WHO is the most famous artist to have lived in the Salisbury area?

John Constable is perhaps the best-known painter associated with the city, thanks to his 1831 picture of Salisbury Cathedral, but he was a regular visitor, rather than a resident. Stretching the boundaries a little wider, there’s Sir Thomas Lawrence, one of the leading portrait painters of the early nineteenth century, and David Inshaw, most famous for his 1971 painting The Badminton Game.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for Henry Lamb, who lived in Coombe Bisset from 1928 until his death in 1960.

If you’re not aware of his work, you’re probably not alone: Lamb is currently the subject of a new exhibition at Salisbury Museum, the first full retrospective of his art since the 1980s, and as the title Out of the Shadows suggests, he’s a figure not as well-known as he deserves to be.

On a quick glance at Lamb’s career, that seems surprising. Moving to London in 1905, he was taught by Augustus John and befriended by Lytton Strachey, who introduced him to the other members of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1913, he met Stanley Spencer, with whom he shared ideas and inspiration. Both painters developed the composite technique of multiple character scenes: a style that made Spencer famous, but that Lamb, arguably, originated first.

When I caught up with the museum’s director, Adrian Green, last week, he suggested that this one of the reasons why Lamb was less well-known: rather than being renowned for a particular style, his work oscillated between several, leaving him a little difficult to pigeonhole.

One of his undoubted strengths was as a portrait artist but here, perhaps, he was a man slightly out of time: in the early twentieth-century, as photography and film took over, there was something old-fashioned, almost quaint about painting portraits.

Yet the portraits that Lamb painted were anything but.

Lamb sought out interesting subjects: there’s a striking sequence of workers in Breton from just before the war; an unemployed ‘Doler’ he painted in Poole just afterwards. He was unflinching in his honesty: his portrait of Lytton Strachey was described by his biographer as capturing ‘the air of resigned intellectual superiority from which he surveys the world’.

When Lamb was commissioned to paint the conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, he pointedly captured his neck, craning for audience approval.

As Adrian Green describes it, Lamb had a skill for getting under the skin of those he painted. He might have been an elusive, enigmatic presence, but also one with a bit of bite and an artist’s eye for understanding people.

n Henry Lamb: Out of the Shadows is at Salisbury Museum until 30 September.