In Egg and cauliflower Lambert was concerned with the artful arrangement of forms and colours. He advised his assistant, E.A. Harvey, to follow the well-established tradition and paint still lifes for more than a year in order to gather the technical skill necessary to ‘realise design, scale of parts, colour pattern, and above all unity’ (AA 1933, p.38). He encouraged students to study the forms of eggs, cauliflowers and pumpkins, and suggested that the study of these objects would assist them in simplifying the design of nature.
There should be no dividing wall set up between the scientific method of modelling an orange, a box or the head of the Venus de Milo. (ML MSS 97/8, item 5, p.279).
Lambert painted this rather artificial arrangement of objects with uncompromising realism. But he also explored the modernist concerns of simplicity, pattern and design, and the use of bold colour (blue with orange and green, and a range of whites). It was reported by its first owner, Sydney Ure Smith, to have been the most discussed picture in Sydney in 1926 (AA 1927). Lambert had shown it in the first exhibition of November to December in 1926.
Lambert was certainly not the first to paint a cauliflower still life. The British artist William Henry Hunt did so in his watercolour Still-life with a cauliflower c.1835 (British Museum, London). But Lambert’s vegetable still life is also in the tradition of seventeenth-century Spanish artist Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), who painted spare compositions of vegetables, epitomising the humble way of life. In its stark simplicity it also recalls Manet’s remarkable still lifes of fruit and vegetables such as The melon 1880. Manet’s melon was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1926, the same year that Lambert painted his cauliflower accompanied by an egg and a carrot. Austere simplicity of this kind was part of a 1920s return to orderliness and classicism after the turmoil of expressionism and war. Lambert’s still-life elements are also assertively ‘international’ not assertively Australian, and that too aligns this painting with ‘contemporary’ art.