Chesham Street is one of a group of ‘puzzle pictures’ that Lambert painted between 1910 and 1914. These paintings appear to have a meaning and yet are not strictly narrative; they invite the viewer to provide their own interpretation.
This is a bravura work that demonstrates Lambert’s considerable technical prowess but, more than this, it is a challenging and demanding image which asks ‘who is this man and what is going on?’. The man sits boldly in front of the viewer, holding up his shirt and revealing his entire torso. His head is held high, his lips are closed and he looks down at the viewer. His pale flesh, with the play of light on it, gleams against the dark surroundings. Lambert’s friend Hardy Wilson names ‘Williams, Lambert’s model’ as the source for the patient being sounded by a medical man (Wilson 1930, p.93) and Thea Proctor stated that it was the same model, once a sailor, who posed for the king in The shop(Thomas 1962). However, the features of the half-clad man resemble those of Lambert, and it is probable that Lambert intended to suggest a self-image (using the model’s body for the torso).
The picture has been read narratively as a scene in a consulting room with a doctor examining the heart or lungs of his patient. Although Lambert does depict such a scene, this is not the subject of the painting, but the excuse for the composition. Dramatically, the painting is not about a physical examination at a specialist’s room in Chesham Street, London, but rather the psychological intrusiveness of that process. In 1901, Freud published his Psychopathology of everyday life and, during the decade, his ideas about exploring the psyche gained wider understanding. This man seems to have nothing to hide, to be literally and metaphorically baring his chest, exposing his heart and soul to the world.
Contemporary critics in Britain, such as P.G. Konody in the Observer on 27 May 1910, acknowledged the ‘truly masterly painting of a male form’. When the painting was later exhibited in Australia, Lambert’s friends also recognised that the subject provided a splendid opportunity for the presentation of nudity. But this is not strictly a male nude. The figure is not naked; he is half clothed and is intentionally shown in this way to give the image greater impact and to make it more sexually charged.
Lambert also had a technical concern in painting this work: he used the subject as an opportunity to depict the male torso using a monochromatic approach, with the play of light on the pale surface of the skin contrasted against the shaded head (ML MSS A1811, p.74).