The people’s sculptor: Celebrating William Lamb

Lamb's Minesweeper statue at Montrose. Picture: Complimentary
Lamb's Minesweeper statue at Montrose. Picture: Complimentary
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He was never as radical as Paolozzi, but in his own way Montrose sculptor William Lamb was just as modern, writes Duncan Macmillan

The death of Sir Anthony Caro recently made the national news: quite something for a sculptor, but appropriate, too. Caro helped us see sculpture as a branch of modern art. Before him, even Henry Moore, with whom he worked when a young man, was beholden to the old idea that the sculptor’s job was to provide monuments, statues for our civic spaces. Nor is the tradition dead, for Alexander Stoddart single-handedly keeps it alive. His figure of Clio, Muse of History, over the door of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was unveiled recently and looks superb.

That, however, only underlines the problem that Caro created by breaking the link with this tradition. The kind of abstract art he made belongs in the gallery. You can’t take it into the street. It is just the wrong language and has the wrong associations. Bent metal speaks to us of scrap yards, not of history and, in spite of Caro, history and its association with place remain an important part of what sculpture is about.

The classical tradition shaped the monumental sculpture that adorns our streets and squares. The seagulls sit on them or worse; for the rest perhaps mostly we ignore them. Nevertheless they silently stand there. Poets, soldiers, politicians, or in the case of William Brodie’s Moffat Ram, the sheep to which the town owed its prosperity, they are usually there because they are local or, like the Burns statue in Dumfries by Amelia Paton Hill, both local and national. In bronze or stone, they remind us of the links between people, history and place.

Eduardo Paolozzi, Caro’s contemporary, understood this. For all his radical modernity, Paolozzi held the classical past in profound respect. He also made at least one powerful sculpture about people and place. Though it is more often ignored than admired, his Manuscript of Monte Cassino at the head of Leith Walk in Edinburgh outside St Mary’s Cathedral is a tribute to his birthplace. He was born at the other end of Leith Walk. The cathedral was his parish church. Nevertheless it is not a simple tribute.

When Italy joined the war in 1940, the Italians in Scotland suffered dreadfully. Paolozzi himself was interned, but his father, his grandfather and one of his uncles were drowned when, on the way to internment in Canada, their ship the Arandora Star was torpedoed by the Germans. It was a peculiarly cruel waste of human life: whose side were they supposed to be on?

Paolozzi’s family came from Viticuso, within sight of the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino. The monastery was a bridge between the classical past and the modern world. It was there that the monks copying Roman manuscripts preserved much of what we know of the literature of the ancients, but it was destroyed by American bombs in a war fought to preserve the very things it stood for. Like the sinking of the Arandora Star, it was a terrible illustration of war’s pointless destruction.

In the Manuscript of Monte Cassino, Paolozzi uses the classical language of civic sculpture, but reduced to just three broken fragments as though part of some shattered Roman Colossus: a single gigantic foot, symbol of our root in the earth, a huge hand, agent of creativity, and an ankle, the joint that allows our mobility. There are also a few stones scattered nearby, a symbol of the destruction of Monte Cassino, but actually stones from the demolition of Leith Station next to where the artist was born. (The prominent litter bins between these elements were not part of Paolozzi’s design.)

The Manuscript of the sculpture’s title is a poem written by Paulus Diaconus. He was a monk of Monte Cassino in the eighth century, but he lived for a long time at the court of Charlemagne in Germany and so he was, like Paolozzi himself, an Italian in exile. Lines in Latin from a poem he wrote as a letter from his exile are written on the sculpture. They speak about the warmth and friendliness of the distant monastery and above all about its peacefulness.

Paolozzi’s sculpture is an essay on war and destruction, on the classical tradition and how, even in fragments, it is still potent, but above all it is about place, his birthplace in Edinburgh and his origins in Italy and through him their troubled connection.

The art of an older Scottish sculptor, William Lamb, was shaped almost entirely by place, his birthplace, Montrose. Lamb was a remarkable sculptor who was almost forgotten, but whose story has now been told and his art brought back to our attention in a book by John Stansfeld. It is the result of ten years of work dedicated to the revival of Lamb’s reputation, published now with the support of the Montrose Heritage Trust and the Friends of the William Lamb Studio.

Trained as a stonemason, Lamb was on the way to becoming a successful sculptor when he went to fight in the trenches of the First World War. He was wounded three times. The third wound left him with limited use of his right hand, but he learnt to work with his left. When the war ended, as soon as he had the chance, he cycled round France and also spent a fruitful time in Paris. He was a constant and inspired letter writer and his letters quoted extensively in the book give a vivid insight into his lively and attractive personality.

Back in Montrose, Lamb had some success. He exhibited regularly in Paris as well as Edinburgh. He even enjoyed royal patronage when the Duchess of York (whose home at Glamis is nearby) commissioned portrait busts of her two little daughters, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Lamb’s bust of the future queen is more engaging than any of the countless portraits that she has sat for since.

During the 1920s, however, Lamb associated with Hugh MacDiarmid, who was for eight years chief reporter for the Montrose Review. It was in Montrose that he wrote A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and also produced the Scottish Chapbook and the Scottish Nation. So Lamb was a witness at the birth of the Scots Renaissance and his bust of the poet captures the energy that drove it superbly. Inevitably MacDiarmid’s ideas also influenced Lamb’s art. Increasingly he portrayed local people in figures like the Young Fisherman, or Ferryden Fisherwife, or a beautiful relief of Ferryden Fishwives. (Ferryden was Montrose’s fishertown.)

Above all it was perhaps MacDiarmid’s influence that persuaded Lamb to resist the temptation to move to Edinburgh, or even further afield, and instead make his life in Montrose and to make his art of and for the town. You cannot build a nation without strength in its localities, MacDiarmid might have argued.

Lamb was also a gifted watercolourist and printmaker and his sense of place informs his art in those media, but in his sculpture, especially figures carved in wood struggling with the winds of the north-east coast, he created a quintessential expression of the place. The closest comparison is with the writing of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, another son of the north-east, luminary of the Scottish Renaissance and poet of place. The figures in Lamb’s sculpture would be quite at home in the pages of Sunset Song.

Lamb died in 1951. His latter years were troubled by illness and depression, but his final gift to his native town was, through his sister, his studio and its contents. Fittingly, several of his figures now adorn its streets. They are not as grand as Paolozzi’s Manuscript of Monte Cassino perhaps, nor as modern, but nor are they statues of the great and the good. They are just the ordinary folk of Montrose and that too is very modern.

• The People’s Sculptor: the Life and Art of William Lamb by John Stansfeld is published by Birlinn at £14.99