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Lambert, George Washington Thomas (1873–1930)

by Martin Terry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930), by Harold Cazneaux

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930), by Harold Cazneaux

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2383934-1, with the permission of the Cazneaux family

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930), artist, was born on 13 September 1873 at St Petersburg, fourth child and posthumous son of George Washington Lambert, an American railway engineer, and his English wife Annie Matilda, née Firth. Soon after his birth the family moved to Württemberg, Germany, with his maternal grandfather, and then to England where George was educated at Kingston College, Yeovil, Somerset. The family decided to migrate and George, reaching Sydney with his mother and three sisters in the Bengal on 20 January 1887, soon went to Eurobla, near Warren, a sheep-station owned by his great-uncle Robert Firth.

After eight months Lambert returned to Sydney to work as a clerk with W. and A. McArthur & Co., softgoods merchants, and in 1889-91 in the Shipping Master's Office. He attended night classes conducted by Julian Ashton for the Art Society of New South Wales but returned to the country and worked as a station-hand for about two years. These two relatively brief experiences of bush life gave him an enduring love for horses and rural themes. Back in Sydney he met the illustrator B. E. Minns who advised him to consider becoming an artist and he returned to Ashton's classes, while working by day as a grocer's assistant. Ashton's teaching emphasized draughtsmanship, studying casts from the antique, then drawing from life. At this time American illustrators such as W. T. Smedley and Charles Dana Gibson were also popular. These several influences are seen in Lambert's early work, including pen-and-ink cartoons for the Bulletin, to which he began to contribute in 1895, and illustrations for three books published by Angus & Robertson. His earliest extant portrait, of A. W. Jose, belongs to this period.

From 1894 Lambert had exhibited with the Art Society and the Society of Artists, Sydney, but his first interesting, if sentimental, painting 'A Bush Idyll' dates from 1896. His important picture, 'Across the Black Soil Plains', which modestly expressed a nationalist sentiment through the honest labour of horses, won the 1899 Wynne prize and was bought by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales for 100 guineas. Lambert had a growing appreciation of the 'excellence of craftsmanship' of old masters, albeit observed secondhand in 'Judgment of Paris' by his English contemporary Maurice Grieffenhagen at the Art Gallery. In 1900 he won the first travelling art scholarship awarded by the Society of Artists from funds made available by the government.

Receiving in return for contributions an income of £2 a week from the Bulletin, Lambert married Amelia Beatrice (Amy) Absell, a retoucher, on 4 September 1900 at St Thomas Church, North Sydney. Two days later the Lamberts sailed for England; a fellow-passenger was the artist Hugh Ramsay. Finding London expensive and its atmosphere 'too forbidding', in February next year they moved to Paris where, with Ramsay, Lambert studied at Colarossi's art school and at the Atelier Delécluze. In Paris he particularly admired seventeenth-century artists such as 'Rubens the rollicking and Vandyke the irreproachable', Velasquez, and such of his contemporaries as J. M. Whistler and John Singer Sargent whom he felt had preserved the qualities of old masters. Lambert was to emulate Titian in 'The Sonnet' (National Gallery of Australia) and Whistler in one of his own favourite works of this period, 'La Blanchisseuse'.

In November the Lamberts returned to London with their infant son. Briefly in a studio in Lansdowne House, Holland Park, Lambert moved in 1904 to Rossetti Studios, Chelsea, and in 1913 to 25 Glebe Place, Chelsea. He contributed illustrations to Cassell's Magazine (1900) and the Pall Mall Magazine, and for Jose's Two Awheel (1903) and W. H. Lang's Australia (1907). He supplemented his income by work as a riding instructor and, succeeding Frank Brangwyn, as a teacher at the London School of Art.

Before World War I Lambert's principal work was in portraiture, both paintings and drawings. The paintings, often large uncommissioned studies of his family and friends, are invariably characterized by a sober palette, generalized landscape background, and a self-conscious treatment of hands, but a fine evoking of the tone of flesh and texture of costume. Several of these portraits were hung in exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts — the first, in 1904, was a half-length of Thea Proctor. Of his commissions, the most important were of (Sir) George Reid and an equestrian portrait of King Edward VII. His more numerous drawings, usually bust length in profile or three-quarter view with summarily treated drapery, are an advance on his illustrative work, cool in presence and more sophisticated tonally.

Also interested in murals and decorative painting, Lambert designed some of the interior decorations for the liner Alsatian. This interest was the basis for 'Important People' (Art Gallery of New South Wales), a rather self-important allegory in high colour. By 1914 he was coming into prominence — he was a frequent exhibitor, and a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (New Salon), Paris, a council-member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers and a founder of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, London, in 1922.

On the outbreak of World War I Lambert, unable to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force in London, joined a Voluntary Training Corps, became a divisional works officer and supervised timber-getting in Wales. In December 1917 he was appointed an official war artist, A.I.F., with the honorary rank of lieutenant, and commissioned to execute twenty-five sketches and to paint 'The Charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba' on 31 October 1917. He arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, in January 1918. Despite contracting malaria, he embarked for Marseilles, France, in May with over 130 sketches, many of which were exhibited later that year at the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists' War and Peace Exhibition.

In January 1919, as honorary captain, he visited Gallipoli on the historical mission with Charles Bean, who described 'Lambert, with the golden beard, the hat, the cloak, the spurs, the gait, the laugh and the conviviality of a cavalier'. He also noted that Lambert 'was, I think, more sensitive than the rest of us to the tragedy — or at any rate the horror — of Anzac'. Lambert impressed on Bean that he wanted 'a clear military “operation order” setting out the work to be done'.

After recovering from dysentery in Cairo he visited Palestine, returning to London in August. His many meticulous and often spirited sketches made at a time when he was 'ridiculously happy' were to serve as the foundation for four other large battle-pictures now in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and a fine portrait 'A Sergeant of the Light Horse' (National Gallery of Victoria). His war drawings 'possess the impersonality and brevity of a good military dispatch' — he saw himself as an 'Artist Historian' recording 'events precious to the history of the nation'. His A.I.F. appointment was terminated on 31 March 1920.

Lambert returned to Australia in 1921, arriving in Melbourne where a retrospective exhibition was held in May at the Fine Arts Society Gallery, before he settled in Sydney. Portraiture was again to predominate, from the mannered 'The White Glove' (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and the quieter double portrait of Leigh and Beatrice Falkiner, 'Weighing the Fleece' (National Gallery of Australia), to 'Mrs Murdoch' (winner of the 1927 Archibald prize). Portraits of the 1920s tend to reflect with their generally dry colour and muted characterization an increasing disenchantment with this aspect of his art. He also painted rural landscapes, often of the Monaro, and an occasional urban landscape or still life. He exhibited annually with the Society of Artists and from 1926 with the Contemporary Group which he formed with Thea Proctor. With Sydney Ure Smith he helped to keep the Society of Artists liberal in outlook and supported such younger artists as Roy de Maistre. As a draughtsman he influenced among others William Dobell and Douglas Dundas.

Tall and athletic, Lambert had been a good boxer in his youth. He was fond of music and had a good baritone voice. With great charm, he moved easily in fashionable circles but behind his 'slightly theatrical manner' were loneliness, ill-health and overwork. To Bernard Smith he was 'essentially a talented craftsman who gave his greatest love to his work and his horses'.

In the 1920s Lambert became interested in sculpture and received several large commissions — a war memorial for Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria, an unknown soldier for St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and a statue of Henry Lawson for Mrs Macquarie's Chair, Sydney (1930). In executing the last two he had the assistance of Arthur Murch. He was inexperienced, however, and 'performed great physical labours in handling the clay', which proved too much for his constitution. He had suffered from mitral valve disease for some time before his sudden death on 29 May 1930 at Cobbity, near Camden. He was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery.

A Lambert memorial fund was quickly established and two memorial exhibitions held before the end of the year. His wife (in England at the time of his death) and two sons survived him. His elder son Maurice (1901-1964) was a distinguished sculptor and an associate of the Royal Academy; the younger Constant (1905-1951), a prominent composer and conductor, was musical director of the Vic-Wells Ballet until 1947.

A portrait by Longstaff and one of George Lambert's self-portraits are in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. MacDonald, The Art and Life of George W. Lambert (Melb, 1920)
  • C. E. W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission (Canb, 1948)
  • Bernard Smith, A Catalogue of Australian Oil Paintings in the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (Syd, 1953), and Australian Painting 1788-1970 (Melb, 1971)
  • A. Lambert, Thirty Years of an Artist's Life (Syd, 1977)
  • The Art of George W. Lambert A.R.A., Art in Australia, 1924, and Lambert Memorial Number, Aug-Sept 1930
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1930, 16 July 1938
  • Lambert, and A. W. Jose and J. L. Mullins papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Terry, 'Lambert, George Washington Thomas (1873–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lambert-george-washington-thomas-7014/text12197, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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