Henry Lamb and Lytton Strachey met amid the leafy Georgian squares of central London, where the Bloomsbury group gathered in the drawing room of two young sisters, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. The group was known not only for its liberal approach to relationships but also the ground-breaking ideas which it fostered, its members numbering among them the economist John Maynard Keynes, the art critic Clive Bell, the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Stephen, and the publisher and civil servant Leonard Woolf.
Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), biographer and writer, was a core member of this intellectual set, having studied at Cambridge alongside Thoby Stephen, Vanessa and Virginia’s brother, as well as Keynes, Bell and Woolf. Strachey established his reputation with the book Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, which received enormous critical attention for its original analysis of the lives of four of the most revered Victorian figures: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General George Gordon.
Lamb was first introduced to the group by his older brother Walter, and Strachey rather fell in love with him; and whilst his ardour was not reciprocated, the two built up a friendship over the years. Strachey first sat for a portrait for Lamb in 1908, prompting Lamb to write to him: ‘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). Lamb went on to make a number of further studies and drawings of Strachey, culminating in his most famous portrait, Lytton Strachey of 1914, in the collection of the Tate, London, for which the present work is a study.
After two years of preparatory studies for the painting, Lamb completed a large portrait of Strachey in April 1913. However, it was not exhibited, and dissatisfied with the painting, Lamb decided in 1914 to use the work as the basis for a new attempt, painting over the original canvas, and replacing a pot and brushes with the chair and hat which can be seen in the present work. Study for Lytton Strachey is a supremely stylish work, capturing Lytton in a languid pose, his long limbs draped leisurely. He is seated in Lamb’s studio in the Vale of Health, Hampstead, looking every inch the intellectual, attired at Lamb’s insistence in ‘those brown slippers…’ and ‘the reading specs’ which he asked Strachey to bring (ibid, p.41). Using pen and ink, Lamb has deftly captured the precise details of the scene, delineating folds of fabric, delicate fronds of foliage, and the interwoven boughs of the wicker chair with thoughtful and incisive strokes. Following the publication of Eminent Victorians in 1918, Lamb added the two figures of Dr Arnold and Florence Nightingale into the background of the painting, which can also be seen in the present work.
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