George W. LAMBERT, Weighing the fleece Enlarge 1 /2
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George LAMBERT

St Petersburg, Russia 1873 – Cobbity, New South Wales, Australia 1930

  • Australia 1887-1900
  • France and England 1900-21
  • Australia from 1921

Weighing the fleece 1921 Place made: Wanganella Estate, Deniliquin, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed and dated lower right in oil paint,'G.W.Lambert. 1921'.
Dimensions: 71.7 h x 91.8 w cm framed (overall) 893 h x 1100 w x 75 d mm
Cat Raisonné: Gray(1996),P384
Acknowledgement: Purchased in 1966
Accession No: NGA 66.20
87

In Weighing the flee ce Lambert made an image of the successful grazier. He also suggested the importance of wool to the Australian economy and reflected on the good fortune of the landowners of the 1920s. He located the figures artificially in their environment as if they were in a tableau of modern life, actors on a stage set. This pastoralist is not a poorly clad labourer, as is the man in Lambert’s Across the black soil plains of 1899 (cat.9); he is a well-tailored manager standing on the edge of the scene, watching his employees at work and looking at his impressive fleece. His wife sits on a wool-bale passively beside him, a further symbol of his achievements.

The figures are Mr Leigh Sadleir Falkiner and his wife Beatrice, depicted in a brick-walled woolshed on the Falkiners’ property Wanganella Estate, near Deniliquin in the Riverina district of New South Wales. They look at a fleece being weighed by Falkiner’s nephew, John Robert Carse. The bookkeeper, holding a notebook in his hand, was Philip Darbyshire. The merino rams were both champions, and Falkiner’s record-priced fleece is deliberately placed in the centre of the composition.

Lambert believed this to be ‘a masterpiece of small portrait grouping’, painted in eight days. He was proud of his attention to detail in his depiction of the interior of the shed, noting the way that he had painted the ‘beams and the swallow droppings on the beams, corrugated iron, oil drum, kerosene tin, wool bale, brand on the wool bale’. On 26 August 1921 he described it as a ‘picture I’ve had in my mind for 25 years’ (ML MSS 97/10).

Contemporary Australian critics, such as that for the Argus on 15 September 1921, approved of this work because it was a typical image of Australian life and a national subject, whilst also admiring Lambert’s ‘almost pre-Raphaelite’ attention to detail and his restraint in colour and tone. 

This work was commissioned by Falkiner, but he did not purchase it, as he did not like the way Lambert had portrayed himself and his wife (NGA file 81/944). Lambert subsequently sold it to Sir Baldwin Spencer for £600.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

‘A masterpiece of small portrait grouping in a woolshed … a painting I’ve had in my mind for 25 years.’[1] So George W Lambert described his painting Weighing the fleece, one of the first major works that he painted after his return to Australia in 1921. He had arrived back with great acclaim after a successful career in London. And he wanted to paint images of Australia that would be ‘for all times a record of bush life by one who really knows’.[2] Lambert painted the portraits of the successful grazier, Mr Leigh Sadleir Falkiner and his wife Beatrice, located in a brick-walled woolshed on the Falkiner’s property, Wanganella Estate, near Deniliquin in the Riverina district of New South Wales. He emphasised their good fortune as woolgrowers by portraying them looking at an impressive record-priced fleece in the centre of the composition. He also included two further portraits, that of Falkiner’s nephew, John Robert Carse, weighing the fleece, and their bookkeeper, Philip Darbyshire, holding a notebook in his hand. And Lambert might also be said to have painted a portrait of the merino rams, both champions.

Falkiner commissioned this work but did not purchase it because he did not like the way Lambert had portrayed himself and his wife.[3] This may have been because Lambert showed the couple as well-tailored observers on the edge of the scene, rather than as the main subjects of the composition. Moreover, Lambert depicted them statically, as if they were a tableau of modern life, figures on a stage set. Certainly, some contemporary Australian critics thought the image to be unemotional and lacking sympathy with the subject. But Lambert intentionally spurned a sentimental response and consciously sought to render his images more durable by focusing on structure and pattern. He was not willing, moreover, to change his portrait to suit those who commissioned it.

Lambert was, indeed, proud of his attention to detail in this painting, including his depiction of the interior of the shed, especially the ‘beams and the swallow droppings on the beams, corrugated iron, oil drum, kerosene tin, wool bale, brand on the wool bale’. And this group portrait received acclaim from other contemporary critics who thought it a typical image of Australian life and a national subject.

Anne Gray

[1] George W Lambert, 26 August 1921, Lambert Family Papers, ML MS 97/10.

[2] George W Lambert to Amy Lambert, 23 October 1921, Lambert Family Papers, ML MS 97/10.

[3] M T Falkiner, correspondence with Director, National Gallery of Australia, 4 February 1983, NGA file 81/944.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010