Who are these important people? Lambert presented a group of ordinary people at a time when the subjects of group portraits were often people with wealth or status in society. He mocked the assumption that importance is a matter of money or property. He created an allegorical image representing a range of qualities that are possessed by people in the world: motherhood and the new life and energy of future generations; physical prowess and the fighting forces of the world; business and administrative acumen; and the ongoing activities of the world, represented by the red cartwheel.
Lambert’s portrayal of these working people and his strong characterisation appealed to his contemporaries, but they found it an enigma; they were puzzled about the subject and how the oddly assorted group of figures fitted together into one scene. They considered it to be a most incongruous group, made more so by being grouped in front of a cart above the sea. They would have preferred a more literal story to Lambert’s allegorical one. The Observer critic, P.G. Konody, suggested on 26 April 1914 that ‘one could accept it as a triumphant assertion of the theory that it does not matter what a picture represents, so long as it be well painted’.
The Daily Express critic observed on 16 April 1914 that the flower girl
has her momentary importance since the advent of Eliza Doolittle and her ‘horrible language’; the prize fighter has as big a public following as the musical comedy ‘star’; and on the importance of babies Blue-books and Royal Commissions galore have often insisted.
The reviewer proceeded to ask of the gentleman with the top hat in Lambert’s painting, ‘is he a stockbroker’ or ‘merely a professor of phonetics?’. In his most famous play, Pygmalion (1912), George Bernard Shaw made fun of social snobbery and the way people judged others according to class. Important people was not an illustration of Shaw’s writing, but it was a variation on his socialist ideas, showing a flower girl and a prize-fighter posing with the authority of eminent citizens.
The woman who initially posed for the mother, flower girl or costermonger was a professional model, a young unmarried mother from Battersea whose baby, shown in the rush basket, died while the painting was in progress. (Lambert reworked the head a year later, using another model, Eunice Graham; see the drawing, cat.56.) The model for the boy was a boxer, Albert Broadrib, who was training for his first fight and who Amy Lambert said arrived ‘escorted by a bodyguard of one or more trainers, who watched over his feeding and smoking’ (Lambert 1938, p.55). The model for the businessman was William Marchant, the head of Goupil Gallery, a man of great charm and affability who had retired to Hove but travelled to London for the sittings. Lambert made several pencil sketches for various figures in the group. The signature with the inscription ‘Chelsea/Sydney’ indicates that he reworked the painting again in the second part of 1921.
Lambert commented that although ‘many people think this picture was influenced by certain movements which were going on in London’ his approach was more influenced by the Italian primitives and Botticelli. It was a ‘desire to create a picture which would look good in any light ... It was the working within a fixed limitation, a little span of which Puvis was so proud ... It was the beginning ... of a reverence of rule, of order’ (ML MSS A1811, p.76). It was a decorative composition, a concern with the arrangement of shapes. To this end Lambert deliberately flattened the forms, placing an emphasis on line and strong design. He intentionally used a high-key, pastel palette and created a dry, chalky texture for his paint, ‘working wax and turpentine into his paint to do away with shininess and the unevenness of surface’ (Lambert 1924, p.15). He drew with pencil into his paint to outline the figures.
Lambert’s decorative and colourful arrangement of figures in fixed poses, nonetheless, resembles those in the paintings of Eric Kennington, William Strang and other British realists with whom Lambert exhibited. Important people was shown in 1914 alongside Kennington’s Costermongers , and the reviewer for the Daily Mail , 24 April 1914, described these paintings as ‘huge staring groups of life-size people, represented in a brutal airless way, though with a great deal of technical cleverness’, and acknowledged that they were protests against the ‘namby-pambiness’ of the usual group compositions.
When exhibited at the International Society’s 1914 exhibition, Important people was a succès de scandale. It received greater critical attention than any of Lambert’s previous works, with the reviewer from the Daily Express suggesting on 16 April 1914 that the painting would ‘provide dinner-table discussion for the next fortnight’.
Although highly admired and greatly controversial during his lifetime, this painting was still owned by Lambert at the time of his death. The Australian critic Basil Burdett wrote that ‘Important People assumed its place unchallenged as the most complete pictorial essay’ in Lambert’s memorial exhibition, and went further to suggest that it was ‘perhaps the most important pictorial conception achieved by Lambert’ (Burdett 1930).