Osbert Lancaster

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Lancaster (right) with Frederic Lloyd in 1971 at the launch of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company revival of The Sorcerer designed by Lancaster.

Sir Osbert Lancaster, CBE (4 August 1908 – 27 July 1986) was an English cartoonist, author, art critic and stage designer, best known to the public at large for his cartoons published in the Daily Express. Interested in art and architectural history and an activist for conservation, much of his work parodied British history and trends in the arts.[1][2][3][4][5][6]


Lancaster was born in London, and educated at St Ronan's School, and then at Charterhouse and Lincoln College, Oxford. At Oxford he became friends with John Betjeman and drew cartoons for the university magazine Cherwell. He graduated with a fourth-class degree in English after an extra year beyond the normal three years of study. Intending a career in law, he failed his bar exams and instead entered the Slade School of Art in London.

'The Opening of Historical Buildings', a drawing by Lancaster featuring Maudie and William Littlehampton.

Lancaster initially worked alongside Betjeman at the Architectural Review. In 1936 he published Progress at Pelvis Bay, the first of his many books of social and architectural satire. In 1939 he became cartoonist at the Daily Express, where he pioneered the pocket cartoon, a single-panel, single-column topical drawing appearing on the front page, since imitated in several British newspapers. In these he sympathetically mocked the British upper classes, personified by his characters William (8th Earl of Littlehampton, formerly Viscount Draynflete) and his wife Maudie. During his Express career Lancaster drew some 10,000 cartoons over a period of 40 years.

During World War II, Lancaster worked in press censorship, then in Greece as a Foreign Office press attaché. During the war years his cartoons provided comic relief from the privations of rationing and bombing raids.

After the war Lancaster published Classical Landscape with Figures (1947), The Saracen's Head (1948) and Drayneflete Revealed (1949), the last dealing with the Littlehamptons' architectural and artistic inheritances. Along with The Littlehampton Bequest (1973, foreword by Sir Roy Strong), and his non-fiction works Pillar to Post and Homes Sweet Homes, it provided a humorous and satirical, but very well-informed, survey of architectural and aesthetic trends in British and European history. A prequel to the Drayneflete series was The Saracen's Head, a humorous novel about Sir William de Littlehampton, a remote ancestor of the Littlehampton family who reluctantly took part in the Crusades.

Among the books he illustrated in this period was Say Please (1949) by Virginia Graham, a sardonic etiquette guide. In 1951 Lancaster worked with John Piper on designs for the Festival of Britain. This was followed by stage design work for opera, ballet and theatre including productions at Sadler's Wells and Glyndebourne, among them Frederick Ashton's production of La Fille mal gardée.

Lancaster was firmly embedded in the British upper middle classes, as is made clear by his autobiographies All Done From Memory (1963) and With an Eye to the Future (1967), and in his books illustrated by himself. In his later life it was observed that he affected a caricatured persona similar to those depicted in his drawings. When he was knighted in 1975 he became one of only a small number of cartoonists to have received the honour, John Tenniel and David Low being others.

Lancaster was the illustrator of many books by other writers, including Noblesse Oblige (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1973, edited by Nancy Mitford, and some editions of C. Northcote Parkinson's books, including Parkinson's Law,[7] its sequel The Law and the Profits,[8] In-laws & Outlaws ,[9] and Law of Delay.[10]

Lancaster was married twice: first, to Karen Elizabeth Harris, daughter of Sir Austen Harris, with whom he had a son, William and a daughter, Kara; second, after Karen died in 1964, to the journalist Anne Scott-James, whom he married in 1967 and who became his widow.[11]

Apart from his knighthood, Lancaster's honours included a CBE in 1953 and an honorary DLitt from Oxford, as well as honorary degrees from Birmingham (1964), Newcastle upon Tyne (1970), and St Andrews (1974).

Lancaster died of natural causes, aged 77, in Chelsea. The obituary in The Times summed up his career: "The most polite and unsplenetic of cartoonists, he was never a crusader, remaining always a witty, civilized critic with a profound understanding of the vagaries of human nature."[12] He is buried at West Winch, Norfolk.


Lancaster's drawings and cartoons were the subject of an exhibition marking the centenary of his birth, entitled "Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster" at The Wallace Collection from October 2008 to January 2009. Curated by James Knox and supported by the John R. Murray Charitable Trust of John Murray, it coincided with the publication of a new biography with the same title as the exhibition.[13][14]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Drayneflete Revealed (1949) – a humorous history of British architecture, tracing the development of the fictional town of Drayneflete over the centuries
  • Here, of All Places
  • Façades and Faces (London, John Murray, 1950)
  • Sailing to Byzantium: An Architectural Companion (London, John Murray, 1969)
  • All Done from Memory (1963) and With an Eye to the Future (1973), autobiography.
  • Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (London, Frances Lincoln Publishers, 2008)


  1. ^ Gavin Stamp (1 December 2013). Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design. Aurum Press Limited. pp. 44–55. ISBN 978-1-78131-123-3. 
  2. ^ Margaret A. Rose (28 June 1991). The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial: A Critical Analysis. Cambridge University Press. pp. 110–1. ISBN 978-0-521-40952-0. 
  3. ^ Peter Guillery (13 September 2010). Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular. Routledge. pp. 138–9. ISBN 978-1-136-94315-7. 
  4. ^ Kenneth Allinson (24 September 2008). Architects and Architecture of London. Routledge. pp. 300–2. ISBN 1-136-42965-4. 
  5. ^ Nicola Louise Wilson (23 May 2016). The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900-1940. BRILL. pp. 154–5. ISBN 978-90-04-31588-4. 
  6. ^ Andor Gomme; Alison Maguire (2008). Design and Plan in the Country House: From Castle Donjons to Palladian Boxes. Yale University Press. pp. 221–2. ISBN 0-300-12645-X. 
  7. ^ Book review, New York Times, 27 April 1958, p.BR8.
  8. ^ Diminishing Returns, News, The Times, Thursday, 12 May 1960; pg. 17; Issue 54769
  9. ^ Antiquarian book store listing, with cover image. Accessed 23 April 2008.
  10. ^ Book review, New York Times, 14 March 1971.
  11. ^ Lancaster, Sir Osbert in Who's Who 1986 (London, A. & C. Black, 1986).
  12. ^ Obituary of Sir Osbert Lancaster, The Times, London, 29 July 1986.
  13. ^ The illustrations of Osbert Lancaster, Design Week, 14 August 2008.
  14. ^ Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (Frances Lincoln Publishers, 2008).


External links[edit]