The detached observer
Peyton Skipwith applauds this long-overdue reassessment of the work of Henry Lamb
Henry Lamb (1883– 1960) is an important figure in the history of early-20th-century british painting, but he is better known for individual works, such as his portrait of Lytton Strachey, than for the totality of his oeuvre. The fault is largely his for, as with his elder contemporary William rothenstein, Lamb’s early precociousness became swamped by a rather stultifying seriousness, with the result that his later works tend to be worthy, rather than inspired. With rothenstein, this pall descended during a visit to India in 1912, but for Lamb, it probably had more to do with his other discipline, medicine, and the after-effects of being gassed in the First World War.
Lamb was by nature detached; his daughter, Felicia, describes him in the Messums catalogue as ‘nervous as a cat’ and Harry Moore-gwyn, curator of the Salisbury show and author of its catalogue, notes Lamb’s abhorrence of ‘the idea of being swept up by any movement or assumed discipleship of any artist’. Dora Carrington graphically described him as ‘looking like an army doctor who has seen “life” perhaps on the Tibet frontier or
who has suffered from low fevers in Sierra Leone and also has a past murder, or crime, which makes him furtive and uneasy’.
Like Rothenstein, Lamb was heir to the drawing discipline of Alphonse Legros at the Slade, although in Lamb’s case, it was transmitted through Augustus John and William Orpen at their Chelsea School of Art. The early self-portrait drawing from the Ashmolean Museum and the portrait of his first wife, Euphemia (born Nina Forrest), intuitive and brimming over with panache (both in the Salisbury exhibition), date from this period and it is hard to believe that they are from the same hand as many of the later portrait drawings.
I met Lamb’s widow, Lady Pansy, standing in front of Epstein’s 1908 bust of Euphemia at the Tate in the late 1960s and she told me, somewhat wistfully, that he had really had all his interesting life before she met him. His marriage to Euphemia was short-lived, although they didn’t get divorced until 1928, and it was during the previous quarter-century that he did his most avant-garde paintings. Mr Moore-gwyn describes how his work ‘can appear to meander through European styles from Augustus John to Gauguin, from Puvis de Chavannes... to Picasso’s “Blue Period”’. Certainly Phantasy (1912), a painting that I’m ashamed not to have registered previously, must be the most overt homage to early Picasso by any British artist of the period.
Lamb picked his influences carefully, and also his painting grounds, preferring to work in semi-primitive communities in Brittany and the West of Ireland, particularly on the island of Gola. It was there, in 1913, that he produced Fisherfolk, Gola Island, one of his most complex multifigure compositions. His work of this period is marked by sparseness of palette and tautness of design, which achieves its apogee in the 1914 self portrait, in which he depicts himself as if he was a slightly crudely carved wooden mannequin.
It’s no surprise that Lamb spotted the talent of the budding young Stanley Spencer, whom he befriended and whose work he championed and, for a brief moment, influenced. By 1918, however, when he painted his war masterpiece Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment—
intended for the Imperial War Museum’s unrealised Hall of Remembrance—the influence was beginning to flow the other way. Through the early 1920s, when living in Poole, Dorset, Lamb painted a remarkable series of townscapes, animated but under-inhabited, as well as the splendid Tea Party, with Spencer in full flow. At this time,
he also developed his unique, somewhat ungainly approach to portraiture, which has its roots in Fisherfolk, Gola Island—
The Kennedy Family (1921) and The Anrep Family (about 1919) being prime examples— before he gradually slipped into more bucolic mode.
For his last 30 years or so, Lamb practiced mainly as a portrait painter. Although living in Wiltshire, he kept a studio in South Kensington for the convenience of his sitters and Mark Girouard, who sat to him in 1957, describes in Mr Moore-gwyn’s catalogue how his sitters were ‘sparingly fed with Priory biscuits and glasses of sherry’.
The concurrent selling exhibition at Messums Wiltshire concentrates on the portrait drawings of family, friends, neighbours and distinguished figures, such as Neville Chamberlain, T. E. Lawrence and Lady Ottoline Morrell. It provides a fascinating period record, although many, such as the man with a monocle in a dashing charcoal sketch, are as yet unidentified.
‘Henry Lamb: Out of the Shadows’ is at The Salisbury Museum, 65, The Close, Salisbury, Wiltshire, until September 30 (01722 332151; www. salisburymuseum.org.uk). A slightly modified version will be at Poole Museum, Dorset, May 18–September 29, 2019. ‘Henry Lamb: People & Portraits’ is at Messums Wiltshire, Court Street, Tisbury, Wiltshire, until July 8 (01747 445042; www.messumswiltshire.com)
Next week ‘On Form’: stone sculpture at Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire
‘An early self portrait and one of his first wife are intuitive and brimming over with panache
Lord Moyne with his Parents, Bryan and Diana (née Mitford) Guinness at Knockmaroon near Dublin, with their 3ft 6in Irish wolfhound
Above: Paradise Street, 1923, painted in Poole. Below: A pastel sketch of Lamb’s daughter Henrietta