Sybil Waller was the only daughter of Pickford Waller (1849–1930), an English designer and interior decorator, and an avid collector of Whistler’s works. Waller greatly admired the work of the expatriate Australian Charles Conder and decorated one room in his London house with Conder’s works on silk. Sybil frequently sat for artists, including Charles Shannon and Maurice Greiffenhagen. She wrote The kingdom of Pan , a poem and five short essays, which was published privately by the Caravel Press in 1952.
Sybil met Lambert through Shannon. In 1904 she was sitting for Shannon and was taken by a friend to Lambert’s studio, which was in the same building as Shannon’s. She described him as ‘a young Australian painter who had lately come to London. He had decided talent and though then very struggling, quickly made a name for himself. At the beginning he became known by his pencil portraits which he did at one, at most, two sittings’. She sat for him for two pencil portraits, one in ordinary day dress and the other in fancy dress sitting in a medieval chair. At this time Lambert also made a head and shoulder drawing of Pickford Waller and another of his wife seated in the medieval chair. A year later Lambert began this portrait based on his drawing of Sybil Waller in fancy dress. She remarked: ‘It was a beautiful costume of 15th century Italian design; in colour on a very rich red embroidered gold. With it I wore a gold latticed cap with a jewelled drop on the forehead similar to the head dress in Leonardo’s picture of Bianca Sforza’ (Christie’s, 1975).
Lambert located Sybil Waller in an imaginary landscape in which a naked ploughman with two white horses frame her on one side and a nude woman rests under some trees on the other. This small detail provides highly charged sensual overtones.