'A Wonderful Setting for the Tragedy': the First World War drawings of George Lambert

Art Gallery of New South Wales

George Lambert: from bush to battlefield
George W Lambert was one of the greatest painters of Australian bush life. He was born in Russia in 1873 to an American father and English mother, but moved to Australia after the death of his father. He spent several years as a jackaroo on his great uncle's farm in Warren, NSW. During this time he developed a love for bush life and the culture of the Australian horseman, which was a theme he explored throughout his artistic career. In 1899 he won the Art Gallery of NSW's prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape with this evocative painting of a drover and his horse team on the wool track in rural NSW. The following year he won the New South Wales Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship, which took him to London where he was working when the war broke out. A patriotic man, like many of his fellow artists Lambert felt duty-bound to serve his country in the war, but was unable to enlist for the Australian Imperial Force in London. He instead joined a voluntary unit called the United Arts Rifles, through which he trained recruits in horsemanship.  
George Lambert in the war
In 1917 the Australian artist and cartoonist Will Dyson was appointed Australia's first official war artist. Nine other Australian artists working in London were subsequently appointed, as well as five artists serving with the Australian Imperial Force. After turning down a major's commission as an official Canadian war artist, Lambert was invited to join the Australian Light Horse as the official war artist on their campaign in Palestine against the Ottoman army. He arrived in Egypt in January 1918, then traveled through Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Official war artists were expected to produce 25 paintings, but Lambert produced many more landscape sketches in oil, as well as many pencil sketches of the troops he met. He was greatly taken by the beauty of Palestine. 'These sand-hills take on shapes and curves, cut concave and convex, interwoven into an entrancing pattern, here rhythmical, there jagged and eccentrically posed', he wrote, 'with all the knowledge the artist may, nay must, bring to bear, he need only copy and he achieves art; but it takes doing'. 
The Light Horse veteran
In Palestine, Lambert found a landscape that captured his imagination with almost as much force as his home country. 'Of all the places I visited', he wrote, 'the region around Jericho was the most attractive from the artistic point of view ... an inspiring background of hills ... beyond the Jordan the Mountains of Moab, standing out in jagged serrated masses of colour in strong light and shade'. His fascination with the Middle East continued long after his return to London, and his experiments with colour and form during this time certainly influenced a generation of Australian painters. However, it was the 'sweating, sun-bronzed men and beautiful horses', of the Light Horse that impressed him the most. These soldiers reminded him of the Australian bush and the masculine pioneer lifestyle of his youth. While at the front as well as back in his London studio, Lambert made close studies of Australian soldiers. These were often preparatory drawings of poses or equipment for his grand battle paintings, but he was also an acute observer of character and emotion. In this portrait of an unidentified Light Horse veteran, Lambert's sympathy and empathy for the man are obvious. The traces of his wartime service might be read in his stoic expression, rendered with subtlety and tact by a man who had shared the the war experience. 
Gallipoli: 'A wonderful setting for the tragedy'
In 1919 Lambert joined Australia’s official war correspondent and historian Charles  (CEW) Bean on a historical mission to Gallipoli. Lambert rose before daybreak each morning to capture the effects of light and atmosphere. He was deeply moved by the human tragedy of Gallipoli. Faced with the sight of the remains of hundreds of Australian soldiers on the battlefields, he wrote that ‘evidence grins coldly at us noncombatants, and I feel thankful that I have been trained… to stop my emotions at the border line. From the point of view of the Artist Historian the Nek is a wonderful setting for the tragedy’. While surveying the Nek, a small ridge of land high up on the peninsula, his party was forced to bury more than 300 Australian bodies in a strip the size of three tennis courts. Bean remarked that 'Lambert was, I think, more sensitive than the rest of us to the tragedy – or at any rate the horror – of Anzac’, and in a letter to his wife Amy, Lambert remarked that the ‘gruesome is… scattered all over the battlefield’. It moved him to create works that captured the drama of the campaign. Lambert’s most evocative Gallipoli work is 'The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915', which depicts the disastrous attack of men from the Light Horse during the ill-fated August offensive. 

The work is animated by a rush of movement from the bottom left, where the men leap from their trenches, to the top right, where they meet their fate.

Lambert asked Bean what it would be like to be hit by a bullet and spun around. He tried to capture this experience in his figures. The young man facing us on the right seems to have a stigmata wound.

The unknown soldier
Lambert continued to work on the commemoration of the war long after its end. In 1928 he received a commission from the Roman Catholic Sailors and Soldiers society to create a life-sized bronze sculpture of a recumbent soldier. He made four sketches in preparation for the final design, which he modelled at full-size with artist Arthur Murch. Lambert represented the uniform and equipment of the soldier with great accuracy, but this is a vision of heroic sacrifice that grants the digger an ideal death far removed from the reality of trench warfare. Though he seems to gesture with his right hand towards a bullet hole in his chest, the young soldier nevertheless appears serene and at peace in death. The sculpture was known informally as the 'Monument to the unknown soldier' until the creation of the official tomb to the unknown soldier in 1993.

Lambert made this sketch in preparation for a large bronze sculpture. Fellow artist Douglas Dundas wrote of this drawing that it was a ‘poignant evocation of youthful sacrifice’.

The model for the soldier was Lambert's studio assistant, Sten Snekker, who Lambert clothed in the uniform of the Light Horse Brigade.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Credits: Story

Written and produced by Andrew Yip

© Art Gallery of New South Wales

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