His collected works (Part 2)

Thu, Jan 13, 2000, 00:00

From Sandford Park in Ranelagh, he went to Rossall School in Lancashire before arriving at Trinity to study commerce. "My mother had put me down for accountancy at Stokes Brothers & Pim, so it was more or less already decided what I would study." Graduating from university with a first-class BA and BComm with distinction, he quickly qualified as a chartered accountant and spent a year as a professional chartered accountant before joining Jacob's - or W & R Jacob & Co Ltd as it was then - as assistant accountant.

The key to his success as a businessman may well be his pleasure in art and the people who make it. Lambert does not see works in isolation. "I like getting to know the artists who make the art and then trying to understand what they do and why." He is also naturally sociable and was never destined to be a reclusive collector, sitting alone, brooding over his acquisitions. It might also be suggested that his particular interest in the quasi-mathematical forms of Kinetic art come from his involvement with figures. His taste in art could hardly be described as romantic or emotional. It is highly cerebral: many of his pieces appeal to his mind, as well as his obvious sense of fun. Alongside modern international and Irish masters is work by young artists. An exciting photographic bird triptych by Rachel Ballagh dominates the downstairs hall of his home. Lambert's latest purchase is Andrew Folan's Imago (1999), 99 etchings on paper which he has just donated to the gallery.

Friendship led him to the purchase of his first picture. In the late 1940s, Lambert became friendly with the artist Cecil King, who at that time was still involved in publishing. Both men frequented a then-famous Dublin institution, the Robt Robert's cafe in Grafton Street. Through King and the set of painters he knew, Lambert re-established contact with Barbara Warren, whom Lambert had known since childhood. Warren's Pont du Carrousel was to be the first picture he bought. That was in 1954. "It cost me £12." On the day of this interview, the picture was getting ready to leave Lambert's home on loan for a forthcoming exhibition at the RHA. This dark, muted picture, painted in Paris, remains a radical work in the context of the Irish art of its time. For Lambert, it was a beginning. The following year, he bought Patrick Hennessy's Boy with a Seagull.

King, who died in 1986, was one of his closest friends, and Lambert's collection includes six of his works, all of which are now at IMMA. Lambert tells of being left exhausted after a walking holiday in France with King, a tireless walker. By the end of the trip, Lambert had developed some bug or other. King was returning to Ireland and secured a hotel room in Paris for the ailing Lambert. "I was very sick but I noticed the appalling wallpaper in the room." Lambert's description of the menacing decor evokes comparisons with Oscar Wilde's final comments about the wallpaper in the room which he was to die in. Lambert is delighted with the punch-line. "It was the same room. I had my fever in the room Wilde had died in. It must have been the wallpaper."

Another of his friends was the late David Hendricks, an art dealer whose Stephen's Green Gallery would be pivotal in the establishing of Irish Modernism. In 1961 Lambert purchased his first William Scott. His collecting began gathering momentum, and his four Picasso prints, two of which are currently on display at IMMA, as well as his Braque, Trois Oiseaux En Vol (1961) and his two Miros, Homage A Braque (1962) and Hors du Cercle (1968) date from this period. Also on show at the moment is his sole work by the Spanish artist Antonio Tapies, the bold Empreintes de Pas (1975).

Lambert's buying has been shrewd rather than hugely extravagant. Among the Irish artists he has particularly favoured are Robert Ballagh, the most represented artist in the collection, Camille Souter, Anne Madden, and Barrie Cooke. He has 13 works by the latter, including the magnificent Megaloceros Hibernicus (1983). By coincidence, as Lambert sits in his living-room, his back to the widow, on a small table beside him resides a copy of Frank Mitchell's exciting geological tour, Where Has Ireland Come From?, the cover of which is adorned by a reproduction of the painting. Asked who he would consider to be most seriously under-celebrated of modern Irish artists, Lambert replies with a hint of regret: "Patrick Swift, a fine artist."

As a collector he has always followed his instincts, never buying as investment. It was Lambert, as a member of the International Council of New York's MoMA, who succeeded in securing a number of MoMA shows for Ireland, most notably the Roy Lichenstein Exhibition in 1988. But every collector, whether in a public or private capacity, knows what it is like to have to concede the work that got away. For Lambert, this feeling of frustration must be associated most keenly with his plan to secure a Rothko painting for Ireland. Agreeing that the Abstract Expressionist is one of the absolute giants of the 20th century, Lambert describes how he had managed to persuade the Rothko Foundation to give a painting, only to have to decline the offer because there was no suitable place for such a work in the Republic in the 1980s.

Among Lambert's skills is his ability to enthuse and encourage without alienating. He must be credited with alerting a generation of business people and politicians to the value of art in society and especially to the importance of art in the workplace. While he was at Jacobs, various works from his collection often hung in the foyer and board room of the Tallaght plant, as well as his office. He also spelled out the fact that artists need money to live.

On standing down as chairman of Jacob's in 1986, he seemed set for a long and active retirement. But about 12 years ago, he detected the first signs of increasing physical weakness. It was the early stages of Parkinson's disease. "I was very frightened," he says, and recalls being reassured that he could live a normal life with it. If any could, it is Lambert, who has confronted his illness with good humour and courage. Some days he says, it is harder than others, and he can become very tired. At times, speech is an effort, and for a communicator, this can be frustrating. But he has continued to sit on the board of IMMA and attends meetings where his presence continues to be valued.

Countering the effects of illness has caused him to perfect an almost visual style when explaining things; he is very generous with his time and documents. Alongside art, golf has remained a passion. "I was out there," he says, motioning to the course, "as recently as last May and hope to get back when the weather improves." At times, the tremble in his hands is so severe, he puts them in his pocket or hooks them into his belt loop.

"Yet when I'm teeing up, my hands are absolutely steady. I can still play golf."