Thanks to the efforts of Robert Amos, a certain amount of local attention is currently being paid to the life and works of Harold Mortimer Lamb. A biography entitled “The Art Lover” written by Amos was published last fall, and an accompanying exhibition (curated by Amos) is currently on at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
The book does recount a lot of Lamb’s life, but it leaves out a lot too. I’d sort of consider it the “good parts version”, assuming one’s interest tends more toward the history of Canadian painting and less toward the history of Canadian mining, which was where Lamb spent his professional career and from which he derived most of his income. This is entirely appropriate, given that Amos’ stated goal is to provide context for the large-ish and impressive collection of art works that formed the Harold and Vera Lamb Bequest to the AGGV, not to write Lamb’s official biography.
It’s not really my intention here to review either the book or the exhibition, though I’d say anyone at all interested in Canadian art from the first half of the 20th century should make a point of checking out both. Instead I’m just going to note some thoughts that spun off from my reading of the book.
It’s tempting to call Mortimer Lamb the ‘Zelig’ of 20th century Canadian Art. He lived for almost a century and turns up in many accounts of his era, usually in the background, associated with a long list of artists that included Sophie Pemberton, Edward Steiglitz, A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, and Emily Carr. But that would be a misleading comparison, because unlike Zelig, Mortimer Lamb comes across as a distinct personality who took a highly active role in shaping his milieu, which in his case meant championing the cause of Modernism at the regional and national level. In fact he reminds me more of a character in a Robertson Davies novel – Dunstable Ramsay maybe, or the lead character in “The Cunning Man”, someone whose life is richer than it might have appeared to his business associates.
He started off with photography, that most Modern of art forms, back in the day when lots of people thought it wasn’t an art form at all. His work participated in a transitional moment when photographers tried to claim artistic legitimacy by making their photos look like painting (these days it works the other way around). He achieved a level of international recognition when this kind of work was in vogue, and never really abandoned the style even long after it had fallen out of favour.
Lamb’s mid-period career, where he arguably made the greatest contribution from an art historical perspective, was as a collector, patron and promoter of the more progressive strains of modern art in Canada. He backed the winning team, in other words, and enjoyed a position of influence and prestige as the former outsiders took over the establishment.
And for the third act he turned to painting, again from all indications purely for the love of it, working in a style that one might call “suburban post-impressionism.” I guess you could say that with a sneer or not, depending on your predilections. Based on the one or two examples in the show it seems to me the work of a contented retired gentleman with a love of painting and absolutely nothing to prove.
The title of the book is “The Art Lover”, which strikes me as apposite. It seems to me that Mortimer Lamb was exactly that: An ‘amateur’ in the best sense of the word, someone who did what he did because he loved it, not for money. And he doesn’t fit well into any particular pigeonhole. At various times during his life he played many roles: painter, photographer, gallery owner, critic, collector and patron. So his engagement with art was complete, even if it wasn’t how he made his living.
Lamb’s example kind of points the way to an alternative form of engagement with the arts, one that blurs the conventional distinction between professional and amateur: his professional interests may have been elsewhere but he was by no means a dilettante. And while he may not have achieved quite the place in the art history books that, say, Fred Varley did, Lamb’s contribution is undeniable and by all indications he had a far more rewarding and enjoyable time of it.