Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Lamb with a Lion’s Heart – The Scottish Banner

June 30th, 2013

THE NORTH-EAST town of Montrose has a heritage and quality of municipal statuary that is arguably unmatched in Scotland. A sculpture trail throughout the town includes many figures by a son of the town who has been largely unacknowledged beyond Montrose but who is beginning to be recognised as one of the most important Scottish sculptors of the 20th century.

William Lamb, youngest of six children of a sea captain, was born on 1st June 1893 in a cottage in Mill Street, Montrose. At age thirteen he left school and was apprenticed to his older brother James, a stonemason. At school he had shown little interest in more than drawing, outdoor sports and cycling.

On completion of his apprenticeship Willie was employed by a firm of Aberdeen granite merchants which gave him the chance to attend evening classes in sculpture and drawing at the city’s Gray’s School of Art, where he was a prizewinner. Work as a stonemason gave him the practical skills to develop his creativity.

At the outbreak of World War One he volunteered for the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that he joined that regiment rather than his home regiment of the Black Watch, because he disliked the dull colours of the Black Watch sett.

Serving in the misery of the trenches he was three times wounded, last time in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, when he received serious injuries to his right hand. In a lesser man this might have finished his ambitions of being a sculptor. It was certainly a massive setback because, whatever his ambitions, he effectively lost all practical use of his dominant hand.

Through single-minded, some might say bloody-minded, perseverance he succeeded in teaching himself to draw and sculpt with his left hand. He was supported in this by his old school art teacher, Miss Lena Gaudie, and with her encouragement he was able to enrol at Edinburgh College of Art in 1920.

The formality of college life bored him and he soon left. After the chaos of war and its painful legacy perhaps he sought solitude to find himself again. With just bare necessities, and his bicycle, he sailed for France from Leith in September 1922.

His preferred medium was sculpture but from that journey through post-war Belgium and France, revisiting what must have been desperately personal memories, he brought back a wealth of drawings and sketches.

In Paris, where there was a lively Scots colony, he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he was able once more to work in clay. Tiring again of the structured life he embarked on a cycle tour round France and, by way of diversion, spent time in Rome and visited Florence and Milan. And all the time working prolifically; it was as if out of the saddle his sketch pad was never out of his hand.

By Christmas 1923 Willie Lamb had returned to his hometown of Montrose. An attic flat above a shop in the town’s Bridge Street became his studio and home.

His return coincided with the Scottish Renaissance, best exemplified by the likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, John Buchan, Neil Munro, the Scottish Colourists and Christopher Murray Grieve, better known by his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid, who was working as a journalist on the Montrose Review newspaper.

Lamb became part of a colony of art and literature that grew up round C.M.Grieve and included the poet and novelist Violet Jacob, painter Edward Baird and George Fairweather the architect. Lamb had come home intellectually and emotionally and it generated probably his greatest burst of creative output, producing some of his best work.

Recognition came too. His work was accepted for the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon. He was making his name as an international sculptor. In 1931 he was elected an Associate member of the Royal Scottish Academy (ARSA).

He was a highly successful profile sculptor. Patronage, never something he courted, came from the then Duchess of York (latterly the Queen Mother) who commissioned him to model heads of her two daughters, the Princess Elizabeth, now HM Queen Elizabeth II, and her sister (the late) Princess Margaret Rose. These were so successful he was invited to make a head of the Duchess.

Another story, hopefully not apocryphal because it is so characteristic of the man, tells that when the Duchess of York called at his studio he offered her tea, going to the trouble of laying a table cloth which was an old copy of The Scotsman newspaper.

This success allowed him to commission his friend George Fairweather to draw up plans, to his particular specifications, for a new studio in Trades Close, one of the old closes or alleys radiating off Montrose’s wide High Street.

This remained the focus of his life where he continued to produce drawings, water-colours, etchings and sculptures in clay, plaster, stone and bronze. During World War Two when materials were scarce he concentrated on wood-carving at which he exhibited a poetic skill in the management of drapery and form.

William Lamb was a complex man, original, a loner, perhaps an archetypal prophet in his hometown where he was misunderstood by contemporaries who went to school and grew up with him, and Lamb reciprocated by not suffering fools gladly.

He lived by a different set of values from his contemporaries. Money and position, his for the taking, were of little consequence. Some regarded him as a skiver and a scrounger – he paid for his haircuts with drawings which his barber dismissed as doodles and threw them out!

Success as a commercial end in itself meant little to Lamb, but he did want to be a good artist. Recognition from his peers in his election to ARSA was a source of satisfaction. He did what he wanted to do to satisfy his own ends.

“If I’m going to be poor I might as well be poor among my ain”. He never married – you could say he was married to his work – but he was loyal to the town he grew up in and the people he lived alongside. He was drawn especially to the fortitude and strength of the fishing community of neighbouring Ferryden village who are represented in some of his finest works.

He directed that on his death (in January 1951) his studio and his whole collection of work should be given to the people of Montrose. Angus Council are now custodians of the William Lamb Studio which holds an extensive archive of letters and working tools. On view are etchings, drawings, sculptures in clay, plaster, wood, stone and bronze – a record of the life’s work of the man whose time has come.

William Lamb was brave; he never sought but never ran away from physical danger, enduring not just war and conflict but the legacy it left him of a lifetime of pain from his injuries; facing up to his disability and mastering it; sticking to his principles – he’d suffered enough broken bones to be able to ignore his detractors’ sticks and stones. He was his own man.

Thinking on the manner of his whole life it can surely be said he was a Lamb with a lion’s heart.
See search William Lamb
William Lamb Studio, Trades Close, 24 Market Street, Montrose DD10 8NB. Open Tues-Sat 2-5pm, July & August

Written on Sunday, June 30th, 2013 at 8:42 pm for Claivers.