Monday, October 22, 2012
Australian Artist George Washington Thomas Lambert 1873-1930
George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930), artist, was born at St Petersburg, 4th child of George Washington Lambert, an American railway engineer who died before the birth of his son, and his English wife Annie Matilda Firth. Soon after his birth the family moved to Württemberg, Germany, with his maternal grandfather, & then to England where George was educated at Kingston College, Yeovil, Somerset. The family decided to migrate & George, reaching Sydney with his mother & 3 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 8 months, Lambert returned to Sydney to work as a clerk with W. & A. McArthur & Co., softgoods merchants, & 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 & worked as a station-hand for about 2 years. These 2 relatively brief experiences of bush life gave him an enduring love for horses & rural themes. Back in Sydney, he met the illustrator B. E. Minns who advised him to consider becoming an artist & he returned to Ashton's classes, while working by day as a grocer's assistant. His earliest extant portrait belongs to this period.
From 1894, Lambert had exhibited with the Art Society & 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 & 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. In 1900, he won the first traveling 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, in 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 & its atmosphere 'too forbidding', in February next year they moved to Paris where, with Ramsay, Lambert studied at Colarossi's art school & at the Atelier Delécluze. In Paris, he particularly admired 17th-century artists such as 'Rubens the rollicking & Vandyke the irreproachable', Velasquez, & such of his contemporaries as J. M. Whistler & John Singer Sargent whom he felt had preserved the qualities of old masters. Lambert was to emulate Titian in 'The Sonnet' & Whistler in one of his own favourite works of this period, 'La Blanchisseuse.'
In November, the Lamberts returned to London with their infant son. He contributed illustrations to Cassell's Magazine (1900) & the Pall Mall Magazine, & for Jose's Two Awheel (1903) & W. H. Lang's Australia (1907). He supplemented his income by work as a riding instructor & as a teacher at the London School of Art.
Before World War I Lambert's principal work was in portraiture, both paintings & drawings. The paintings, often large uncommissioned studies of his family & friends, are invariably characterized by a sober palette, generalized landscape background, & a self-conscious treatment of hands, but a fine evoking of the tone of flesh & 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 & an equestrian portrait of King Edward VII.
Also interested in murals & decorative painting, Lambert designed some of the interior decorations for the liner Alsatian. By 1914, he was coming into prominence — he was a frequent exhibitor, & 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 & Gravers & 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 & supervised timber-getting in Wales. In December 1917, he was appointed an official war artist, A.I.F., with the honorary rank of lieutenant, & commissioned to execute twenty-five sketches. He arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, in January 1918. Despite contracting malaria, he embarked for Marseilles, France, in May with over 130 sketches.
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 & 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 a stay in Cairo, he visited Palestine, returning to London in August. His many meticulous & 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. He saw himself as an 'Artist Historian' recording 'events precious to the history of the nation.'
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. Portraits of the 1920s tend to reflect with their generally dry colour & muted characterization an increasing disenchantment with this aspect of his art. He also painted rural landscapes & an occasional urban landscape or still life. He exhibited annually with the Society of Artists & from 1926 with the Contemporary Group which he formed with Thea Proctor.
Tall & athletic, Lambert had been a good boxer in his youth. He was fond of music & had a good baritone voice. With great charm, he moved easily in fashionable circles but behind his 'slightly theatrical manner' were loneliness, ill-health & overwork. To Bernard Smith he was 'essentially a talented craftsman who gave his greatest love to his work & his horses.'
In the 1920s, Lambert became interested in sculpture & received several large commissions. He had suffered from mitral valve disease for some time before his sudden death on 29 May 1930 at Cobbity, near Camden.
The biography above adapted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography essay on Lambert by Martin Terry