Modern & Post-War British Art

A Defining Portrait: Henry Lamb’s Study for Lytton Strachey

By Sotheby's

H enry Lamb’s portrait, Lytton Strachey, in the collection of the Tate, London, is arguably the Artist’s most important and famous painting. A Cambridge graduate, Strachey was a core member of the Bloomsbury group, going on to publish the widely-acclaimed Eminent Victorians in 1918, and in this painting Lamb captures his friend in a languid and relaxed pose, looking every inch the intellectual.  Lamb did a number of studies of Strachey over several years, first sketching him in 1908, prompting him to write: ‘I should very much like to make a more adequate presentation of you than that sketch… your posing is exemplary’ (Henry Lamb, quoted in Henry Lamb (exh. cat.), Manchester City Art Gallery, 1984, p.38).


HENRY LAMB, STUDY FOR LYTTON STRACHEYESTIMATE £40,000-60,000. MODERN & POST-WAR BRITISH ART, 21 NOVEMBER 2017

The present work, Study for Lytton Strachey, is a remarkably full and complete study for this painting, containing all the elements of the finished work, including the chair and hat which replaced the pot and brushes of an earlier painting, which he later painted over. It also notably features the figures of Dr Arnold and Florence Nightingale – two of the four subjects of Strachey’s Eminent Victorians – seen in the Vale of Health in Hampstead, which Lamb painted into the work in the Tate following the book’s publication in 1918.

In earlier studies, Strachey is pictured with a pince-nez, short hair and moustache, looking very different and more youthful compared to the present work. He grew a magnificent chestnut beard, and was inspired by meeting Augustus John, whom he was introduced to by Lamb whilst they were staying in Dorset, to wear earrings and grow his hair even longer. Strachey wrote to his mother on 9th May 1911: ‘The chief news is that I have grown a beard! Its colour is very much admired, and it is generally considered extremely effective, though some ill-bred persons have been observed to laugh. It is a red-brown of the most approved tint, and makes me look like a French decadent poet - or something equally distinguished…’ (Lytton Strachey, quoted in Paul Levy (ed.), The Letters of Lytton Strachey, Viking, London, 2005).

HENRY LAMB, STUDY FOR PORTRAIT OF LYTTON STRACHEY, SOLD IN THESE ROOMS, BOWIE/COLLECTOR, 10TH NOVEMBER 2016 FOR £100,000. ©THE ESTATE OF HENRY LAMB

A number of other studies of Strachey are in the collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. A study for the portrait was sold in these rooms in the Bowie/Collector sale, 10th November 2016 for £100,000, whilst a further study, in red chalk, was sold in these rooms in June of this year, for £40,000.

Henry Lamb is to be the focus of a major retrospective at Salisbury Museum in 2018, scheduled to travel to Poole in 2019.

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