06 December 2009

George Lambert: Australian WW1 artist

Although raised in Germany and Australia, George Washington Lambert (1873-1930) moved to Paris to study art, spent much of his career in London and didn’t return permanently to Australia until 1921. Lambert was well known and well respected for very fine society portraits and allegorical scenes that we have come to expect of the late Victorian-Edwardian era-WW1 era, as can be seen in the 2 Blowhards blog. Art Inconnu was mesmerised by his very talented draughtsmanship.

Charge at Beersheba

While based in London Lambert couldn't enlist in the Australian Imperial Force there, so he joined a Voluntary Training Corps Lambert. And in 1917, he volunteered to become an official Australian war artist. He arrived at Alexandria in January 1918 and many of his 1918 sketches were exhibited later that year at the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists' War and Peace Exhibition.

I have two paintings from his time as an active war artist. The Australian Light Horse Remount Camp at Moascar North Egypt was near Ismailia on the Suez Canal, on the main route from Egypt to Palestine. The poet Andrew Barton Banjo Paterson was in charge of the Remounts Section, where untrained horses and mules from Australia were broken in and trained. Lambert’s tiny (23 x 28 cm) oil painting was particularly telling since Paterson and Lambert had known each other in Australia and both were professional horse men.

In March 1918 Lambert learned about the Charge at Beersheba from men in the 4th Light Horse Brigade whom he met in Palestine during his tour of duty. Apparently he rode the course which the charge had taken. The Lambert was given a really clear idea of the mass of horses and men involved in the charge when Light Horsemen staged a re-enactment of the event for him at Moascar Remount Camp. This large oil painting (123 x 247 cm) demonstrated the story: chaos, horsemen galloping under fire, men and horses falling, a horse rearing with its rider, and soldiers fighting in a hand-to-hand struggle.

Australian Light Horse Remount Camp at Moascar

Now I want to examine his post-war tour with the Australian Historical Mission. This Mission was headed by war historian Charles Bean and included war records section staff, professional photographers and officers. The mission's primary tasks were to report on the state of the war graves at Gallipoli. George Lambert was asked by Bean to go with the mission and to make oil and pencil studies that could later help him create two large works commissioned by the Australian Government for the future Australian War Memorial.

The Mission left for Gallipoli in Jan 1919, sailed up to Constantinople then travelled by train across Turkey, Syria, Palestine and finally Egypt. Wherever Lambert went, his works documented Australia’s iconic involvements in the war.

By early 1919 the Australian camps were being dismantled and the surviving soldiers had been largely returned to Australia and demobilised. However it is significant that the Graves Registration Unit was still working in the area, finding the remains of allied soldiers so they could be decently buried. The war may have been over, but Lambert was sketching and painting in an area still filled with trenches, bodies and deserted campsites. He said that the beauty of the battle sites, although often desolate, overwhelmed him. Further he felt an enduring respect for the men of the Light Horse which eventually found expression in his large commissioned paintings.

Anzac, The Landing 1915

Anzac, The Landing 1915 was a large (191 x 351 cm) oil painting that wasn’t completed until c1921. It depicted the Australian soldiers of the covering force climbing the seaward slope of Plugge's Plateau which overlooks the northern end of Anzac Cove. The view is to the north, towards the main range. The viewer can see the white bag that each soldier carried, holding the rations which were issued before the landing. It seems natural that his Gallipoli would be sombre and muted in colour. After all the landscape of Gallipoli was harsh in its geography and flora, and melancholy in its recent history.

When Lambert visited Gallipoli, it was bleak winter weather. Despite the conditions, understanding the landscape, its form, structure and colour was an important aspect of his work. Any direct attack across the narrow section of land known as the Nek, towards heavily defended Turkish trenches, was suicidal. Yet the Light Horsemen were ordered to charge anyhow on the grounds that everything must be done to assist the New Zealanders to make the main attack on the heights. The Charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, August 1915 is a large (153 cm x 306 cm) oil painting that wasn’t completed until 1924. Wave after wave of Australian teenagers were cut down by Turkish machine guns.

Charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, August 1915

I find it ironic, and satisfying, that the area is now part of the Gallipoli Peninsula Peace Park. The site of appalling massacres of young men is now included on the United Nations list of National Parks and Protected Areas.

There are two very useful references for Lambert’s war art. Thirty Years of an Artist's Life was written by George Lambert’s wife Amy in 1938. This book drew on accounts of his time working as a war artist in the Middle East and Gallipoli. And George Lambert: Gallipoli and Palestine Landscapes, a catalogue published for the Australian War Memorial Travelling Exhibition and published in 2007.


Anonymous said...

There's also a pretty decent biography by Andrew Motion. The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit.

George Lambert's First World War service record is also available online at the National Archives of Australia - dovetails nicely as background for his war related work.

Viola said...

Thank you very much for this excellent post, Hels. I am learning so much about Art History from your blog!

I have to admit that I didn't know very much about George Lambert - he is certainly very interesting. Is the book by his wife worth reading?

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



tonicboy said...

"I find it ironic, and satisfying, that the area is now part of the Gallipoli Peninsula Peace Park."

This is not irony. Irony is when an action has the opposite effect of its intended purpose.

The Gallipoli Peninsula Peace Park was founded specifically to commemorate and remember the tragedy of the famous battle.

Hels said...

Of all the places on earth that could have been made into a Peace Park, Gallipoli is the one that stood most for relentless and useless massacres. Teenage boys on both sides crawled out of the trenches and ran, knowingly, into machine guns and certain death.

When we visited the trenches of Gallipoli, I was blown away by the irony and perversity of the choice.