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.

He was a man ‘able to show strong feeling only when he was removed from the circumstances which had prompted it’; rarely at all, it might be added, in his painting. He was selfish and pompous and vain (an Australian journalist wrote of ‘the squid-like clouding of a modest soul in the sepia of unbridled swagger’); not actively dissolute – indeed he maintained that sexual abstinence was conducive to art – but full of embarrassing antics designed to promote himself as a ‘character’. He was disciplined in his work, minutely devoted to his craft. What he wrote of himself in Paris applies equally well to the early life of his son Constant: ‘I joined the religious few whose ritual stated very clearly that it was not the one achievement, not the one egg, the one talent that mattered two whoops in Hell, but the carrying on of the fine mechanisms from day to day, the improvements, perfections going on as additions to a really fine, solid structure.’ The remarks compare curiously with comments in a sickbed letter about the decision of his son Maurice to become a sculptor: ‘If the boy deliberately chooses Art as a career, it is not for me to stop him, even if it be possible ... As an instructor – and I suppose I am one of the best – I am perfectly willing to give him a short course of training, and there it ends, and he plunges or drifts. As long as he realises that it really is an abyss.’

Motion concludes George’s life by remarking that ‘although he spent most of his life fighting a rearguard action for a style which now seems unduly nostalgic and rigidly orthodox and although he made many compromises to satisfy his desire for fame and security, he nevertheless’ (my italics) produced two groups of paintings worthy of unambiguous respect. One is a pre-war series of disparate set-pieces including Miss Thea Proctor (‘a masterpiece of orthodoxy: at every point its traditional structures are filled with warm personal feeling’), Holiday in Essex (fetching in its reproduction here) and Lotty and the Lady. The other is the war commissions, including ambitious canvasses such as The Nek and The Battle of Romani as well as smaller oils: Motion earlier compares their ‘crafty mingling of accurate observation with metaphorical form’ to the work of Stanley Spencer.

Motion is usually perceptive in his sometimes quite elaborate commentaries on paintings (looking at the reproduction of A Sergeant of the Light Horse, I wouldn’t agree, though, with either part of his verdict that it is ‘a masterpiece of camp’) – he is expressive, too, when interpreting family photographs. His ability to make musical commentary and judgment appears less. In the second part of the biography, evaluation of Constant’s work is generally accomplished by lengthy quotation from other writers. Motion doesn’t make mistakes (the thoroughness of his research and firmness of his grasp throughout the book are impressive), and does come up with his own choice phrases (the early works of Lord Berners are ‘small masterpieces of Firbankian tristesse’), but the entire Constant section relies far too heavily on Richard Shead’s excellent critical biography, currently unavailable, issued in 1973 by Simon Publications, London. Motion admits his debt in the Acknowledgements, but virtually nothing we are told hasn’t stemmed from Shead; the narrative sequence is reduplicated (Motion’s account of Constant’s first marriage, for instance, follows Shead’s anecdote by anecdote); the musical analysis is directly quoted, and Shead’s sources are rifled. The extracts from letters that appear in Motion are in Shead; the Angus Morrison unpublished chapter made available to Shead and the Anthony Powell memoir which prefaced Shead’s book are re-quarried. And Motion never cites references – a major irritation of this biography without bibliography.

Constant’s life-story is told with gusto, nevertheless. The brilliant conversationalist and punster – a schoolboyish Wilde or down-to-earth Coleridge – is admirably evoked. We appreciate his pleasant antinomies of appearance (the little boy playing rounders in ‘an amethyst satin tunic over his very baggy knee breeches’) and character (Cecil Gray’s ‘fin de siècle Frenchman with morbid faisandés tastes and a bluff and hearty roast-beef-and-Yorkshire Englishman; Baudelaire and Henry Fielding combined’). We believe in a personality devoted to art but deploring artiness, cherishing self-expression but abominating self-promotion; just as we are able to glimpse the fashionable ballet-conductor pausing to talk to an alley cat. We encounter the members of the Fitzrovian set with whom he drank himself to a death made the more premature by undiagnosed diabetes: Anthony Powell (who used Lambert as a model for Hugh Moreland in A Dance to the Music of Time), William Walton, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John, Elisabeth Lutyens, John Lehmann, Louis Macneice, Alan Rawsthorne, Michael Ayrton. In the dark background are the diabolic Bernard Van Dieren and Philip Heseltine (‘Peter Warlock’), two men, composer-writers like himself, to whom Lambert maintained a fierce loyalty, before and after their deaths.

Lambert’s cardinal importance in the establishment of the Vic-Wells, later the Royal Ballet, is valuably stressed by Motion, and the vicissitudes of the latter part of his conducting career are sympathetically followed. Most of one chapter is allocated to Music Ho!, Lambert’s witty and classic ‘Study of Music in Decline’ published in 1934 when he was 29. The useful summary provided of the book’s argument is Shead’s, though the parallel offered for what it is worth with Larkin’s All What Jazz is Motion’s. His comments are reasonable but tepid. Admittedly the book’s thesis is fairly complicated, and its assertions are often subversive and wrong-headed, but its pure articulate zest should here have been conceded and loudly celebrated. Hardly any evaluative book on music before or after it is as good. Motion’s attempts to link its critique of Modernism with George Lambert’s reactionary views on painting are forced and unfair. More useful and interesting, though tricky to negotiate, would have been a definition of the oblique relationship between Constant Lambert’s critical stance and his compositional practice. One quotation to this end is offered – ‘the whole section called “Post-War Pasticheurs” ... has too much of the exaggerated indignation of a reformed sinner castigating his own erstwhile lapses’ – and variously attributed to Robert Henderson and Angus Morrison.

Music Ho! is more accurately prophetic, too, than Motion allows. He deems rather improbable the hailing of Sibelius as avatar of the music of the future: yet Sibelius’s symphonic form-building is seen more clearly in its originality, and is more widely influential today than ever before (Maxwell Davies is much preoccupied in his recent work with Sibelius). Lambert’s high, perceptive estimation of Kurt Weill (‘almost the only composer who can evoke in music the odd, untidy, drably tragic background that is presented to us so forcibly by William Faulkner in Sanctuary and Light in August’), his vituperative placement of Hindemith, his alertness to and humorous enlargement on the dangers of mechanical sound reproduction with its consequence, ‘the appalling popularity of music’, are critical gestures which may well endear him to us today.

Motion is reliable in his distribution of emphasis over the small corpus of Lambert’s compositions, even if short on original insights. One of his apparently striking illuminations – Constant’s ‘habit of writing in a way which turned aesthetic theory into practice, rather than registering a direct lyric appeal, closely paralleled his father’s approach to painting. It also closely resembled his brother’s academic attitude to sculpture’ – fades on examination. Constant’s music is never academic, and the sense in which it turns aesthetic theory into practice (the remark, apropos the 1930 Piano Sonata’s ragtime element, concerns the broad aesthetics of ‘symphonic jazz’) is a Stravinskyan, not a routinely conservative one. Moreover, direct lyric appeal is what Constant’s best music – Pomona, The Rio Grande, the Piano Concerto – has if it has anything. But comparisons between Constant’s creative achievement and that of members of his family are merely an invidious necessity of this book. Constant is one thing: George, Maurice (whose work Motion strangely overlooks) and Kit are another.

The Rio Grande is nicely characterised by Motion, and appropriately linked to Walton’s Façade (both deploy jazz and popular idioms, both speak wistfully for the period in which they were written, and of course Lambert was an esteemed narrator of the Walton work as well as the composer of the first 11 bars of its Lambertishly-titled number, ‘Four in the Morning’). But a gratuitous programme-note from Shead is dumped on the page, and there is little teasing out of just how the work engages its special fantasy (seemingly exotic, like Façade’s, and similarly possessed of a deep and strange Englishness), or crucially transforms its text by Sacheverell Sitwell and assures itself a popularity, again like Façade’s, beyond the ephemeral.

The Rio Grande (1927) – a mere quarter-of-an-hour of music for chorus, an orchestra woodwind-less but heavy with percussion, and prominent piano obbligato – is sui generis and a masterpiece. It equals Milhaud’s La Création du Monde in interest as a classic of transfigured jazz, but is more diversified and, since its disparate materials are unified, greater in expressive reach. Its narrow bounds encompass a choral idiom by turns vivacious, pungent (the unforgettable opening expostulation: ‘By the Rio Grande/They dance no sarabande’) and reflective, modelled on Negro singing (particularly that of the Music Hall artist Florence Mills), but also close to Delius’s manner and what would be Walton’s in his 1931 Osbert Sitwell oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast; a dancing, hard-hitting orchestral style, somewhat anticipatory of Leonard Bernstein’s; and a marvellously discursive piano part (meant to be like the ‘I’ of a novel) – jazzy, musing, brittly elegant, and replete with cadenzas. These elements magically coalesce, and the indifferent lines of Sitwell’s poem spring to life.

Lambert’s other masterpiece is his Concerto for piano and nine instrumentalists of 1930-1, about which Motion has practically nothing to say, and that modicum is Shead quotation. The work was written under the impact of Philip Heseltine’s suicide and is dedicated to his memory. It makes brilliant use of jazz rhythm and colour, but bluesiness rather than unfettered enthusiasm prevails, and demotic vigour becomes painful irony – the piano’s surprise ‘feminine’ ending to the work is unbearably sad. The concerto might be compared in quality and kind to Manuel de Falla’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Five Instruments (1923-6): Lambert achieves similar compactness of form and economy of writing. Richard Rodney Bennett, who seems almost a reincarnation of Lambert and whose recorded performance of the concerto is magnificent, was right to say that the work has not a superfluous note.

Other works of more than temporary interest are the ballet commissioned by Diaghilev when Lambert was 21, Romeo and Juliet – the sonatina fifth movement has a splendidly Stravinskyan ring; its rapid successor, the ballet Pomona, Eight Poems of Li-Po for voice and instruments, Music for Orchestra, the jazzy though magniloquent Piano Sonata, the masque Summer’s Last Will and Testament – ambitious, uneven and suffering by comparison with Britten’s Spring Symphony with which it shares a Nashe poem – and the sweet, Satie-esque piano duet Trois Pièces Nègres pour les Touches Blanches. The oeuvre, totalling only 21 mature items, is slender enough, and Lambert’s potential seems to have been unrealised. Why was he unable to develop like the not more talented Walton (whose music his own so often resembles in atmosphere, tanginess of rhythm, turns of phrase), or the apparently much less talented Michael Tippett, born in the same year as Constant and outliving his and his son’s combined span?

It wasn’t lack of endowments or discipline; it was – this book proposes, no doubt correctly – a congenital self-destructiveness. The exuberance of the man, attested by all his friends, even his divorced wife, who admitted (30 years after his death), ‘Every word he said lifted you up,’ was nourished by, gradually submerged in, booze. The last pages of Motion’s account are a pathetic study of self in decline, and lead directly to the life-story of Kit, which is a study in yet more wilful decline, more disturbing for the reader, although the most easily readable of the biography’s three sections. Motion is not now encumbered by secondary sources (his sources are mostly verbal) or weighty critical obligations, and his always fluent style makes of this recent, close-to-home material a narrative as gripping and graphic as that in any magazine.

Kit, in his younger days, resembled a young Auden without genius or much talent. He was ‘notoriously shambolic’; a schoolmaster called him ‘the inkiest boy I ever knew’. As publicity manager for the ETC at Oxford he did nothing ‘until two days before the first night. He then had hundreds of leaflets printed, hired an aeroplane, and threw the leaflets out over the town.’ He commented: ‘It’s nothing. Once you’ve rearranged the entire seating of Lancing College Chapel to sit next to the boy you fancy, anything is possible.’ His sexual manners had an Audenesque briskness: ‘I like girls, but they’re such a lot of work. First you have to send flowers, then you have to shine your shoes, then you ask them out to dinner, and to the theatre. You might get a kiss. With a boy, it’s a bottle of whisky and out the door in the morning.’ Nor was his clothes-consciousness greatly inferior to Auden’s: on one occasion ‘he took all his ties to the cleaners before he was due to leave Paris, hastily collected them immediately before boarding his train, and opened the packet to discover a very old pale blue lady’s woolly, which he took to wearing in bed when he was ill.’

His childhood was blighted by parental neglect – a rapidly dawning consciousness of exclusion from Constant’s sophisticated world and a basic conviction of his own superfluousness. Photographs at all stages of his life show a belated, hopeless, pitiable and doomed expression. He inherited the Lambert susceptibility to stimulus – vast quantities of drink and drugs, in his case. He hardly ever found his way, but he brought all his abilities to bear on at least one thing: the manufacture of The Who. It is in his promotional and creative work on behalf of a rock band that father-and-son symmetries are unexpectedly conspicuous: ‘The qualities that Constant found in the ballet were those that Kit adapted and magnified in the band. Their performance required different forms of expression to be mingled; they combined excitement and variety within a loose structure of affections.’ Motion points out (somewhat circularly) that Kit’s career – as founder of the first successful independent record company, Track, besides managing The Who – ‘like his father’s excited, expanded and exalted the middle ground of culture; because the impact of his work was so pervasive, it proved even more influential than Constant’s.’

Kit had a definite managerial knack. His sexual vantage-point allowed him to see that the band should treat its ‘boy audience like 13-year-old girls’; he encouraged them to run on stage like the Rolling Stones and ritualise smashing their guitars at the end of their act (it first happened by mistake); and it was he who put the all-important stammers into ‘My Generation’, The Who’s best song. Through Kit’s efforts The Who lent their part to the Sixties utopia, but they were not the first rock band nor the finest, and Kit’s vicarious achievement oughtn’t to be exaggerated. It would be different if the creation of the Beatles or David Bowie – the only examples so far of pop genius – were the issue.

Kit became a casualty of the Sixties even as he had been the improbable personification, what Tony Palmer calls ‘a parody case’, of that decade. He was beaten up – effectively murdered – at a Kensington gay club by drug-traffickers whom he could not pay. He fell down his mother’s staircase later and suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage. His friends’ verdicts on his character – paralleling those passed on Constant – emphasised without illusion his exuberance and vitality. Deidre Redgrave said: ‘However down he was, he was always funny. When he was here I thought he was the wittiest person in the world ... He was one of the biggest life forces I’ve ever met.’ Pete Townshend said: ‘When he died I felt I’d lost the last sense of everything coming into my life; I felt from now on I was never, never going to get topped up again.’