Historian Margaret Lambert gained a PhD in international relations at LSE in the 1930s and after the war spent much of her career as an editor-in-chief at the Foreign Office, specialising in contemporary German history. She also collected and wrote about English folk art with her partner, the designer Enid Marx. Dr Clare Taylor explores her fascinating life.

Margaret Lambert was brought up in a political household in Devon; her father (the first Viscount Lambert) was a founder of the National Liberal party. Lambert was privately educated before studying PPE at Lady Margaret Hall. She obtained her PhD The Saar Territory as a Factor in Franco German Relations at LSE in 1936, supervised by Professor Charles Manning, who had been appointed to the newly established Cassel Chair in International Relations in 1930. Her choice of subject reflected not only the impassioned accounts she had heard from foreign students visiting Devon in 1932, but also her father’s views on the role of international relations in the modern world.

Research on the Saar

Her research included a term in Berlin in 1933, where Manning advised her to avoid carrying a lot of notes, some of which might be incriminating, as well as in Saar itself and in Paris. Manning described her as “A thorough and energetic investigator, who will produce a well-balanced, readable book”. This book’s publication (The Saar, Faber, 1934) preceded the award of her Doctorate, timed to come out before elections in the Saar. Manning noted that Lambert’s book was “very favourably received”, and Kenneth Headlam-Morley’s review highlighted the authority of her account, based on her personal knowledge of the country and its “leading inhabitants”, as well as the access she had had to unpublished material both in the Foreign Office and in Lloyd George’s papers. The 300 pages ended with a short bibliographic essay explaining how she had sought to counteract bias, drawing on the documents of the League and Governing Commission, and those of British, French and German governments as well as documents and diaries from peace negotiations.

Margaret Lambert's thesis. Credit: LSE

Margaret Lambert’s thesis. Credit: LSE

Wartime service

She considered applying for a research fellowship to travel and for a lectureship in International Politics at Aberystwyth. But war intervened and instead she carried out research for the Institute of International Affairs and became a BBC Intelligence Officer with the broadcaster’s Austrian service. Her fluent German and recent knowledge meant she was also well suited to tasks such as interviewing captured German generals over tea in country houses.

The Foreign Office calls

In 1946 Lambert was appointed as assistant editor for the Documents on British Foreign Policy under Llewellyn (later Sir) Woodward, working with Woodward and Rohan Butler on the volumes which appeared during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1949 she resumed her academic career, taking up a new Lectureship in Modern European History at Exeter. Exeter were sorry to lose her in 1951, describing Lambert as a teacher and scholar of “exceptional knowledge and experience”, but acknowledging that she was leaving to take up an “important appointment at the Foreign Office”. This was the position of editor-in-chief of the Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, a project which was to shape Lambert’s academic career into the 1980s.

Part of the vast archive seized by Allied troops in 1944-45, and known as the captured German documents, the German Foreign Ministry and Reich Chancellery archives dated back to 1867, and by 1948 were held at Whaddon Hall in Buckinghamshire. Here, Lambert later wrote, “they were to be held in trust for the German people and to remain until conditions in Germany became more settled”, also noting that the work of selection and editing was “to be performed on the basis of the highest scholarly objectivity, being entrusted to independent historians” [1]. Lambert’s predecessors included amongst others John (later Sir) W Wheeler-Bennett and Woodward. The aim was to publish selections which would aid contemporary historians. However, publication dragged on so that microfilms were often released before books; in 1956 Lambert regretted the absence of guides to microfilms such as were produced in the US, fearing this would hamper their use.

As editor-in-chief Lambert remained at the centre of things; she dealt directly with Churchill over the delay in publication of the “Windsor file”, and she was also a member of the historical advisory committee which opposed the return of the Foreign Ministry documents to West Germany, amidst fears that material would be suppressed, returns which finally began in 1956, the year in which Lambert took up a Lectureship at St. Andrews. Eleonore Breuning, her research assistant at the Foreign Office, described how:

“In her dealings alike with superiors, equals and subordinates, she could, where necessary, exert a very considerable authority, which derived in part from her unrivalled command of her subject, and in part from her great strength of character. Rather surprisingly perhaps, for someone so unvaryingly gentle and courteous in manner, she possessed a backbone of steel, and great reserves of moral courage.” [2]

As she outlived many of her original colleagues her input was also sought into the 1970s: after Woodward’s death in 1971 she completed the outstanding work on his five volume history of British Foreign Policy in the Second World War and she also contributed what F S Northedge described as a “useful” preface to the Documents on British Foreign Policy on the Young Report and Hague Conference of 1928-29 published in 1975.

An alternative identity: Folk art and Enid Marx

However, contemporary history was not the only string to her bow. In the early 1930s she had met her partner, the designer Enid Marx, through a mutual friend. Marx described the encounter:

“I saw her walking across the room where we were all drinking coffee, wearing a red suit and matching toque hat, looking so well-bred and so absolutely vague until she almost accidentally bumped into Fresca and then we all entered into conversation as though we had known each other all our lives.” [3]

It is possible that the recruitment of Marx to a team of design experts sent out to Germany at the end of 1946, part of an intelligence-led initiative to improve British design for which Lambert wrote the report, reflected Lambert’s connections as much as Marx’s design experience. With Marx, Lambert also developed a very different area of expertise which employed her historical and archival background in new ways, as part of the study of traditional or popular art in England. Folk art was largely neglected by mainstream art history, but collecting and writing about it was a key part of Marx and Lambert’s private and public collaboration as modernist designer and modern historian, celebrated today in the Marx-Lambert collection at Compton Verney.

In 1979 Lambert recalled that they had begun collecting together in the early 1930s for a book celebrating the centenary of Victoria’s accession, published by Faber in 1937 in time for the Coronation of George VI, which she described as ‘a scrapbook of what people were doing, saying and thinking when Queen Victoria came to the throne’. When Victoria Began to Reign: A Coronation Year Scrapbook made by Margaret Lambert began with the accession before moving on to chapters including “society”, “politics” and “country life”. The search for material brought them into contact with other collectors including John Johnson in Oxford and M N Nichol, a Devon based collector whom Lambert, ever the historian, recalled showed them the library she had built up over a lifetime of study. Lambert singles out Marx for her role in collecting and arranging the illustrations, applying her experience as a graphic designer.

They went on to produce two books together, English Popular and Traditional Art (1946), part of Collins’ “Britain in Pictures” series, and English Popular Art (Batsford, 1951, new foreword 1989), both of which included Marx’s bold drawings, and a chapter on the same subject in W J Turner’s British Craftsmanship of 1948.  Perhaps too folk art complemented Lambert’s academic life since it offered freedom beyond the closed doors of Cabinet meetings and diplomatic memos, freedom to celebrate what was by 1989 the disappearing art of “country craftsmen”.

Contributed by Dr Clare Taylor (Senior Lecturer in Art History, The Open University)


[1] Margaret Lambert, “Source Materials Made Available to Historical Research as a Result of World War II”, International Affairs, 35:2 (1959), 188-96.

[2] Eleonore Breuning, “The Hon Margaret Barbara Lambert, CMG, 1906-95”, The Brown Book, April 1996, 72-74 (Lady Margaret Hall archives).

[3] Enid Marx, “Student days at the RCA”, Matrix 16, 1996, 145-150.

LSE archive, Margaret Lambert’s PhD file

University of Exeter, Special Collections, University College Annual Reports 1949-51

Eleonore Breuning, “Margaret Lambert”, obituary, The Independent, 1 February 1995

D Cameron Watt, “British historians, the war guilt issue, and post-war Germanophobia: A documentary note”, The Historical Journal, 36:1 (1993), 179-85

Astrid M Eckert, The Struggle for the Files: the Western Allies and the return of German archives after the Second World War, trans. Dona Geyer (German Historical Inst. Washington, DC and Cambridge University Press, 2012)

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