The de­tached ob­server

Pey­ton Skip­with ap­plauds this long-over­due re­assess­ment of the work of Henry Lamb

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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