St Petersburg, Russia 1873 – Cobbity, New South Wales, Australia 1930
The squatter's daughter
Michelago, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
When the “Squatter’s Daughter” was first shown, to the best of my knowledge, only three Australian artists proclaimed its originality and truth. Such a break with suave sentiment and surface drawing met with a protective opposition – here was almost an attack upon established income. It was pronounced hard, untrue, unsympathetic. To-day we know this landscape to possess the largest local truth, supreme draughtsmanship and design, and to exhale the very spirit of Australia.
The squatter’s daughter created a stir in Australia when it was first exhibited in 1924, because Lambert created a new way of looking at the Australian landscape. He assimilated the blue and gold palette that Streeton had used to convey the heat and glare of the Australian scene, but he moved from an intuitive response to the landscape to a more formalist approach. He simplified the triangular mass of the hill and sharpened its outline and counterbalanced this with the strong verticals of the trees and the horizontal streak of green grass in the lower centre. Lambert painted with tight controlled brush strokes, so that the image seems still, but lifelike, with the trees and grass delineated by a sharp, scintillating light.
Our interest in stories encourages us to look at the painting as if it were an image of a particular person in a specific place at a certain time. We note that the girl, Gwendolyn (‘Dee’) Ryrie in white shirt and jodhpurs, is leading her horse (which Lambert had given her) across the family property at Michelago, sometime during Christmas and New Year 1923–24. Lambert had met Dee’s father, Major General Sir Granville Ryrie, in 1918 while serving as an official war artist in Palestine during the First World War. Following his return to Australia in 1921, he became a regular visitor to the Ryrie property on the outskirts of Canberra.
Lambert had gloried in painting the Palestine landscape as part of his war work, and he returned to Australia with the aim of painting images that would be ‘for all times a record of bush life by one who really knows’.2 In The squatter’s daughter he created a 20th-century image of squattocracy, of success, of a woman in command of her terrain (as opposed to the masculine labour portrayed by Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts at the end of the 19th century). This woman does not need to work the land, but visits it for her health and recreation. In the 1920s, the politics and economy of Australia were strongly based on life outside the cities; political power was in the hands of the Nationalist Party and the newly formed, basically conservative, Country Party, and half the national income was derived from pastoral and agricultural production. The pastoralists were successful, their yields profitable and their relationship with the land more detached than that of earlier pioneers.
In viewing the painting in this way, as illustrating an episode in the artist’s life or as social history painting, however, we ignore what was new about it and why it created a revolution in Australian landscape painting. There is another way of looking at this work: as a formalist composition of triangle, verticals and horizontal. Lambert wanted to paint the structure of the landscape in its essential shapes and advised young landscape painters that there was always perfect design in nature and that they should reduce it to definite forms. He attacked the intuitive approach to landscape. In response, critics such as Howard Ashton maintained that Lambert’s work was decorative and lacked emotion; but this was his aim – he intentionally created a stylised, formalist view.
A contemporary critic commented: ‘The Lambert landscape, “The Squatter’s Daughter”, will be of unique interest … as representing a direct break with the Streeton convention … It has the clarity of outline and the vivid color contrasts of his portraits and the girl in the foreground is true to the Lambert type.’3 As a result of his formalist approach in The squatter’s daughter and his denunciation of the sentimental Australian landscape, Lambert inspired other artists to make changes in their work. Hans Heysen and others came to believe that they should now explore organic form, seek greater simplicity and use sharper contours; The squatter’s daughter became a model to follow.
1Lionel Lindsay, ‘George Lambert – Our finest Australian master’, Art in Australia, third series, no.36, 15 February 1931 pp.12-17 (p.16).
2George Lambert, letter to Amy Lambert, 23 October 1921, Lambert Family (papers), State Library of New South Wales, ML MSS 97/10,
3‘A Unique Exhibition’, Advertiser, 28 July 1924, p.10.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002