La Fille mal gardée

The late English artist Osbert Lancaster was a man of many talents, painter, writer, cartoonist, theater designer and humorist.

Born in London, England on August 4, 1908, Lancaster created a wide range of designs for
the theater, opera and ballet. After studies at Oxford and the Slade School of Fine Arts, he first revealed himself as a connoisseur of architecture in his illustrations for English poet John Betjeman’s Ghastly Good Taste in 1933; like the poet, he was obsessed by the spirit of place. He went on to contribute to the Architectural Review from 1934-1939. In 1939, he began creating cartoons for the London paper The Daily Express and, until his death in 1986, his adventures of the Littlehampton family were seen on the front page of that paper from time to time.

Lancaster loved to travel, to Greece, Italy, France, the Middle East and within his own British Isles. Lancaster’s instinctive sense of time and place caused choreographer John Cranko to invite him, in 1951, to design Pineapple Poll, a work in which he evoked Portsmouth, England of 1830. The set, with its stone municipal buildings, brick lodging house with Regency balconies, white-washed shops and cobbled streets, proved a great stage success. Pineapple Poll entered the repertoire of The National Ballet of Canada in 1959 and was later filmed by Norman Campbell and CBC TV, featuring these same delightful designs. The following year, Lancaster designed Cranko’s Bonne Bouche for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, a work that gave audiences a glimpse of South Kensington in 1910. For The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, he also designed Ninette de Valois’ Coppélia and, for London Festival Ballet, Harald Lander’s Napoli Dances in 1954.

In 1960, Lancaster created the designs for his best-known ballet, Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. For this work, both choreographer and designer wanted to avoid “any whiff of rural verismo” or 18th century dairymaids. Lancaster’s first idea was to use as a model the Images d’Epinal, popular hand-colored prints from France; he took from them their freshness and naiveté – and married this with inspiration drawn from French children’s book illustrations, notably those by Boutet de Monvel. Monvel (1851-1913) set a new standard for children’s books with bold and vivid pen-and-ink drawings, which were the rage at the turn of the last century. Monvel’s illustrations have a rate clarity and originality that capture the essence of French country life. He drew in pen with minimal detail, drawing only what would come out best in the printing methods of the time. His flat tone, pastel colors and larger-than-life rural settings planted the seed from which Lancaster’s inspired designs for La Fille mal gardée took root.

For the theater, Lancaster’s designs included Hotel Paradiso, Zuleika, Candide and All’s Well That Ends Well; and for opera, Don Pasquale, The Rake’s Progress, Falstaff and Peter Grimes.

As well as his work for the theater, Lancaster wrote 23 books, including two volumes of autobiography; one of his many activities outside the theater was as advisor to the Greater London Council on its Historic Buildings Board. He was married to journalist Ann Scott-James.

Lancaster was knighted in 1975 for his services as an artist, writer and cartoonist – the only cartoonist ever to be so honored. He died on July 27, 1986 after a long illness. He was 77.

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