The current exhibition of works by Henry Lamb showing at Poole Museum provides a rare opportunity to see some of the output of this talented artist brought together in one place. From early works when Lamb was developing his style to mature portraits, landscapes, observational views and character studies, the exhibition also includes pictures from his six transitional years in Poole, the subject of the following article:
The artist Henry Lamb came to Poole in the spring of 1922 when he bought No.10 Hill Street. At the time Poole, like the rest of the country was struggling to adjust to post-war life and an economic depression. Although the town had its prosperous suburbs with big houses and scenic views, Hill Street did not fall into this category. Like a lot of streets in the old town, it had come down in the world and its properties now served a variety of different uses. In fact, Lamb described it in a letter as ‘a slum street which was once genteel’. His immediate neighbours were baker Walter Chaffey on one side and on the other, Harry Arnold, a fishmonger. The street also contained two chapels, Charles Brixey’s farrier’s yard, the Temperance Hall, Arthur Knight’s, coachbuilders, Whitbread’s brewery, the Yeoman Inn and J.H. Cole’s furniture warehouse besides many residential properties.
No. 10, once the home of Poole’s venerable Sergeant-at-Mace, George Squibb, was a three storey house with cellars and a porticoed doorway, built in the late 18th century. Its appearance was plain but elegant. At the back of the house was an early 19th century extension and a long narrow garden with a cottage at the far end, which Lamb converted into a studio. Inside, the house retained many original features such as the window shutters and the tall panelled doors, as can be seen in some of Lamb’s later interior paintings. It was quite a large house for one person but had the advantage of providing plenty of room for guests without disrupting his work space.
Before the war, Henry Lamb had been making his mark as an artist. As a young man he had abandoned medical studies in Manchester to enrol at the Chelsea School of Art and study under Augustus John and William Orpen. Here he met aspiring artists and writers and moved in Bohemian circles. The same year he also married Nina Euphemia Forrest, artist’s muse and model, although they soon separated. During visits to France and Ireland he began to develop his style as an artist and produced some successful work. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Lamb, then 31, completed his medical training and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He went on to serve in Macedonia, Palestine and France. In September 1918 he received the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’, tending to troops suffering heavy casualties from enemy shelling. The following month, he was badly gassed in France and spent the final weeks of the war in hospital in London.
After the armistice, Lamb was demobilised with impaired health. In fact as much as 20 years later he was described in the notes of an electoral register as ‘RAMC Captain discharged – permanently unfit’. At 36 he had to pick up the threads of his artistic career. After convalescence he began a large war painting,‘Irish Troops in the Judean Hills surprised by a Turkish Bombardment’, one of a number commissioned by the Imperial War Museum from contemporary British artists. Completing the picture acted as a kind of therapy. In 1920 he found a quiet location at Stourpaine where he worked on another large war picture ‘Advance Dressing Station on the Struma 1916’, this time for Manchester City Art Gallery.
Lamb began to look around for a quieter place to live and work than his studio in Hampstead. He knew Dorset from working at Stourpaine and from visiting Augustus John at Alderney near Poole where the John family had lived since 1911. Lamb was in love with Augustus’s mistress, Dorelia McNeill, and they had a long relationship, although Dorelia’s devotion to Augustus never wavered. He probably chose Poole, because it was small, quiet and close to Alderney while being accessible to London where he retained his studio.
After settling in to Hill Street, Lamb soon found inspiration in the streets of the old town with glimpses of the sky, the bulk of the warehouses and other buildings and the jumble of rooftops around him. He started a series of townscapes in dark warm tones of brown, terracotta and slate blue which are among his most successful works. It was not necessary to go far from home to find inviting views. One of the earliest of these paintings was ‘View from the Artist’s Studio’, also known as ‘The Coffin Shop’ which was painted looking from the first floor window of his house across the garden to the uneven roofs and chimneys beyond. A large workshop, used by a neighbouring undertaker, was the main feature. The painting called ‘A Street in Poole’ showing dark buildings silhouetted against a glowing sunset sky may depict Lagland Street a short walk away and another painting was of Dear Hay Lane, just behind Hill Street.
Although Henry Lamb was finding subjects to inspire him, he was still suffering from poor health and insomnia and periods of depression. In the summer of 1922, he had his first one-man show at the Alpine Club Gallery. One work on show was a large portrait of his friend, the writer Lytton Strachey, showing the sitter as an immensely long, lanky figure, draped in his chair. The correspondent of the Pall Mall Gazette, C. Lewis Hind, called the painting ‘a subtle, courteous caricature’ adding that ‘it is satanically clever but if I were Mr. Strachey I would assassinate the artist. No jury could possibly convict.’ This edgy quality in Lamb’s work appealed to Hind and the general verdict on the exhibition was favourable and encouraging.
In Poole Lamb continued to explore the local scene. At the time it was commonplace to see dole queues and unemployed men in the streets and around the Quay. One pugnacious character took to pestering Henry Lamb until he arranged to paint his portrait. Called ‘The Doler’, the painting shows the young, anonymous sitter in cap and neckerchief turning an uncompromising face to the world. Another portrait of Augustus John’s son 16-year-old Romilly John, speaks of visits to Alderney. Lamb also entertained at Hill Street. In 1922 and 1923, he had visits from fellow artist Stanley Spencer who tended to rely on Henry Lamb for advice and support, both moral and financial. At the Poole house Spencer met art patrons, Jean-Louis and Mary Behrend who offered him a commission to paint a picture for their planned memorial at Burghclere. Other visitors included Dorelia McNeill, T. E. Lawrence and friend and confidant, Dora Carrington. A talented musician, Lamb liked to play the piano for himself and friends. He also attended performances of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Dan Godfrey whose portrait he would later paint.
More Poole townscapes date from 1923, including a view of the lower High Street and another of Paradise Street showing a block of port warehouses in warm reds and browns and figures hurrying towards a narrowly glimpsed Quay. In 1924, he received very welcome recognition when George Kennedy published a monograph on his work in the Contemporary British Artists series. There were also commissioned portraits of eminent figures such as one of Sir Michael Sadler. In 1925 he exhibited works, including ‘The Doler’ at a Tri-National Exhibition at the Chenil Galleries. A relaxed and informal self portrait in Hill Street from 1925 shows Lamb from behind lying back in a basket chair by the fire, one foot on the mantelpiece, books scattered on the carpet and the cat sitting by his side.
In 1926, discontent with the economic situation culminated in the General Strike. In Poole the authorities tried to avoid confrontation while organising volunteers to keep essential services going. To Lamb the streets looked little different from the normal dole queues and idling unemployed men. A large picture of 1926 entitled ‘Football Edition’ shows groups of men in the evening light eagerly clustering round copies of the evening paper to check the football results, perhaps a rare moment of excitement in a rather dreary existence. The scene is the junction of High Street and Towngate Street in front of the Ansty Arms (now the middle of Falkland Square). Living in the centre of town, Henry Lamb would have been well aware of local events, both grim and light-hearted. That year, a photographer recording the start of the Beating the Bounds ceremony caught a rare picture of him in the market place with his bicycle, chatting to a man in uniform.
Another painting of 1926 is ‘The Tea Party’. This interior shows five people sitting round a tea table in the ground floor dining room of No. 10. Open double doors allow a view of the sitting room at the back with its bow window looking on to the garden. One of the guests at the party is Stanley Spencer, who is talking animatedly and another has been identified as art critic, Leverton Harris, listening with concentration. The other three people are probably two neighbours and Henry Lamb himself, seeming strangely detached and isolated from each other because of the exaggerated size of the table. The uncomfortable atmosphere is very different from his relaxed self portrait of the previous year.
In 1926 Henry Lamb met Lady Pansy Pakenham, the sister of the Earl of Longford, who was working in the office of his friend, architect George Kennedy. In spite of nearly 20 years difference in age, their relationship progressed and they became engaged. Lamb and his first wife Nina had lived apart for years but they were still married and he had to sort out a divorce before he could marry Pansy. Meanwhile, an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries early in 1927, where he showed both ‘Irish Troops . . .’ and ‘The Tea Party’, confirmed Lamb’s growing reputation. The West Sussex Gazette called him ‘a painter of originality, breadth and distinction who treats art seriously’. The following year, the forthcoming marriage was announced and was reported in the press under the headline ‘Brilliant Artist to Marry. Engagement to Earl’s Sister’. The couple bought a house at Coombe Bisset in Wiltshire.
Henry Lamb’s time in Poole had come to an end and he was to move on to a happier phase of life with his wife and family. Nevertheless, the years in Poole had been a time of recuperation, inspiration and development when he had built his reputation and produced some of his most distinctive works. Over 20 years later he was to paint a picture ‘The Level Crossing, Poole’, suggesting that his memories of the town were pleasant ones.
Main sources: Clements, K. Henry Lamb: The Artist and his Friends Redcliffe Press 1985 / Davies, Peter Art in Poole & Dorset Poole Historical Trust 1987 / An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset Vol II South-East Part 2 Royal Commission on Historical Monuments 1970 / Moore-Gwyn, Harry. Henry Lamb. Out of the Shadows Paul Holberton Publishing 2018 / Directories of Poole 1922-7 / Press reports.