Page-turner: On the Chesney Wold motorway bypass

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The Independent Online

It's not often you hear snorts of mirth during the press view of an exhibition. Critics are supposed to be professionally impeturbable, but "Cartoons and Coronets" at the Wallace Collection in London is enough to shake anyone's poise. Osbert Lancaster was a cartoonist, set designer and illustrator of genius, and the exhibition showcases his abundant talents.

The selection of his pocket cartoons for the Daily Express demonstrates that Lancaster's political wit is evergreen, or perhaps simply that plus ça change... He sketched vivid scenes from his travels abroad, and designed programmes and sets for Glyndebourne. There's also a display of his celebrated architectural satires, including illustrations from Drayneflete Revealed, the record of the transformation of an idyllic small town into a ruined metropolis, ironically described as progress. A pretty gothic house is hemmed in, overshadowed, shoved and encroached upon over the centuries until all that's left is a row of dismal crenellations on a street corner.

There's also a series imagining what happened to the great houses of English literature: Bleak House's Chesney Wold is menaced by pylons and skirted by a busy motorway (a truck with the legend "Société anonyme des camions énormes" is trundling by) and Crochet Castle is overshadowed by the Pang Valley Grit and Gravel Co Ltd.

Lancaster's most famous character, Maudie Littlehampton, was the star of his pocket cartoons. The Littlehamptons, his down at heel yet noble fictional family took over his imagination to the extent that he even drew their family portraits, collectively known as "The Littlehampton Bequest". The conceit is that each generation chose the modish painter of the day, so that the portrait of the 17th century Viscount Drayneflete is by Van Dyke, while Stubbs, Holbein, Zoffany and Nicholas Hilliard take care of the others. And the point at which I gave in and snuffled with helpless laughter? The portrait of "Lady Jennifer", a hatchet- faced slattern complete with packet of Vim, by John Bratby.

The exhibition runs until 11 January, and to accompany it, there's an excellent illustrated book, Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster by James Knox (Frances Lincoln £25). Ten years after his death in 1986, his wife feared that his work had been forgotten. This sublime exhibition proves otherwise.

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