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Henry Lamb: the dazzling uncle who put me in the picture – Ferdinand Mount

Blog | By Ferdinand Mount | Mar 11, 2020

Double take: Ferdinand Mount with the 1957 portrait of him by Henry Lamb (Credit: Dafydd Jones)

'Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things' opens at the National Portrait Gallery on March 12. The show includes portraits of Beaton and Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb. Lamb drew – and romanced – the Bloomsbury Group, fought in the First World War and, in 1957, painted his 18-year-old nephew, Ferdinand Mount

By the time I came to know him, Henry Lamb (1883-1960) was getting on a bit. To me he looked like a little, dried-up, elderly man, strangely wiry down to the rims of his glasses.

I could not believe it when my mother told me that in his youth he had been dazzlingly attractive, in fact irresistible to either sex, though she did not add that bit because I was still only fourteen and my mother was delicate of speech. He had been nearly twice her sister Pansy’s age when they married, 45 to her 24.

His heyday had been in the years before the First World War. Ottoline Morrell had been infatuated with him before she took up with Bertrand Russell. Ka Cox was the mistress of Rupert Brooke, the handsomest young man in England, yet she fell for Uncle Henry after he flirted with her for an evening. Brooke was so jealous he had to seek psychiatric help.

Augustus John had been Lamb’s mentor and best friend, but John’s legendary partner, Dorelia McNeill, did not hesitate to caper off with Henry on an affair which stuttered on for nearly twenty years.

Even the bisexual painter Dora Carrington warmed to him as they rode across the Wiltshire Downs. And as for poor Lytton Strachey, he panted after the relentlessly heterosexual Henry on their strenuous walking tours, sploshing through the Lakeland becks and the bogs of Donegal in pursuit of this unattainable love object.

Michael Holroyd, in his biography of Strachey, describes how ‘Lamb’s tantalising smile, his expression in profile of complacent and intensified mockery, could almost make him faint with pleasure… In his delirium of heightened fantasy, he began to see Lamb as a demon, a mythical creature of the woods, a satyr.’

Those are the eyes of longing that stare out from Henry’s amazing droopy portrait of Lytton in the Tate.

What a contrast there is between the tender and meticulous drawings Lamb made of Ka and Dorelia and his brusque and casual treatment of the women themselves. He dumped Ka, for example, as ‘too good and a tiny bit slow and plodding’.

The composer Lewis Dodd in Margaret Kennedy’s novel The Constant Nymph, still my favourite romance of all time, was immediately recognised as based on Henry (her cousin George Kennedy was his oldest friend).

‘Loose locks straggled across his bony forehead and hung in a sort of fringe over the muffler at the back of his neck. His young face was deeply furrowed, nor was there any reassurance to be found in his thin, rather cruel mouth or in light, observant eyes, so intent that they rarely betrayed him. His companion, distrusting his countenance, found nevertheless a wonderful beauty in his hands, which gave a look of extreme intelligence to everything he did, as though an extra brain was lodged in each finger.’

The Constant Nymph was made into two stage versions and three films, with Lewis Dodd being played by, among others, Noël Coward, Ivor Novello and Charles Boyer (with Joan Fontaine as the doomed Tessa who dies of pneumonia from looking out of a train window). Quite a ripple to leave behind.

Alas, by the 1950s the loose locks had gone; the beautiful hands, which had painted and played the piano and performed surgical operations so delicately, were crippled with arthritis. But the light blue-green eyes were still watching.

For all the company he kept, Lamb was never quite part of Bloomsbury. He had his own ideas and he often mocked theirs. Besides, he was a bit outside their milieu. Born in Australia, where his father had been teaching mathematics, he was educated at Manchester Grammar School (which he didn’t like much) and studied medicine in Manchester (he didn’t like the city much either). He then threw up his training halfway through to become a painter.

So far, that did fit with the Bloomsbury rejection of bourgeois society in favour of Art. What didn’t fit was that, when war broke out, he volunteered, to the horror of Strachey and his fellow pacifists. His health was too poor for him to become a fighting soldier, and he wasn’t fully qualified medically; so he became a medical orderly at Guy’s, the lowest of the low.

In the autumn of 1915, he got leave to complete his degree. Even there, his memorable appearance caught the eye. Nurse Manners, later better known as Lady Diana Cooper, recorded how ‘It was lovely to cross the court and the so-called garden to see Henry Lamb, then a golden-haired student.’

The following summer, he went out as a lieutenant to Salonica with the Northumbrian Field Ambulance. Oddly enough, his old friend Stanley Spencer was on the same front, as a private – which he remained throughout the war, taking sardonic pleasure in the fact that the only time he met Henry there, he was an officer on horseback.

In 1917, Lamb was posted to Palestine, where he won the Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when an outpost company was suffering numerous casualties from enemy bombardment. He proceeded to the locality at once and under heavy shelling got all the wounded moved to shelter, remaining with the company until the bombardment ceased.’

This gazetting was not to be mentioned in Bloomsbury circles.

Just before the Armistice, he was badly gassed, and during his long recuperation he began work on his two great war pictures, Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment (Imperial War Museum) and Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma (Manchester City Gallery) – derived from his service in Palestine and Greece respectively.

These two works are as vivid and poignant as they are pictorially inventive, worthy to hang alongside the best war pictures of Spencer, Nevinson and the Nash brothers. Together with his pre-war canvases of Breton peasants and fisherfolk of Gola, a now uninhabited island off the coast of Donegal where he painted in 1912 and 1913, they are as moving as anything by any 20th-century British artist.

He took what he needed from Manet and Cézanne, and from the Nabis and the Fauves, but he kept the human element.

Perhaps because his work is scattered, much of it in the Imperial War Museum or still in private hands, we do not quite appreciate what he was capable of.

He and my aunt Pansy had three children. After his tumultuous first marriage to the erratic Euphemia, he settled down at Coombe Bissett, just outside Salisbury, and, in his brother-in-law Anthony Powell’s words, ‘threw himself into family life with the same sort of energy and enthusiasm that he brought to everything else he did, behaving as if no one else had ever produced children’.

His youngest child, my cousin Valentine, and I became best friends, and together we would circle Salisbury Plain watching my father ride in point-to-points (Val’s love of racing and betting, far from leading to disaster, was to propel him into a record tenure as editor of the Irish Field). At Coombe Bissett, we would giggle together over the tea table under Henry’s watchful gaze, usually shaded by a straw hat to protect his eyes.

After visits to the dentist, just outside the Close at Salisbury, my mother and I would go next door to meet Aunt Pansy at the House of Steps café. Sometimes Henry would come too, and while the two sisters gossiped, he would quiz me, in a gentle sardonic way:

‘What are you reading at school?

‘French mostly, for A-levels.’

‘And what French writer do you like best?’

‘Oh, Pascal,’ I said – the first name that came into my head, just because he was on the syllabus.

‘Pascal.’ His light, quiet voice manages to convey infinite disbelief, without the slightest inflection of sarcasm.

‘Do you really swallow that stuff about it being a good bet to wager that God exists?’

‘Oh well…’

‘I think that’s a bet that even Val wouldn’t dream of making.’

What Uncle Henry did share with the Bloomsberries was a hatred of religious mumbo-jumbo. He found it particularly hard to take when his beloved elder daughter, Henrietta, became a Catholic. And even I came under repeated fire:

‘Why do you go to Holy Communion?’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ I say, blushing, ‘I just find it, er, refreshing.’

‘Like a bath?’ he enquires with a glint behind his cruel specs. I grunt in a non-committal way and butter another of the toasted teacakes for which the House of Steps is celebrated. He is so beady, so full of spark. And the old embers are still burning. ‘How sensible that you can see girls undressed on the films now,’ he says to me, aged fifteen, apropos of nothing. He keeps up the old Bloomsbury sport of nude bathing too.

‘Haven’t you ever seen a grown man naked before?’ he says to my teenage cousin Antonia (Pakenham, later Fraser), catching her startled eye as they splash across the river at the bottom of his garden.

In 1957 – the summer after my mother dies – Uncle Henry asks if he may paint my portrait, perhaps to cheer me up, just as he cheered her up with his long, chatty letters from Ireland when she was in hospital. There is no possibility of my parents paying for the portrait – and it is by portraits that he has managed to feed his family, a never-ending grind of academic luminaries in their robes and other notables, mostly with moustaches.

It would be easy to write down his later years as a decline from the high intensity of his early period. Yet I think of them rather as an unexpected human triumph, transforming himself from a self-pitying, often callous womaniser into a deeply sympathetic and lovable père de famille, whose only vanity is his modesty. I remember him reading out the headline from the Times review of his latest exhibition, ‘The Modest Mr Lamb’, chuckling, then sitting down at the piano to play some Bach or Mozart, which even I can see is exquisitely played.

Now I am sitting in his high, chilly studio with the north light. I am wearing my brown suit which I am rather proud of, though everyone else thinks it’s disgusting. My parents spent their last holiday together in Verona and they brought me back a gaudy tie, as I have a taste for gaudy ties. This one has a pattern of slashes of orange, crimson and scarlet, and it is called Il Fulminante, because apparently the ties in this shop in Verona all have names, which I have never heard of anywhere else. Anyway, I immediately fall in love with Il Fulminante, perhaps partly in memory of my mother.

I sit very still and proud in the cold air, fingering the tie to make sure it is knotted properly while Uncle Henry goes on talking about naked girls – a one-sided conversation as I haven’t seen any, but then probably most artist-model conversations are one-sided, because the model has to concentrate harder. Sometimes he talks about painting, about how he loves Manet, ‘those great envelopes of form’, but I have no answer to that either, except to keep even stiller.

How strange it is to have someone looking at you so hard and so long and at nothing else in the world. What a lot of other people those light, watchful eyes have focused on over the years – Dorelia and Ottoline and Diana Mitford and Thomas Hardy and Evelyn Waugh and Neville Chamberlain, all gone now, but the gentle slap of the brush on the canvas goes on.

The painting itself seems almost like an anticlimax. How lugubrious I look in it, like a demoralised cod. That’s not because it’s a bad picture, or even because I am thinking about my mother; it’s my default expression. No, it’s a likeness all right.