Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Passing of Lionel Lambourne

A few days ago, I received an email from PSW in London telling me she had gone to the funeral of Lionel Lambourne. His name may not be familiar unless you are a scholar or collector of Victorian art and visual culture. A search on the Internet brought up a short obituary in the Times which read: "Lionel OBE formerly Head of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, died peacefully on 12th February 2010. Very much loved and sadly missed by his wife Maureen, children Patrick and Helen and grandchildren Sky and Tom. Funeral at Mortlake Crematorium on 23rd February, 2.30 pm. Donations to the Albany Taxi Charity Fund." I knew Lambourne had been sick for some time, but of course news like this is always a surprise. PSW went on to say that although the funeral was sad there were also good moments as former colleagues shared stories about him. Those of us who work on the queer Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon (about whom I have blogged before) will forever remember Lambourne as the man who started the movement to bring Solomon back to the forefront of Pre-Raphaelite studies. Solomon’s 1863 watercolor Two Acolytes Censing seems appropriate to show in this sense, as it highlights the artist’s love of spirituality and religious ritual, and this picture exemplified for Lambourne Aesthetic-style painting (image courtesy of the Victorian Web).

Going through my files, I found a typewritten letter from Lambourne dated August 18, 1998. At that time, I had been working on an annotated bibliography on Solomon that was published in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and subsequently became the basis for the Simeon Solomon Research Archive. Knowing he was one of the leading experts on the artist, I had written a letter asking a few questions, including whether he was still working on his biography. He kindly answered my questions and added suggestions for further research. He ended by noting, "As to my biography of S.S. well...I've just finished a big book on Victorian Painting for Phaidon and only have two projects left to complete[:] a book on Carnival and the Solomon biography. So the answer if [sic] affirmative, if unsatisfactory, and my hat's still in the ring." In 2001 I returned to London with my friend CF to see the small exhibition on Solomon held at the Jewish Museum, and we attended a talk given by Lambourne that discussed Solomon’s life and early drawings. I introduced myself and he was kind enough to introduce me to his wife, the curators, and PSW, who I was startled to discover was a descendant of the Solomon family. It was during that same talk that the idea of working on Solomon’s unpublished letters first came to light, and it was at his suggestion that I began to work on this project (I have since published 3 essays on his correspondence). I last saw Lambourne in 2005 at the opening of the Solomon exhibition in Birmingham, England, where he gave opening remarks, and I was flattered afterwards to discover that he still remembered this junior scholar.

Lambourne can be credited with jumpstarting the academic study of Solomon with his 1967 article on Solomon’s sketchbooks in the Apollo and his 1968 essay “Abraham Solomon, Painter of Fashion, and Simeon Solomon, Decadent Artist" published in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England. This latter essay in particular was a biographical overview of these brother artists, drawing on archival research and emphasizing their very different contributions to Victorian painting. Although Lambourne wasn’t the first to write about Solomon, he was most notably the first to suggest that one needed to look past Solomon’s arrest for homosexual crimes and evaluate his contribution to Victorian art without prejudice. It was at this time that he mentioned writing a biography about Solomon, and although over the next 40 years he curated an exhibition on the Solomon family and did other works, sadly that biography never was published (nor apparently was the Carnival book).

The art collector Simon Reynolds did publish a biographical study, The Vision of Simeon Solomon (1984), and one cannot help but suspect that Lambourne may have been angered by the usurpation of his work. In his review of the book, Lambourne noted that it “falls badly between two stools, that of the illustrated appreciation and biographical study” and that “the author has failed to convey the complex personality of Solomon, or correctly to evaluate his achievements as an artist” (541). Despite never having found a publisher for his own biography (he told me that was the reason why it never happened), nevertheless Lambourne’s contribution was valuable in moving things forward, eventually leading to the scholarship written by Gayle Seymour, Colin Cruise, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Carolyn Conroy, and me, making us (if I may be so bold as to include myself) the leading Solomon scholars in the field.

From early on in his art historical career, Lambourne wrote about Victorian art and culture, covering topics such as the Arts & Crafts Movement, fairy painting, and genre painting. Once he retired from the Victoria and Albert Museum, he set about writing books that were drawn from his lifetime work. The Aesthetic Movement (1996) was a survey of the painting, literature, and drama associated with this Victorian cultural movement which emphasized beauty as the goal of art production. His survey book Victorian Painting (1999) was a tome of 541 pages, arranged thematically so as to discuss everything from genre scenes to the fallen woman motif. The book was cited by Joseph Kestner as a “necessary reference work” and praised for its unequivocal mix of canonical and non-canonical pictures (157). But other reviewers had concerns. Julian Treuherz identified errors and was disappointed by his lack of in-depth critical analysis: “The writing lacks rigour—there are irrelevant digressions, anecdotes and inappropriate jokes that do nothing to help communicate the subject under discussion” (646). Alan Crawford’s review of The Aesthetic Movement is perhaps even more telling. He notes that Lambourne “does not pretend to have written a book of great intellectual reach. Like Whistler’s butterfly, he likes to flit from one subject to another, pausing long enough for an anecdote but not long enough for analysis”(738).

One’s reaction to reading these remarks might be to balk and grimace. Indeed, I myself have come across errors in these texts and have found some of the analysis rather cursory as well. But I think it’s a fair assessment to point out that, having retired from the museum world, Lambourne was much more interested with these books in reflecting on Victorian art and culture from his own personal taste and sensibility; they are more about Lambourne than the subjects themselves. His anecdotal approach to art history always was what made him engaging as a speaker, and I would argue that these books should be seen as printed versions of Lambourne. As you read through The Aesthetic Movement, you cannot help but find yourself caught up in all the high-spirited frivolity of Gilbert and Sullivan, sunflowers, and Oscar Wilde’s American tour where he tells the customs agent that he has nothing to declare but his own genius. As beautiful coffee table books that survey Victorian art and culture, Lambourne’s books are not meant to be in-depth critical analyses of individual pictures and their socio-political origins. Instead, they serve to introduce non-academic readers to a world which has been marginalized in art history since Victoria died in 1901 as fruitful topics of discussion and instruction. Besides, one must keep in mind that historiography has a generational component: it is the duty of art historians to both augment—and oppose—the work of their predecessors, but hopefully also acknowledge it for its contributions and for being of its author’s time.

Ultimately, however, I think some of us will best remember Lambourne in the context of Solomon. In a brief introductory essay to the exhibition catalog From Prodigy to Outcast, which focused on the artist’s sketchbooks from his youth, Lambourne wrote: “We cannot know what the future holds but perhaps, as a result of enjoying this exhibition, we as fond Mothers and Fathers have a real excuse for cherishing our children’s early artistic productions” (6). This remark says much about Solomon’s juvenilia and its potential influence on his later artistic career, but it also seems to convey a message to the next generation of Solomon scholars who can look back fondly and remember Lambourne as the one who started it all.

UPDATE 3/20/10: I received email from PSW word that a more detailed obituary for Lambourne was posted on the Times website. My favorite part of it has to be the discussion of his lectures as theatrical performances: "The fact that many of his memorable talks were punctuated by snatches of comic song or, on occasions when old-fashioned slide projectors jammed, with impromptu displays of shadow puppetry, merely added to the general sense of unpredictable gaiety; his method was always as much music hall as lecture hall."

Works Cited

Crawford, Alan. Review of The Aesthetic Movement by L. Lambourne. Victorian Studies 40 (Summer 1997): 737-39.
Jewish Museum, London. From Prodigy to Outcast: Simeon Solomon—Pre-Raphaelite Artist. London: Jewish Museum, 2001.
Kestner, Joseph A. “Victorian Art History: Rap 2 Unwrapped.” Victorian Literature and Culture 29, n.1 (2001): 149-58.
Lambourne, Lionel. "Abraham Solomon, Painter of Fashion, and Simeon Solomon, Decadent Artist." Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 21 (1968): 274-86 + illus.
___. The Aesthetic Movement. London: Phaidon, 1996.
___. Review of The Vision of Simeon Solomon by S. Reynolds. The Burlington Magazine 127 (August 1985): 541.
___. "A Simeon Solomon Sketch-book." Apollo 85 (1967): 59-61.
___. Victorian Painting. London: Phaidon, 1999.
Reynolds, Simon. The Vision of Simeon Solomon. Stroud, England: Catalpa Press, 1984.
Treuherz, Julian. Review of Victorian Painting by L. Lambourne. The Burlington Magazine 142 (October 2000): 646.

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