Sir Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) was the foundation professor of biology at the University of Melbourne, an anthropologist and a connoisseur of Aboriginal bark paintings as well as contemporary Australian art. One of Australia’s significant men of science, he was Lambert’s friend and patron and came to own a number of his paintings including The holiday group 1907 (cat.35) and Weighing the fleece 1921 (cat.87). He was a trustee of the combined Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria (1895–1928), in which position he was instrumental in the gallery acquiring Lambert’s painting Lotty and a lady (cat.27). The London visit, during which he sat for this portrait, was undertaken to select advisors for the Felton Bequest Committee, which funded the collections of the Library, Museum and Gallery (ADB).
While visiting London in January 1917 Spencer sat for this portrait eight times over three weeks, each visit averaging two hours. It amazed him that Lambert took so much time over the portrait and paid so much attention to detail. At this time Sir Baldwin was fifty-six, and only just knighted, so the portrait probably commemorates that honour. Lambert captured his subject’s thoughtful eyes and genial face. Presenting Spencer wrapped in an appropriate mid-winter overcoat and scarf, and holding a warm hat and gloves. Lambert evoked his warm and relaxed manner. The raised hand, as if in mid-gesture, suggests his energetic spirit, and the hand-held pince-nez signifies both his status as a professor and an art fancier. Curiously, Lambert portrayed Spencer seeming to arise out of – or merge into – this landscape, perhaps to suggest the anthropologist’s strong bond with the land.
Lambert completed the portrait in 1921 in Melbourne and offered it to the National Gallery of Victoria, but withdrew when trustee Sir Baldwin Spencer heard that director Bernard Hall planned to recommend its rejection. Spencer then purchased it for his own collection.