In Lotty and a lady , Lambert presented an apparently everyday kitchen scene in which the housemaid, Lotty, is in command of her kitchen, looking out comfortably at the viewer. The lady, with head in profile and dressed for outdoors in hat and gloves, occupies the upper left of the scene. On the table is a carefully arranged still life with two fish, observed with precision. Neither mistress nor maid engage with these objects. They are lost in thought, posed as the still life.
The model for the lady was Thea Proctor. The model for ‘Lotty’ was Lottie Stafford, a Cockney washerwoman living in the slum cottages of Paradise Walk in Chelsea. She was a popular model on account of her naturalness, total self-assurance and subtle sensuality. She had a ‘swan neck’ which greatly appealed to William Orpen, and which he emphasised in the series of works he painted around 1905 – including The wash house 1905 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) – that deal with working-class themes. Lottie also posed for British artists William Nicholson and Walter Sickert.
Lambert painted the work with assured brushstrokes in a restricted palette. He used broader paintwork for the main elements of the picture, with some remarkable crisp flicks of paint, and a more detailed and delicate handling for his depiction of the fish and other still-life details in the foreground.
Lambert’s painterly approach and careful design reflects his desire to paint in the manner of Velázquez, and the image resembles Velázquez’s Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary 1618 (National Gallery, London). As in a number of Velázquez’s works the viewpoints are organised so that we see the table and the objects from above while looking directly at the figures. But Lambert also suggested that he could not have painted Lotty’s head had he ‘not been so impressed by the work of Manet’ (ML MSS A1811, p.72).
This apparently straightforward genre scene may also have symbolic significance. Lambert may have intended to depict one of the themes of Velázquez’s painting, the contemplative versus the active life, with the lady representing the contemplative or leisurely life and Lotty the world of work, necessary for the contemplative life. Lambert may also be presenting two aspects of one woman, the elegant public face as opposed to the domestic private self.
Further, this painting may also be a comment on class relations. By portraying a housemaid sitting in the kitchen together with the mistress of the house, Lambert challenged traditional Edwardian social roles and behaviours. At this time servants were urged to make themselves invisible when in the presence of their employers, and to this extent the scene is stage-managed. Lotty is posed in a subversive manner with her hand defiantly on her hip, and she wears earrings, something that might be considered unusual for a servant girl. The subject is similar to those of several of Lambert's Bulletin illustrations in which he portrayed a mistress with a confident servant – with the servant usually getting the better of her mistress.
The painting was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria at the insistence of Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, a gallery trustee, from its exhibition at the Guild Hall, Melbourne, in 1910. It was the first of Lambert's European paintings to be purchased for an Australian public collection, and the only one to be purchased while he lived abroad.