Important Australian + International Fine Art
26 August 2009

George Lambert

(1873 - 1930)

oil on canvas

51.5 x 177.0 cm

signed and dated lower left: G.W. LAMBERT. / OF NSW. 1903

$300,000 - 400,000

Private collection, near Genoa, Italy
Private collection, London


The World of Thea Proctor, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 8 April – 31 July 2005 George Lambert Retrospective: Heroes and Icons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 29 June – 16 September 2007


Engledow, S., 'The World of Thea Proctor', in Humphries, B., Sayers, A., & Engledow, The World of Thea Proctor, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2005, p. 26, (illus.)
Gray, A., George Lambert Retrospective: Heroes and Icons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2007, p. 81 (illus.)

Catalogue text

George Lambert quickly followed up his 1899 Wynne Prize with the award of the first of the Sydney Society of Artists travelling scholarships. Two days before sailing for London, he married Amy (Amelia Beatrice Absell) who Andrew Motion noted had already acquired a reputation as a bluestocking, largely because of the short stories she had published.1 Their ship the SS Persic, travelled via Melbourne, where Hugh Ramsay came aboard, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the Lamberts. When the Lamberts moved to Paris early in 1901, they lived near Ramsay and many other Australian expatriates, including Ambrose Patterson. Lambert, Ramsay and Patterson attended Académie Colarossi, soon followed by the Atelier Délécluze. Lambert and Ramsay were constantly in each other's company.2 Lambert painted a number of portraits of Ramsay; and they both used Amy as a model. Ramsay also painted several portraits of Patterson, Jane Alexander, in her study of Patterson, mentioning that they even agreed to paint in a single composition - each other's portrait.3

Lambert admired Ramsay's work greatly and was much influenced by him, as seen in his Death of Adonis 1901, (Manly Art Gallery and Museum). Close in style to Ramsay's Venus and Adonis (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Launceston), also painted in Paris in 1901, both paintings share the same mythological subject, classical restraint in their strikingly simplified forms, pieta-like figures, subdued palettes, and flatness, indicating a mutual interest in the work of the great French Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes.

In this richly Symbolist group portrait, Lambert delights the eye through its theatricality and sensuous qualities, enticing the imagination with its subtle implications. The portraits of the artist, his wife Amy, and fellow Australian artists Patterson and Ramsay are readily identifiable. But the identification of the figure to the far right has caused some interesting speculations, including identification with Arthur Streeton and the writer Arthur Adams.4 There is no real likeness to Streeton; while the book held in the left hand suggests a writer rather than a painter. Novelist and poet, Adams wrote for the Bulletin, moving to London in 1902. Although the painting is dated 1903, the youthful images of the three central figures suggest the earlier date of 1901 for the genesis of the painting when they were all together in Paris. In 1902 Lambert returned to London and Ramsay to Australia. Patterson remained in Paris. Perhaps Lambert worked on the painting into 1903, identification of the figure to the right possibly offering an answer. Recent research has suggested another artist, one Cecil Rae, based on an early Lambert drawing of the same English gentleman.

Identification aside, greater interest surrounds the subject of the painting. Anne Gray proffered the most reasonable suggestion that it is ‘a symbolic homage to the arts’.5 It could equally be an offering to the fates for good fortune. Lambert delighted in artifice; and in this and later allegorical works he indulged in the tantalising play of revelation and concealment, avoiding direct narrative and precise symbolism. The triumvirate of Lambert’s wife Amy and his artist friends Patterson and Ramsay – each an excellent portrait – provide the centre of attention. Patterson, Pan-like in classical garb and crowned with a laurel-like wreath, is absorbed by the cup of oblation offered by the stylishly beautiful Amy of full and sensuous lips. To the right, the handsome, lean-faced, Ramsay observes good humouredly, his image strikingly similar to Lambert’s 1901 portrait of him in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Lambert, to the left, and the mystery man to the right look out to the viewer, inviting participation like saints in the paintings of the Old Masters which Lambert so much admired. The gigantic pile of rock and castle with its all-seeing eye of the moon are reminiscent of Arnold Böcklin and his several famous nineteenth century paintings of The Isle of the Dead, Lambert sharing with Böcklin the Symbolists’ love of mystery and exploration of what lies beyond that which is merely seen. The emotional undercurrent is redolent of the fin de siècle in its marriage of the sensuous and transient foreboding.

Does Lambert provide a key to unlock the Symbolist correspondence between the objective and the subjective? In format and size, it is close to his Death of Adonis. They also share a mood of transience. The millennium in harmony with fin de siècle cast a rich spell, which influenced many an artist in Paris at that time. Like Adonis, those in Lambert’s panoramic portrait are young and indulge in an outrageously physical beauty. Their futures lie in the hands of the fates, Ramsay, like Adonis, to die in youth, unfulfilled. The ancient myths about Adonis tell that his beauty was so overwhelming that it had Aphrodite and Persephone in its thrall. Early death placed him in Persephone’s kingdom thereafter. Nevertheless, this most complex of classical figures had a close association with rebirth and vegetation, celebrated by women in a feast at mid-summer. It is interesting to reflect, however, on the fact that Amy gave birth to their first son, Maurice, in Paris in June 1901. As her striking beauty was to give way to motherhood, Thea Proctor soon replaced her as a favoured model for Lambert. Nevertheless, Lambert’s painting, while touching on many ideas, is too rich in nuances to be limited to a finite meaning. 

1. Motion, A., The Lamberts: George, Constant & Kit, Chatto & Windus, London, 1986, p. 30
2. ibid., p. 36
3. Alexander, J., Portrait of an Artist: Ambrose Patterson (1877 - 1966), McClelland Regional Gallery, Melbourne, 1992, p. 15
4. Engledow, S., op. cit., p. 26; Gray, A., op. cit., p. 81
5. Gray, op. cit., p. 81