like us on facebook follow us on twitter
Lincoln College

Sir Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986)

Cartoonist, theatre-designer, pioneer of the pocket cartoon, and undisputed master of the withering one-liner, this all-too neglected Lincoln homeboy was duly rewarded for his services to art and jovial humour with a knighthood in 1975 (indeed, he is the only cartoonist thus honoured). Undeterred by his uncle's less than encouraging prognostications ('it's all very well drawing funny pictures, but it don't get you anywhere'), Sir Osbert soon became something of a national institution as caricaturist par excellence, his career representing a paean to healthily ribald japery and unalloyed Comedy Value.

The offspring of a well-born family with an inexplicable passion for flagpoles (a harmless enthusiasm, he keenly points out, from 'pre-Freudian days' devoted to more innocent speculations), Sir Obsert seems to have spent most of his early childhood profitably, subjecting venerable female aristocrats to what might at best be called character-building experiences. Constructively exploiting a 'technical deficiency' in the plumbing at his mother's office at the Red Cross headquarters, on one occasion he deftly manipulated a plug regulating when the overflow from a lavatory cascaded into the street below to celebrate the arrival of a certain Lady Northcliffe. (Osbert's visits to this bastion of humanitarianism were, subsequently, curtailed). In a separate incident, though with no less amused objectivity, the young Osbert nonchalantly looked on as his Great Aunt A was mauled by a pack of Sealyham terriers, and gleefully chose to ignore her ineffectual plea, 'Osbert, don't just sit there! Do something!' These well-meaning dosages of farce served as ideal preparation for the benign mockery and satirical edge he would develop in later life as a caricaturist, neatly representing his penchant for side-splitting incongruity recorded from the safe vantage-point of wry and quite untroubled detachment.

The formal education he received at St Ronan's preparatory school in Worthing was, by comparison, quite uneventful. Osbert did, however, distinguish himself on the sports field with his athletic incompetence. And once a snivelling new boy at Charterhouse School, he seems to have enjoyed with even less relish the subsequent stages of his schooling, faithfully recording in his memoirs the numerous hardships meted out to Charterhouse's denizens (not least at the hands of its matron, known affectionately as 'the Hag'). However, this 'intolerably irksome' environment was undoubtedly an appropriate milieu for the incipient caricaturist, not least since such masters of the graphic arts as John Leech and Max Beerbohm had previously attended there. Otherwise, the only service this school appears to have offered Sir Osbert was the fondly-recollected pride induced in him by a fellow classmate, able to fart the opening bars of 'Abide with me' in perfect tune.

In keeping with his modest sporting prowess, Osbert was politely self-effacing in the classroom, refusing to eclipse his peers with any semblance of keenness or learning. Yet his limited scholastic credentials (the headmaster flatly denouncing him as 'irretrievably gauche' in his final report) was not deemed a hindrance to further education, at least not by Lincoln College, where he was promptly admitted in 1926 (perhaps, some cynics might say, on the basis of the college's healthy links with Charterhouse - which at the time of his acceptance supplied the Rector, Dean, and indeed most of the Fellows). Osbert possibly saw this college in particular as affording a neat continuation of his sporting and academic ineptitude, being as it was, in his own words, 'small, picturesque and not particularly distinguished athletically or scholastically' - its only virtues being its possession of 'the best seventeenth-century glass in Oxford' and its dubious privilege of hosting occasional visits from Louis MacNeice. Nonetheless, despite these unpromising environs, his time at Oxford was spent productively: he put these crucial formative years to good use, out-Woostering Bertie Wooster, and spending less time cultivating the Dress of Thought than his monstrous dress. Intent on becoming a 'figure', he fostered his penchant for gaudy checks, monocles, and the fulsome moustache (and it is surely in his honour that both Walters and Duckers & Son continue to thrive on Turl Street opposite Lincoln, catering to the tastes of that curious breed of young man (the current writer included) possessed of more money than dress-sense). When not indulging in such sartorial excess, he found time both to contribute cartoons to The Cherwell (the University magazine, and 'rather livelier' than The Isis for which he had formerly worked) and also to realise his thespian leanings, performing some notable parts for OUDS (the University dramatic society). Unquestionably his most distinguished portrayal came when he was fortuitously promoted, at the last minute, from the less than noteworthy rank and file of Goneril's drunken knights to a major role - the lynchpin of King Lear no less - the Duke of Cornwall's servant.

Quite unprepared, given this rigorous pedagogic programme, to sit Finals at the end of his third year, Osbert was granted another year in which to abandon all non-scholastic interests and to devote himself to matters literary. This fourth year was valuably directed to demonstrating that the traditional three-tier system of Finals grading was an inadequate gauge of learning, and to proving that genius can never be fully appreciated in its own lifetime, as Osbert proceeded to obtain an 'honest' fourth-class degree in English Literature. And he gallantly sustained this academic 'honesty' when reading for the Bar, modestly holding back his staggering erudition as he duly failed Roman Law once, Common Law twice, and walked out of the Real Property exam after a cursory glance at the paper to watch a Marx Brothers film. Let it never be said that Lincoln nurtures the wastrel.

If nothing else, these Oxford years engendered in Osbert, like his close friend John Betjeman, an appreciation of good architecture - an appreciation that was often evidenced by scathing nostalgia. Following his 1936 exposé of architectural faux-pas (Progress at Pelvis Bay), he was evidently pained in later years by the change and decay blighting the city of dreaming spires in the shape of a 'scurrying throng of suburban shoppers and housewives from Cowley' marring the ability of onlookers to value fully Oxford's unique 'architecture and people'. (Sir Osbert would surely have been comforted to learn of the marked improvement in the reputation of Cowley, undergoing something of a cultural renaissance from the 'urban Gehenna' of housewives and shoppers in his time to the urbane ghetto of hustlers and players in ours. Indeed, his broader anxieties about unwelcome change threatening the city's identity are surely quite unfounded, since Lincoln is, reassuringly, still small, picturesque and not particularly distinguished athletically or scholastically, and since the Oxford he knew was one peopled by bounders and cads, by asinine public-school types brusquely jumping the lunch queue with repeated expressions of feigned apology ('sorray! sorray!'), by young men who should be gracing the pages of Debrett's peerage drinking themselves silly in Bollingeresque clubs, etc).

In 1939, he was appointed cartoonist to the Daily Express, and could give free rein to his satire. Sir Osbert was surely well-suited to this line of work: not only did his time at The Cherwell provide the ideal 'work experience' so prized these days, but he was surely delighted to be able to relive the Charterhouse mentality in his new place of employ, where messenger boys were treated as fags, assistants praised for owning up and reprimanded for not standing up when the head-editor entered the room. Astonishingly, given his indolence under such conditions when at school proper, Osbert worked ferociously for the Express, drawing some ten thousand cartoons over a virtually uninterrupted four-decade period. These sketches, when not bewailing the decrepitude of public transport, indulged in gentle mockery and mercurial ridicule of conspicuous eccentrics from what Osbert clearly deemed a lamentably-vanishing Merrie Englande: walrus-mustachioed policemen, cigar-wielding colonels with gargantuan whiskerage, dilapidated members of the pince-nezed aristocracy, crinolined beauties, irregular (if not wholly unhinged) Oxford dons who regularly (if inexplicably) took refuge in trees, ecclesiastical hams, public-school twits, to name but a few.

With the outbreak of war, Osbert was involved with the censorship bureau and was dispatched as a press attaché, in the later years of the conflict, to Greece, of which he became instantly enamoured (rather remarkably, given its parlous public transport system). Inspired by its awesome edifices, Osbert published Classical Landscape with Figures soon after the war and, sating his fondness for Mediterranean colour, he designed a few years later a stage set for Pineapple Poll - the first among many such theatrical furnishings. Of course, he had already received perfect schooling in the art of stage decoration (for want of a better expression) from his thespian offerings at OUDS: taking his method-acting in the aforementioned performance of Lear a little too fanatically, he nearly hewed off the Duke of Cornwall's arm with his broadsword ('steel, not papier-mâché', he contentedly recollected), lending dramatic credence to his victim's exit-line, 'Regan, I bleed apace'.

Despite the aura of sobriety conferred on him in later years by a catalogue of awards - he was appointed a CBE in 1953; and, as if to admit that they might have got it wrong half a century previously, Oxford awarded him an honorary D.Litt in 1975 and Lincoln made him an honorary fellow in 1979, with additional honorary degrees coming from Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and St Andrews and other fellowships from University College London and RIBA - Sir Osbert seemed intent on aging gracelessly. As a further indication of his sublime refusal to take himself at all seriously, he started to resemble the caricatures which he had spent the last forty odd years (and they certainly were odd) poking fun at: like Maudie Littlehampton's husband Willy, he cultivated the country gent's moustache and gratified his awful dress-taste with bespoke pinstripe suits and striped shirts (once again in the Walters mode). The words of one Homer J. Simpson are surely strikingly apropos to our egregious knight of the realm: 'Maybe, just once, someone will call me Sir, without adding you're making a scene'.

Always finding the temptation of 'scabrous indecency' hard to resist, Sir Osbert could not, even by the most generous apologist, be deemed 'politically correct', at least by today's rather blinkered standards. (It might be fairer to say that, perhaps hoping to add to his tally of accolades, he was striving for what could be called a 'Duke of Edinburgh award'??). In one Signs of the Times sketch (23/11/1954), a well-attired diplomat waiting outside an embassy room casually asks his Italian counterpart sitting next to him, 'Been to any good orgies lately?'. Osbert's fondness for all things counter, original, spare and most decidedly strange was reflected even more fully in his jovial Littlehampton Bequest - a parodic collection celebrating the Littlehamptons of Drayneflete (notice his infantile fascination with drainage and overflow coming to the fore again) and offering an irreverent B-side to the official National Portrait Gallery.

In view of such a wealth of visual and written gems, this inimitable Lincolnite, invariably good-humoured and unerringly droll, is also, regrettably, too often overlooked. Yet, for one able to turn even the most eye-watering of childhood memories into unadulterated hilarity (as in his guffaw-inducing description of how the 'tenderest parts of his anatomy' were attacked by a flock of chickens in an outdoor water closet at Eastwinch Hall), this undue neglect in the annals of art - at least compared to the reputation enjoyed by another alumnus eternally celebrated for a bravura (nay, rather, inspired) prosody linking 'cat' with 'hat' through rhyme - would surely only have prompted a chortle from him, or perhaps another pricelessly indecorous caricature.


Chris Stamatakis, 18th June 2005