancaster

(Wallace Collection, 2 Oct. 2008 – 11 Jan. 2009)

An exhibition recently ran at the Wallace Collection in London featuring the artwork for some dust jackets of PG Wodehouse novels. Society member Jonathan Hopson has kindly sent us this review of the exhibition. For more information on the Wallace Collection please go to www.wallacecollection.org.

by Jonathan Hopson

This centenary retrospective attracted 25,000 people in the first six weeks and is believed to have been the most popular exhibition ever held at the Wallace Collection. It was also probably the funniest, given the constant chuckling overheard on my visit, and afforded plenty to interest the Wodehouse aficionado. Crammed into two small galleries, the range of Lancaster’s talents as an artist and writer could not be displayed in depth but the excellent accompanying catalogue* expands more fully on his career as a cartoonist, illustrator, stage designer, architectural satirist, traveller, wit and dandy.

He had enjoyed an Edwardian upbringing with Wodehousean overtones in a large eccentric family (including several aunts) supported by a fortune made in Hong Kong by his maternal grandfather. Lancaster’s talent for drawing was nurtered at Charterhouse (where Richard Usborne was a contemporary) and he would follow in a tradition of Old Carthusian cartoonists led by Thackeray, John Leech and his idol Max Beerbohm. After leaving Oxford and failing his Bar exams, Lancaster took to journalism and eventually established himself at the Daily Express where his pocket cartoons ran daily for some forty years, providing a standpoint for sardonic observation of the tides of social change.

The exhibition highlighted Lancaster’s role as an illustrator of books popular with a post-war audience fascinated by the charms of the fading upper classes, such as Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige and Anthony Powell’s novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time (described by an anonymous wag as “Proust translated by Wodehouse”). He created ten Powell covers for Penguin Books until the publisher dropped him in 1967. A piqued Powell then left Penguin for Fontana and Lancaster found happy employment designing jackets for the UK editions of Wodehouse’s last eight novels.

The examples on display were Much Obliged, Jeeves and Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin, while the artwork for Lancaster’s first design Company for Henry is reproduced in the catalogue and shows off his skill as an architectural draughtsman. Also of note is the design for The Girl in Blue which depicts the novel’s characters in the form of miniature portraits surrounding the eponymous Gainsborough painting, and which seems to prefigure The Littlehampton Bequest, a series of artistic parodies exhibited by Lancaster at the National Portrait Gallery in 1973.

The following year he contributed a series of drawings entitled Great Houses of Fiction Revisited to The Destruction of the Country House exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Included alongside Locksley Hall and Mansfield Park is Blandings Castle’s imagined fate as National Pig Board Research Centre with a rather melancholy Lord Emsworth shown musing in the foreground. This elegiac vision (reproduced in the catalogue) reflects the judgement of the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith that “Lancaster also shares P G Wodehouse’s sense of fantasy, and in particular the latter’s keen appreciation of the light that shines, paradoxically, from the reactions and utterances of the ineffably dim”.

* Cartoons & Coronets: the Genius of Osbert Lancaster

introduced and selected by James Knox

London : Frances Lincoln, 2008 (hbk £25; pbk £15)