As an amateur rider, racing journalist, bloodstock agent and now painter, the career of Elie Lambert has always been closely entwined with Belgian horseracing. As the fortunes of that country’s sport have taken a battering, Lambert too has had to weather the storms, turning his hand to these very different fields, and reaching the pinnacle of each.
To see further examples of Elie Lambert’s work, please visit www.elielambert.com.
What is your artistic background?
I grew up with my grandparents in Belguim. I never knew my father and after my mother remarried, I lived with my grandparents.
They would regularly go to a popular café frequented by all sorts of colourful people, in particular fishermen who came in from Rotterdam and Denmark to sell their cargo to the Belgian fish market.
On Sunday, the café became the rendezvous of the locals and was what was called “les peintres du dimanche” (the Sunday painters), who got together to show their respective works. It was frequently a raucous occasion and more than once the arguments turned into a real fight!
The days were often quite a contradiction because many of the pictures were of the little chapels of devotion found in the tortuous streets of the popular Brussels quarters!
What is your equine / racing background?
My grandmother’s second husband was a stud manager for the Baron Brugmann de Walzin. The Baron was a keen horseman and used to like a flutter and I think my grandfather on occasions used to take bets for the Baron.
I became a “gentleman” rider at 18 and was attached to the stable of Le Vicomte d’Hendecourt.
After that a career in journalism followed and I used to write as a Belgian correspondent for Paris- Turf, The Sporting Life and the Racing Post.
I also spent some time as a bloodstock dealer and would send around 300 horses annually from England to the continent; I bought numerous champions who won in Belguim.
Sadly, though, the boom years of Belgian racing came to an end and in the late 1980s the sport was plunged into liquidation and financial ruin.
The collapse of the industry coincided with me contracting cancer, the two combined to lead me to where I am today.
I had always been a keen artist and would make small sketches of horses in catalogues at the sales, and when I was ill, between the regular visits to the hospital, I found solace at the easel.
In 1999 , I opened a gallery on the Rue Drouot in Paris. Little by little one thing led to another, and eventually I began to sell my own work in the gallery.
However, amazingly, I actually sold my first piece when I was still at school! A big man visited one day and asked me to follow into the headmaster’s office. I remember being quite scared.
He told me that he would like to buy a piece of my work that was hanging in the classroom. He asked me how much I wanted for it? I told him 150ff – the equivalent of £3.00 today.
He gave me the money, but then I noticed that he had nothing left in his wallet after! I felt very guilty!
What was your first big break?
When I was leaving England to return to France, I stopped at Christie’s South Kensington to try to drop in some furniture from a little house that I rented with a girlfriend (actually she asked me to leave…!).
It did not take the team of experts at Christie’s long to tell me to go elsewhere, but one man said: “Sir, I’d like to have that painting with the horses.”
That painting was from my early work, but I was terribly embarrassed and I said very loudly and very royally: “It is everything or nothing!” I walked out of the office.
But the young man did not give up, followed me out and even on the Old Brompton Road pavement was still saying: “Sir, I don’t have anything to do with furniture, but leave me that painting.”
He got the painting and eight months later I received a cheque in the post for something I had completely forgotten about. In amazement I called up the man and his answer was: “Congratulations to you, have you any more?”
The young man was Tom Rooth, who is now the head of Victorian painting and sporting department at Christie’s.
How would you describe your work? In what direction is your work heading?
My work is as a sound and honest response of being human, there is nothing else involved, I am afraid. I don’t claim any mysticism, any mysterious way of approaching my work, there is no traumatic message to be given and I certainly do not claim any appurtenance or adherence to a movement whatsoever.
My work is just the story of my life, in paint instead of words – and probably too much colour for the liking of some!
What did it mean to you to get the Shadwell commission?
The Maktoum family have been a key factor in the development of the racing industry through the end of the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st century.
They had organised an art project competition one year to use the winner’s picture on the cover of their luxurious stallion catalogue. I finished second.
However, it was most surprising to be selected by the stud to produce the following year’s cover.
When I worked as a bloodstock agent I bought many horses from the Head Family and I have always maintained a good business relationship with the family, particularly with Criquette and her sister, the most elegant Martine.
So I painted Tamayuz, winner of the Prix Jacques le Marois, trained by Head for Sheikh Maktoum.
What else is going on now? Where do you exhibit / sell your work?
On June 29 at Christie’s, two larges canvases from the Glorious Goodwood series come up for auction, while later in the year Bonhams in Edinburgh are to sell some of my work in their annual Sporting and Racing Sale.
However, the main focus is on my first solo exhibition to be held at Geoffrey Hughes’s Osborne Studio Gallery in London, May 2012. The Osborne is a true follower of my work.
If everything runs according to plan, I will have a new base in Normandy, next to the old stud of the late Baron Guy de Rothschild at Bonnevilles. There I will have plenty of space in a wonderful creative atmosphere
Do you have a friendly critic?
Self belief is probably the most difficult thing to handle for an artist, but every time that there is a fight with a piece it usually turns out to be a good one, when things go smoothly it is often moderate . I never ask anybody for advice, but my son Barrington, a student in his last year in architecture at the Academy of Antwerpen in Belgium, is always a great supporter.
What is your favourite piece?
One of my favourite pieces is actually a sculpture. The piece is called “Scrap Yard Anemones” and is actually made from some bits and pieces that I picked up when visiting a huge scrap yard in Zeebruges harbour.