George Lambourn 1900-1977
Portrait of a Communist 1936
Oil on canvas 552 x 461 (21 3/4 x 18 1/8)
Inscribed in black paint ‘Lambourn’ b.l.
Purchased from the Matthiesen Gallery, London (Knapping Fund) 1938
Paintings by George Lambourn, Matthiesen Gallery, London, Dec. 1938 (10)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.370
In a letter dated 11 March 1957 the artist told the Tate Gallery that this work ‘was painted in Cornwall - out-of-doors - in 1936’. His son has suggested that Lambourn had gone to Cornwall, specifically Mousehole near Penzance, on the suggestion of Augustus John, a close friend with links to the village. Lambourn was so taken with the place that he purchased an old Methodist chapel and settled there after the Second World War.
Lambourn told the Tate that his subject, ‘had walked from London and I never knew his name, he carried a lot of papers in his pocket and considered himself an intellectual’. While his identity is not known, the man’s appearance in the painting suggests that he may have originated from a Latin or Asian country. The title of the painting derived from the sitter’s description of himself as a communist. Though the artist believed that ‘“malcontent” would have answered as a title just as well’, the subject may reflect the political tensions of the time. The summer of 1936, when this work was probably painted, was the moment when these tensions reached a peak with the outbreak of civil war in Spain in July. It seems improbable that the artist would not have been conscious of these events as he travelled to Spain in, or around, that year.
While there is no indication that Lambourn was a supporter of communism, he was insistent upon art’s moral function. ‘There must be something to be artistic about’, he had written to Edwin John some years earlier, ‘I am convinced there is something to say and it is connected in a way I do not yet understand with a profound and deep sympathy with all men.’ Such a universal humanism may be reflected in Lambourn’s apparent interest in socially marginal subjects: as well as Portrait of a Communist he also painted a number pictures of the mentally ill, including Portrait of a Schizophrenic, c.1936 (Lambourn family collection), which displays a similar style and technique to the Tate’s work. This was an aspect noticed by a reviewer of his 1938 Matthiesen Gallery exhibition, who described the subject of Portrait of Robert (whereabouts unknown) as ‘an obvious neurasthenic’, and the artist’s treatment of the subject as ‘full of a sympathetic emotion’. However, Lambourn’s later description of the subject of the Tate’s work as ‘a scrounger’ may indicate a difference between his humanism and a perceived intellectual political ideology.
Portrait of a Communist is painted on a commercially prepared canvas; the paint is broadly handled with some impasto and the ground is visible towards the edges. Cursory marking out of the main features in oil is evident, which is consistent with the artist’s testimony that the work was painted out of doors. The painting’s most marked quality is the acidic yellow of the background; such a use of a strong single colour as a backdrop to a portrait was seen in several of the artist’s works of the period, including Portrait of a Schoolgirl (family collection), which was also shown at the Matthiesen Gallery in 1938.
On the back of the canvas is what appears to be the top left-hand quarter of an unfinished portrait. The subject is a bespectacled woman, seated in a wing-chair, whose appearance and demeanour suggest she may have been an intellectual. A lack of funds ensured that many of Lambourn’s canvases were reused, though in later years it was his normal practice to block out the earlier image on the back. One may see how Lambourn started a work with broad areas of flat colour and some strong linear marking out of areas of detail such as the figure’s hand. It has not been possible to identify this early sitter.