Osbert Lancaster was born in Notting Hill, London, on 4 August 1908. His father was Robert Lancaster, a businessman, and his mother was the flower painter Clare Bracebridge Manger, who had exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. Lancaster's father was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. He was educated at St Ronan's Preparatory School, Worthing, before going to Charterhouse, Surrey - where the headmaster considered him "irretrievably gauche." In 1925, aged seventeen, Lancaster left to study at the Byam Shaw School of Art.
In 1926 he went to read English at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary and friend of Stephen Spender, Randolph Churchill, John Betjeman and James Lees-Milne. Lees-Milne recalled him as in the social set led by Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College: "Bowra's influence over Osbert was marked, to the extent that he adopted the guru's booming voice, explosive emphasis of certain words and phrases, and habit in conversation of regaling his audiences with rehearsed witticisms and gossip." While a student Lancaster contributed caricatures and humorous articles to Cherwell, and from 1929 to 1930 studied art at Oxford's Ruskin School.
Lancaster left Oxford in 1930 with a fourth-class degree. He began reading for the Bar, but from 1931 to 1932 also studied stage design at the Slade under Vladimir Polunin - formerly Diaghilev's designer. He then failed all his legal exams, but in 1933 married his first wife Karen, daughter of Sir Austen Harris, Vice-Chairman of Lloyds Bank. He subsequently worked as a freelance illustrator, designing posters for London Transport and others, but in 1934, with Betjeman's help, became an assistant editor on the Architectural Review. In 1936 Lancaster wrote and illustrated the book Progress at Pelvis Bay, the first of many satires on architecture and social mores. In 1937 he was also art critic for the short-lived magazine Night & Day.
In 1938 Lancaster joined Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express. "He was a bastard", Lancaster later recalled of his proprietor, "but by God he knew his journalism." The Daily Express Features Editor, John Rayner, commissioned Lancaster to produce single-column cartoons, in the style of Continental newspapers. He began drawing them for Tom Driberg's "William Hickey" gossip column, being paid only for those that were used. Rayner coined the name "Pocket Cartoon" for this new feature, in reference to the German "pocket battleships" then in the news. The first appeared on 1 January 1939, and Driberg, who had known Lancaster at Oxford, was quite happy with them: "They had the additional merit", he noted laconically, "of relieving me of about three inches of writing space."
Lancaster's pocket cartoons were a success, and were later transferred to the front page. He always went into the Daily Express office to draw his cartoon, on a sheet of Daily Express notepaper folded in half. James Cameron, who joined the Daily Express in 1939 as a sub-editor, recalled that Lancaster seemed to do no preparation for his cartoons: "he used to come in in the afternoon, and he'd sit down...take up his piece of notepaper, and fold it over, and then ponder, and he gave the impression that not an idea had come into his head until he was there." By six in the evening the cartoon was finished, ready for approval by the editor. When he had approved it, photostats would be wired to the Daily Express printing offices in Manchester and Glasgow.
Lancaster also drew large political cartoons for the Sunday Express, signed "Bunbury" in reference to the imaginary character in Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest. After the outbreak of war in 1939 he also worked for a time at the Ministry of Information News Department, before moving to the Foreign Office News Department in 1940. From 1942 to 1944 he was also art critic for the Observer. Then, from 1944 to 1946, he was attached to the British Embassy in Athens as Press Attache. Back at the Daily Express James Cameron, who was unfit for military service, stood in for him as pocket cartoonist. As Cameron recalled, he drew the first cartoon "as a joke at Christmas," but the Daily Express took him on at £3 a drawing. The job lasted two years, and Cameron found it a strain to produce a new cartoon every day, confessing that "I used to go mad for days before": "I was lucky if I could get two ideas a week."
After the war Lancaster drew caricatures for the Strand Magazine and covers for The Ambassador, painted murals, produced books and designed advertisements - including ones for Krug Champagne. In 1947 he was appointed Sydney Jones Lecturer in Art at Liverpool University, and was also a governor of King Edward VII School, King's Lynn. In 1951 he worked with John Piper on designs for the Festival of Britain, and, on Piper's recommendation, designed his first stage set for Sadler's Wells - subsequently designing for many other theatres including Glyndebourne, Royal Opera House and the Bulgarian State Opera.
Lancaster also continued to draw a daily pocket cartoon for the Daily Express, assisted by holiday reliefs such as David Myers, then still an art student. Lancaster's answer to the problem of inventing a daily cartoon was to create a gallery of stock characters - including Maudie, Countess of Littlehampton, her monocled husband Willy, and an entourage of faded debutantes and society "types." As was pointed out, it seemed strange for Lancaster to people his cartoons with characters who would clearly never read the Daily Express, but they had their uses. Asked if he ever felt like getting rid of his stock cast, Lancaster replied frankly that "a cartoonist needs his family of characters": "Once he's got them, it's a great relief: he knows he can always fall back on them. Its much easier then."
Even when his cartoons did not follow Daily Express editorial policy Lancaster suffered very little editorial interference. "I can't remember the last time one was rejected", he confessed in 1958: "Except on grounds of taste - if someone feels I've gone just a bit too far." Mel Calman, who illustrated the Daily Express William Hickey column at this time, was impressed by Lancaster's urbanity. "Whilst I agonised over my little bits and pieces", he recalled, "he would stroll in, read the papers, chat to friends, wander about, settle down, shoot his starched cuffs a few times, stroke his impressive moustache, draw his cartoon and suavely disappear into the night" - leaving the picture desk to rub out the pencil sketch beneath the ink.
By 1964 Lancaster had stopped going into the Express office on Sundays, and his output was down to five cartoons a week, but he still preferred to work at the office when possible. It was noted that "he generally arrives at the Daily Express building at about 4 p.m. and goes to his desk, which is one of many in the general Features Department, a noisy, clattering part of the office where he sits happily, puffing Turkish cigarettes." He would produce a single rough drawing for submission to the editor, then work up the final drawing.
Lancaster worked remarkably fast, recalling later that "the cartoons only used to take about five minutes...no, maybe we'd better say fifteen - don't want to make it sound too easy!" By the time that Ian McColl became editor of the Daily Express in 1971, the reception of Lancaster's daily cartoon was a matter of ritual: "At precisely 6 o'clock of an evening he would present himself at my office and, with a courteous bow of the head, deliver his then legendary Pocket Cartoon...drawn in enlarged A4 form with a pithy handwritten caption of sheer genius. The ritual never varied. I would bow in return and remark on the aptness of his work. This seemed to embarrass him. He would ward off the praise with a deprecatory wave of the hand."
Lancaster's cartoons had definite snob value. In 1965 Basil Hone noted that his captions "invariably contain throw-away references to upper-class behaviour, which no doubt gives the Express reader, fresh from his contemplation of the Giles cartoon, the impression that Osbert Lancaster is more sophisticated than he sometimes is." Hating cars, modern architecture, the rising tide of bad taste, and the general process of change that was taking Britain ever further from the Edwardian age, Lancaster came to be a parody of himself, and in 1967 Tom Driberg concluded that indeed "the mask has become the face".
Lancaster's cartoons came to reflect the lives of a very small group of people in London society, focused on the Garrick and Reform Clubs. Ian McColl once observed that "I doubt if our readers in Machrihanish will get the drift of your caption": "With a deep sigh dear old Osbert replied: 'What a pity' - pause - 'for them'." However, Lancaster rejected the suggestion that he had become a right-wing reactionary, preferring to describe himself as "the eternal floating voter" and his cartoons as simply "the sort of daily comment on the main news headlines the non-cretinous section of the population might make."
Lancaster was greatly influenced by Max Beerbohm and admired George Morrow, Dulac and Caran D'Ache, but disliked the work of Linley Sambourne. Voted CCGB Topical Cartoonist of the Year in 1962, he was one of the founder members of the British Cartoonists' Association in 1966. His first wife Karen died in 1964 and in 1967 he married the journalist and magazine editor Anne Scott-James. Lancaster had been appointed CBE in 1953, and in 1975 he received a knighthood. He was still drawing pocket cartoons for the Daily Express six years later, but confessed that "the awful thing to fear, when you've been doing it as long as I have, is the thought: 'My God. Did I make this joke back in 1949?' One hopes no one will remember if one did."
By the time Lancaster stopped drawing pocket cartoons for the Daily Express in May 1981 it was estimated that he had produced around 10,000 of them. He died in Chelsea on 27 July 1986. On his death Mel Calman described him as "the best and the wittiest daily cartoonist in England", whilst The Times observed that "with his poached-egg eyes, martial moustaches, tweedily dandified clothes and bufferish-pose as the last of the great clubmen, he seemed to have stepped out of the magically preposterous world of his own drawings."
- CSCC Archive, cutting of interview with Lancaster by George Scott "My Life with Maudie", c.1958, pp.6-7.
- Herbert Kretzmer "Imperturbable Osbert Lancaster", Daily Express, 4 January 1964.
- Basil Hone "Drawing the Joke", The Old Lady, March 1965, pp.21-24.
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.35-8.
- Tom Driberg "The man who created Maudie is a squinch expert, too", Evening Standard, 6 June 1967, p.10.
- Richard Boston "Awfully Clever Chap", Guardian, 5 March 1974, p.10.
- CSCC Archive, transcript of Keith Mackenzie's interview with James Cameron, 14 July 1977.
- Edward Lucie-Smith "Long Live Lancaster!" Art and Artists, April 1980, p.36.
- CSCC Archive, cutting of Elisabeth Dunn "A Life in the Day of Osbert Lancaster", Sunday Times, 1981.
- Robin Young "Sir Osbert, a most 'awfully clever chap'," The Times, 29 July 1986.
- Mel Calman "Osbert Lancaster, trail blazer among cartoonists", Guardian, 29 July 1986.
- Godfrey Hodgson "The Lancaster Bequest", Independent, 8 August 1989.
- Ian McColl "Osbert's Pocket Cartoons", Glasgow Herald, 17 February 1992, p.8.
- James Lees-Milne "A Wit that Glittered", The Oldie, September 1996, p.45.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.135-7.
5 artwork with handwritten captions (dated, 10/1/53, 22/1/53, 29/5/53, 3/6/53, 2/6/77)