In Self-portrait with gladioli Lambert deliberately depicted himself as a precious, self-assured aesthete. In this, he visualised the thoughts expressed in a letter to Amy on 25 November 1921:
I am a luxury, a hot house rarity ... Scoffed at for preciousness. Despised for resembling a chippendale chair in a country where timber is cheap (ML MSS 97/10, p.379).
He was a dedicated artist who worked to the point of exhaustion, but he portrayed himself, not as he was, but as the affected, self-admiring dandy he thought others considered him to be.
To paint himself thus required, as the critic for the Australasian newspaper suggested on 24 February 1923, ‘courage, self-analysis and amazing technical skill’. His gaze is quizzical; he placed himself under self-scrutiny. He stood in an apparently careless attitude, but studiously posed, with his hands splayed out and showing ‘articulations of nerve and sinew’.
Lambert was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy on 23 November 1922 – the only Australian painter ever to be so honoured. This self-portrait might be viewed as Lambert’s statement of achievement. He stands smiling, in his artistic brown velvet gown, with a purple scarf around his neck and a vase of gladioli before him, like someone who has just received a medal on a ribbon and a bouquet of flowers. In other self-portraits such as Self-portrait c.1907 (cat.37) he depicted himself with a paintbrush in hand, but here he showed himself posing. Lambert’s stance in this portrait resembles that of the first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Self-portrait c.1780 (Royal Academy, London), in which, dressed in his academic robes, he stands aristocratically with his right hand on his hip (although not with his left arm raised). Lambert’s pose could also be viewed as a witty adaptation of the classical marble sculpture, the Hermes Logios , an image of the god of eloquence, who, like Lambert in this portrait, stands with one arm raised,
as if speaking.
Gladioli are the birth flower of those born between 22 August and 22 September, as Lambert was. Gladiolus is derived from the Latin word gladius , meaning sword, on account of the shape of its leaves, which look like a two-edged sword; gladioli are sometimes known as sword lilies. In Roman times the flowers were presented to victorious gladiators. The flower is thus a symbol for victory. It can also symbolise strength of character.
But in addition to being a portrait of achievement and victory, this painting is also a portrait of jest, of self-mockery. It is an image which brings to mind the lines in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881), which caricature the aesthete:
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand.
And every one will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
‘If he’s content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man
In his Self-portrait with gladioli Lambert presented himself in his velvet gown with tongue in cheek. He showed himself with not one poppy or lily, but a whole bunch of gladioli to show ‘how he ranked as an apostle in the high aesthetic band’. As much as suggesting Lambert’s arrogance, it indicates his sense of humour and his delight in creating conceits.
Some of his former colleagues (like Hardy Wilson), perhaps jealously, thought he had became enamoured of praise, and they no doubt considered this portrait to be a true expression of his being. C.R. Bradish described him in Table Talk, 14 July 1927, as being ‘tricked out in brocade’, ‘strutting bloated with its whole consequence’, but then asked ‘why should not George Lambert be vain?’. ‘His precision as a painter, his occasional magnificence as a draughtsman … entitle him to stand among Australian painters wearing a crown of gold feathers if he feels that way’. However, not everyone maintained Lambert was lordly: the Sydney Mail reported on 13 September 1922 that he scorned any reference to ‘artistic genius’, and that he preferred ‘to be told by a critic that he had “done his job well,” as one might address
Self-portrait with gladioli was purchased in Adelaide, in 1923 by a private collector, T.E. Barr-Smith, at its first exhibition (‘Lambert and Heysen: An exhibition of portraiture, still life, and landscape’, at Preece’s Gallery). The price, £1000, was the highest paid for a work by Lambert during his life. It was not publicly shown again until Lambert’s memorial loan exhibition in Sydney in 1930, although it was widely known through its reproduction as a frontispiece in The art of George W. Lambert, published in 1924.