Observer of the absurd

Multidisciplinary is a much-vaunted word today, but, arguably, the early 20th century term ‘polymath’ was more ambitious and all-encompassing. Take Jean Cocteau – poet, novelist, filmmaker, artist.

Multidisciplinary is a much-vaunted word today, but, arguably, the early 20th century term ‘polymath’ was more ambitious and all-encompassing. Take Jean Cocteau – poet, novelist, filmmaker, artist. Or Britain’s Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986), whose talents were veritably octopoid in their range – if octopoid isn’t too undignified a term for this highly educated dandy, who, having studied English at university and art at the Slade, became an architectural satirist, brilliant illustrator, elegant writer, theatre designer and cartoonist. To many, he is synonymous with his pocket cartoons for the Daily Express. His best-known creation was the acerbic, stick-thin, fashion-conscious Maudie Littlehampton, who hobnobbed with politicians and diplomats, dispensing put-downs about such 1960s phenomena as mini-skirts, trendy vicars, protesting students and pot. London’s Wallace Collection has the first exhibition ever of Lancaster’s work. ‘With most cartoonists, their archive gets spread through all the publications they work for – and [often] lost. But this show covers a huge range of work,’ says its curator James Knox. There will be a large section of Lancaster’s architecture drawings – in his classic book Pillar to Post, he gave deliciously ironic nicknames to different architectural styles (for example ‘Stockbroker Tudor’) – plus his theatre designs (he created sets for Glyndebourne operas and Covent Garden ballets) and the Littlehampton cartoons. As this show reveals, the urbane and erudite Lancaster cast a waspishly witty eye on the subtlest nuances of architecture and fashion – its absurdities, foibles and follies.

Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster is at The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 from 2 October to 11 January 2009

By Dominic Lutyens


Latest articles