Mrs (later Dame) Alice Chisholm (1856–1954) of Woollahra and Pennant Hills, New South Wales, established soldiers’ canteens in the Middle East during the First World War. On her own initiative and with her own funds, in 1915 she established the first canteen at Heliopolis in the outer suburbs of Cairo. She later set up a soldiers’ canteen at Kantara on the Suez Canal and, with the assistance of Miss Rania McPhillamy, expanded this into a large-scale venture that provided meals and refreshment to thousands of troops daily. Official historian H.S. Gullett wrote that ‘[her] work was a very bright example of the devotion of Australia’s womanhood to the distant troops’ (Gullett 1936, p.649; ADB).
This is one of the few pencil portraits of a woman that Lambert made while he was an official war artist, and one of the most interesting. William Moore reported Lambert’s experience in making this drawing in March 1918 at Mrs Chisholm’s canteen on his way back from fieldwork in Palestine:
‘Here,’ said the artist, ‘one could halt and have a bath and good food. It had a touch of home, so pleasant, so grateful. When I asked her for a sitting she modestly protested that she was not important enough. I got her to sit in a strong light; she had an interesting, careworn face, and a very charming personality, and her portrait was one of the best of my carefully-made drawings’ (Moore, vol. 1, p.151).
In this drawing Lambert emphasised the sixty-one-year-old Mrs Chisholm’s ‘charming personality’, giving her a gracious, genteel, smiling face and soft, pensive eyes, while he diminished the careworn aspect of her face.