Before the First World War, Australian-born British painter Henry Lamb (1883-1960) had been a bohemian, living a typically footloose existence in Paris and London.
But the conflict changed the trajectory of Lamb’s career. Serving in the British Army as a doctor-soldier, he was gassed in 1918 and returned home a more subdued artist.
What followed is the focus of In Arcadia, a new exhibition at Messums Wiltshire which runs until March 13.
Providing the nucleus is a small group of mid-career paintings and drawings from the artist’s estate, created after he moved to the quiet Wiltshire village of Coombe Bissett in 1928, newly remarried and an impending father.
These rustic subjects – skinny-dipping in rivers, still-lifes and flower picking in the bucolic landscapes around Salisbury, among others – were painted up to the aftermath of the Second World War.
“We are delighted to be shedding light on an often overlooked period of Lamb’s life,” says the gallery’s Johnny Messum. “Many of the paintings haven’t been shown since Lamb’s lifetime and so gives a rare insight into an extraordinary period of painting.”
Commercial interest tends to focus on the two decades prior to Lamb’s arrival in Wiltshire as a founding member of both the Camden Town Group and the London Group, and his association with the Bloomsbury Set.
His famous elongated portrait of the writer and biographer Lytton Strachey, now in the Tate, was painted in 1914, while his portrait of model Edie McNeill, from 1909, sold at Christie’s in 2017 for an auction record £230,000.
However, what followed in Wiltshire was “to be no less productive, no less brilliant,” writes art historian David Boyd Haycock in the show’s catalogue.
The exhibition’s star work is a double portrait of the artist and his second wife, Lady Pansy Pakenham, standing in their garden two years after moving to Coombe Bissett.
“I become more & more hermetical and would like to hear the good news that I need never again leave this house,” wrote Lamb of their beloved home Brookside, where he would remain until his death.
The grand oil, measuring 3ft 6in x 3ft 8in (1.07 x 1.12m), is a playful take on Thomas Gainsborough’s famous work, Mr and Mrs Andrews, which had been ‘rediscovered’ only three years before Lamb’s portrait.
Boyd Haycock observes that Lamb and his wife “are the relaxed and confident masters of all they survey… [Lamb’s] gaze and stance (albeit without the hunting musket) almost precisely mimic that of Mr Andrews.”
The artist frequently painted his family and friends in between portrait commissions that took him to estates and university towns across the country.
Lamb’s daughter Felicia said: “As we grew older, we were often called to sit for portraits – he never stopped working, and even when he had commissioned pictures on the go, he would simultaneously be painting a local scene, or a portrait of a neighbour, friend, or failing that, one of us.
“We were not always as obliging as our mother and had to be bribed – 6d an hour was the rate, hard earned as we had to sit still for long mornings and usually complained that the finished result was unflattering.”
Henrietta, Lamb’s eldest daughter, featured prominently in his work. Bookish and artistically talented, she sat for her father numerous times throughout her childhood and into adulthood. A small full-length portrait of Henrietta, seen on the cusp of adulthood wearing a white dress and holding a rose, features in the exhibition under the title Girl with Rose.
Another family portrait, The Infant, was painted following the birth of Felicia in 1933 and shows a Madonna-like Pansy holding the baby as she reaches towards a basin of water.
As well as family portraits, bathing was another constant theme for Lamb in the decade following his move to the country. Bathers, an oil painting of a group of nude women and a child in the River Ebble which bordered the Lambs’ garden, provides an English twist on a scene apparently inspired by the dream-like pastoral works of Puvis de Chavannes and French Neo-Symbolism of the late 19th century.
A separate component of the exhibition is devoted to portrait drawings Lamb completed in Brittany and Ireland before the First World War.
Drawn in pencil, these early pictures are priced in the low four figures and include a selection of sketches done on the front line such as those for his painting Advance Dressing Station on the Struma 1916, which hangs in Manchester City Art Gallery.