The British writer Helen de Vere Beauclerk (1892–1969) was born Helen Mary Dorothea Bellingham. Her father, a major in the army, died in India a year after her birth, and she was adopted by a close family friend, Major Ferdinand de Vere Beauclerk. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and for a short time earned her living teaching music and accompanying on the piano. She returned to England at the outbreak of the First World War. She became a close friend of the artist Edmund Dulac and, after he separated from his wife, lived with him from 1924 until his death in 1953. Dulac frequently used her as a model for his illustrations, and illustrated her two novels, The green lacquer pavilion (1926) and The love of the foolish angel (1929). She also wrote Mountain and the tree (1935) and Shadows on the wall (1941) and translated into English work by Colette. She was tall and slender with a long neck, and dressed simply and elegantly.
Lambert captured Helen Beauclerk’s face brilliantly, suggesting the pulsating life under her skin. He reminded viewers of her physicality by showing her putting on her gloves, one bare hand stroking down a gloved index finger on the other hand. At the time that he painted this portrait Lambert began to emphasise the hands of his sitters, which he invested with a degree of nervous energy, as he did in this painting.
As well as creating a likeness of his fascinating subject, Lambert was interested in the beauty and texture of the whole of his paint surface. The background is thinly painted in expressive dabs in many colours, including chrome yellow, blue, purple and black.
Contemporary critics appreciated the abstract, decorative qualities of this painting, as much as its likeness. The Observer critic, P.G. Konody, noted on 17 June 1917, ‘These portraits are convincing and full of character; but the interest aroused by the life-like representation is never allowed to distract attention from the more abstract qualities of the work’.
The portrait was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales when first exhibited in Australia at the Fine Art Society in 1921. It was their first purchase of Lambert’s work since the 1890s.