We were the Lambert boys

Paul Driver

  • The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit by Andrew Motion
    Chatto, 388 pp, £13.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2731 7

Andrew Motion’s book is intended to portray a family’s rich self-destructiveness. He begins with Larkin’s famous quatrain:

Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

The Lamberts – painter George (1873-1930), composer-conductor Constant (1905-51), and manager of The Who, Kit (1935-81) – got out as early as they could, and of the two who had kids neither showed paternal enthusiasm or skill. The misery deepened fully in Kit – the account of his drugged and debauched last years is particularly painful – and he certainly didn’t have any kids himself. Yet the Lamberts were scarcely representative of the kind of ordinary family with its banal despairs that one feels Larkin had in mind, and this book is rather a study of the larger, more peculiar family life of Fitzrovian pub culture than an epic of the typically domestic version. Motion’s Tolstoyan incipit, ‘Families are societies in miniature,’ seems the wrong way round: this family was society writ large – its members were influential upon mores, and were artists (Kit a quasi-artist) who between them embraced virtually all media, leaving a mark on the histories both of fashion and of achievement. Motion’s project is not just to tell the story of passing generations, which he does very readably and well, but necessarily also to describe and evaluate aspects of English culture – revivalist painting, classical music in the Twenties and Thirties, the foundation of a native ballet, pop music in the Sixties – which he does with considerable confidence and resource.

But when the book is read, one does not feel that a synoptic view of a century’s artistic activity has been recorded: the Lamberts were, after all, marginal figures – over-talented de-spoilers of their own talent. Their achievements look smaller with the lapse of time, and if it were not for Constant’s half-dozen really distinguished musical works, Motion would hardly have a book at all. Even when reading about Constant’s development and interaction with the great (Diaghilev, the Sitwells), one is often keener to learn of the luck his rival and friend William Walton was having. Walton’s history lurks in the shadows of the Lambertian narrative, and his more succulent achievement stimulates the greater curiosity. As for George Lambert’s overall failure, Motion himself supplies the required epitaph: ‘At a time when many English, French and Spanish contemporaries filtered the lessons of their predecessors through distinctly modern sensibilities, George remained studiously traditional. He chose revivalism where they opted for pastiche; he preferred lavish reduplication where they cultivated irony.’ Kit’s success in launching The Who to international super-stardom only just merits the attention of a critical-biographer – as well write a book on Walter Legge or Arthur Gelb. Since the Lamberts as a dynasty do not have the special cultural force of the Bloomsbury Group, the Vorticists or even the Auden Group, we are left with the supposition that the biography’s publishers, who already include Constant’s Music Ho! and his mentor Cecil Gray’s Musical Chairs on their list (perhaps they are planning to add Gray’s Survey of Contemporary Music or Bernard Van Dieren’s Down Among the Dead Men), felt that an investment in the Lambert field ought to be consolidated.

Nevertheless, the rambunctious Lambert lives were and are entertaining. The life of the patriarch, George Washington, father of the like-named painter and as short-lived as his successors (1832-73), is little documented: he was a Baltimore railway engineer who emigrated to St Petersburg to work there; he died from heart failure on a visit to London two months before the birth of his only son. Motion writes: ‘Like his son, grandson and great-grandson, he was adventurous in his ideas and his travels, wide-ranging in his experience, and rebellious in his individuality.’ His son’s life is copiously documented, paradoxically more so than his nearer-to-us but telephone-using descendants, but, as written here, much less vividly interesting than Constant’s or Kit’s. George seems to have been a singularly unattractive figure. Born in Russia, reared in the Australian outback under the severe tutelage of a grandfather, he was a natural draughtsman (‘he can draw a horse as well as he can ride it’), unsure whether his priorities lay with art or action, and in consequence retaining throughout his life a philistine bias. He lived bohemianly a while in Paris, set up house and career in London, raffishly enjoying a ménage à trois, became an inveterate Chelsea clubman and uncertain dandy, then a notably successful war-artist, before brushing off wife and sons and backing into Australian limelight and the eventual glory of an ARA.

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