Messums Wiltshire is proud to present an exhibition on behalf of the Estate of Henry Lamb; treasures from one of the masters of early 20th century portraiture. Highlights include rare portraits of T. E. Lawrence, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Henry Lamb was an Australian-born British painter who was a founding member of the Camden Town Group in 1911. He is most well-known for his portrait of the eminent critic and biographer Lytton Strachey, which now belongs to the Tate collection. Lamb was the son of a mathematician, Horace Lamb, and was brought up in Manchester where, after encouragement from his parents, he studied medicine at the Medical School of Owen’s College. He then moved to London where he studied painting under William Orpen and Augustus John at Chelsea School of Art. He also studied with Jacques-Emile Blanche in Paris in 1907 and 1911, spending two summers in Brittany where he painted his haunting and arguably most moving image Death of a Peasant, now part of the Tate collection. Lamb’s early work was influenced by Gauguin, and his paintings were included in the second Post-Impressionist exhibition, held at the Grafton Galleries, London in 1913.
The outbreak of World War I prompted Lamb to resume his medical studies and he became a battalion medical officer with the 5th Enniskillen Fusiliers, before being invalided home. In August 1928 he married his second wife, the novelist Lady Pansy Felicia Pakenham. Later in life he was appointed an official War Artist from 1940-1945 during World War II. Shortly before the war, in 1938 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. A highlight of Messums Wiltshire’s exhibition is the preparatory drawing for this commission, as well as several glorious black and white photographs, issued by the government, which were used to aid his artistic process. Standing tall, top-hat in one hand and umbrella in the other, this sketch commemorates the moment before Chamberlain left England on his way for talks with Hitler in Germany in pursuit of peace. The following year, on 3 September 1939, Chamberlain was to declare that Britain was at war with Germany. Other war paintings and drawings from this time capture individual army men and women, including the commanding painting of Major General Robert Frederick Edward Whittaker 1942 a splendid, stout fellow in a painting overwhelmed with greens – the watercolour sketch of which can be viewed in our exhibition.
Lamb’s sketch of T.E. Lawrence
Henry Lamb: People & Portraits presents the sketches, preparatory drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of some of Lamb’s most impressive portraits. Well-connected in academic circles, (his father had been a professor of Mathematics at Manchester), Lamb was commissioned to paint multiple Oxford dons including Robert Ranulph Marett, (1935) and Joan Pernel Strachey, (1926) the latter of whom was principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. A study for the Group Portrait, (1936) of all female fellows at St Hugh’s College, Oxford is particularly striking for its use of colour and dynamic pyramidal composition. Depictions of famous young socialites including Mollie Courtauld and artistic muse Edie McNeill show them fashionably immortalised; evocative of an era, the bright young things at the beginning of the century. Beautiful women in pearl earrings, such as the society hostess, Lady Ottoline Morrell with tightly-curled hair and ruby red lips, add glitter to Lamb’s oeuvre as he captures the heady lifestyle of a socialite at this exciting pre-war time. Another work of note is an early pencil sketch of the archaeologist, officer, diplomat and writer T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who earned international fame as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The portrait in this exhibition is almost certainly before the first world war, as cross-hatching and confident heavy mark-making dominated Lamb’s early style. Lawrence’s youthful and instantly recognisable features are cleverly realised by Lamb’s use of precise, economic strokes. Lamb’s technical prowess triangulates the often-binary relationship between sitter and painter, extending an invitation of communication outwards to the modern-day viewer. His intimate, cropped style and soft, muted colours sympathetically domesticates his subjects, making them feel like friends or relatives, rather than strangers that were painted more than a century ago.
After World War I Lamb moved to Coombe Bissett, in Wiltshire, where he played host to a number of writers, artists and intellectuals. Lamb oscillated between painting the famous faces who came to visit him at Brookside house and family and friends. Among his visitors were Bryan and Diana Guinness, Lord David Cecil, Cecil Beaton, (who was a neighbour at Broad Chalke and the subject of a famous portrait), along with Kenneth Clark and John Betjeman, who on one visit wrote the following verse detailing the idealised and harmonious living arrangements of the painter and his family:
Oh, the calm of Coombe Bissett is tranquil and deep Where Ebble flows soft in her downland asleep And beauty to me came a pushing a pram In the shape of the sweet Pansy, Felicia Lamb.
Drawings and paintings of his close family dominate his private sketchbooks and journals. Countless images of his daughters and wife Pansy demonstrate his ongoing desire at mastering narrative structure in composition through perspective, scale and the proportions of the human body. Perhaps it is possible that these manifold, repetitive sketches are indicative of Lamb’s search for an enigmatic perfection in the composition. There is a sense of celebrating continuity with a return to symbols such as children, breast-feeding, mothers; as well as the dissemination of learning from generation to generation through reading and conversation. Lamb’s fascination of death, prevalent in his early war works, is arguably superseded by this renewed interest in enduring life – a more hopeful tone to his later oeuvre. Family portraits were also commissioned from Lamb, such as The Elliot Family, (1935) a resplendent pencil and watercolour sketch of the Scottish family kilted in their drawing room will be on view in this exhibition. His own face makes regular appearances as wonderful self-portraits complete with wire-rimmed circular glasses.
A retrospective of Lamb’s works, Henry Lamb: Out of the Shadows can be viewed at the Salisbury Museum running from 26 May to 30 September 2018.
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