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Cartoons and Coronets - The Wallace Collection

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION entitled Cartoons and Coronets – The Genius of Osbert Lancaster runs from October 2, 2008 to January 11, 2009, at the Wallace Collection.

Osbert Lancaster was one of the most famous artistic personalities of his day, renowned as an architectural satirist, illustrator, theatre designer and cartoonist.

This exhibition, which marks the centenary of his birth, will celebrate the astonishing range of Lancaster as an artist and as a chronicler of style and fashion, drawing on an unparalleled archive of original designs, illustrations, works on paper, sketchbooks, theatre sets and photographs, none of which have ever been previously exhibited.

Born in 1908 into a prosperous family, Osbert was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford where he made lifelong friends with the poet John Betjeman. His artistic training included studies at the Ruskin School of Art and the Slade, where he studied theatre design under Diaghilev’s scene painter, Vladimir Polunin.

Osbert first came to prominence in the 1930s with his witty illustrations of architectural styles published in two books, Pillar to Post and Homes Sweet Homes. Many of his definitions such as Stockbrokers’ Tudor, Pont Street Dutch and Vogue Regency have passed into the critical canon. For the first time, a group of Osbert’s original illustrations will be displayed including Stockbrokers’ Tudor.

His brilliant drawings from a related volume Drayneflete Revisited, which traces the impact of changing architectural fashions on a typical market town from the Restoration to post-war planning, will also reveal Osbert’s genius as an architectural satirist.

The war years saw the start of Osbert’s career as a cartoonist. It led Anthony Powell to describe him as one of Britain’s great war artists due to his ability to cheer up the nation in her darkest days. One of the revelations of this exhibition will be his powerful anti-Nazi drawings, which he executed for the Sunday Express.

In 1944 he was posted to Athens, where he played a key role as a propagandist against the communist insurgency. Osbert developed a great love of Greece and two travel books were the result, Classical Landscape with Figures and Sailing to Byzantium. Original drawings from both will be displayed. There will also be illustrated manuscript diaries of other journeys in Greece, Egypt and France.

After the war Osbert became one of the leading designers for Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, building on his training at the Slade. His acclaimed designs for La Fille Mal Garde for Frederick Ashton are still staged. Original scene and costume designs will be on view as well as unpublished photographs of Osbert working with some of the greatest operatic stars.

This section will also display examples of his murals including those for the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum in the Regency Revival style, (rediscovered as a result of the exhibition) and the Zuleika murals for the Randolph Hotel in Oxford.

He was also much in demand as an illustrator working with friends and contemporaries. He designed book jackets for Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, along with illustrations of classic works by Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Simon Raven and many others.

Osbert’s close circle of friends will be commemorated with a series of portraits by Osbert of John and Penelope Betjeman, John Piper, Freya Stark, Benjamin Britten, Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. Osbert also loved recording his own persona as the dandy aesthete. Immensely photogenic, he was captured by the greatest portrait photographers of his time, including Lee Miller, Bill Brandt and Cecil Beaton.

However, Osbert became a household name thanks to the invention of the pocket cartoon in the Daily Express. As such, he was the precursor and peer of the greatest post-war cartoonists from Marc and Michael Heath to Matt. For over forty years, he entertained the nation with his daily dash of wit, conveyed through a cast of characters, headed by Maudie Littlehampton.

An unrivalled selection of original artwork will be displayed, starring Maudie Littlehampton, her husband Willie, Canon Fontwater, Father O’Bubblegum and Mrs Rajagojollibarmi. Osbert’s fascination with the Littlehamptons inspired the Littlehampton Bequest, an exhibition staged by Roy Strong at the National Portrait Gallery. The collection of ancestral portraits in the manner of famous painters from Hilliard and Gainsborough to Hockney and Bratby, reveals Osbert’s genius as a parodist.

The exhibition is sponsored by the John R Murray Charitable Trust.

Admission: Free.

Times: Monday to Sunday – 10am to 5pm.

The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, W1U 3BN.

For more information on this and other exhibitions call 020 7563 950 or visit the website.