Henry Lawson (1867–1922) wrote poetry and short stories about Australian life which had a popular appeal; he became a legendary figure in his lifetime. He established a natural colloquial voice and wrote in a lucid, understated prose style, with immense sympathy for the hard lives of those who lived in the bush. His stories include ‘The drover’s wife’, and two of his collections, While the billy boils (1896) and Joe Wilson and his mates (1901), remain classics of Australian literature. Like the majority of Australians, Lawson lived in a city and had limited experience of country life. During his last twenty years he only wrote spasmodically, as he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness. He was the first Australian writer to be granted a state funeral, attended by the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang. Lawson’s image appeared on Australia’s first ten-dollar note, issued in 1966 (ADB).
In this sculpture Lambert created a lifelike, roughly dressed individual, accompanied by a swagman, a dog and a fence post, an image that was eminently natural and Australian. The Sydney Morning Herald critic suggested on 26 March 1930 that ‘the central figure shows a remarkable likeness to the poet’, and certainly Lambert portrayed him with his identifiable bushy eyebrows and moustache. He faithfully captured the posture and dress of a particular man at a specific time, but he was concerned principally with evoking a state of mind: he showed Lawson making the gesture he usually did when he was searching for a thought or reciting verse. By showing Lawson in the company of a swagman (‘Sundowner’ was the term in 1930) and dog, Lambert suggested the poet’s allegiance to the poor and humble, and created a visual metaphor of Australian mateship.
Lambert’s carefully constructed but understated work embodies the poet’s prose style, which was consciously crafted to have a natural effect. Such a laconic naturalness has become an identifiably Australian characteristic, and to this extent Lambert’s approach in this work also conveys an Australian attitude.
The sculpture also has a more general aspect: the swagman and his dog could be characters from one of Lawson’s bush stories. The old man hints at the older Lawson himself, a man who became a dishevelled figure as a result of alcoholism and mental illness. In this way Lambert created a specific image of the two ages of Lawson, and a universal one of the two ages of man.
Lawson’s son Jim posed for the figure of Lawson, and the model for the swagman was Conrad von Hagen (Wilson 2004, p.145). Lambert, however, went beyond mere likeness: Lawson’s pose, with his outstretched right arm and stooped back, resembles that of St John in Rodin’s St John the Baptist preaching 1878–80, which Lambert may have known from the cast presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1902. The seated swagman in this sculpture, his right hand held up to his face and left arm relaxed over his knee, may derive from Rodin’s best known work, The thinker 1880, which Lambert may have known from a cast which was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1921. The pose of the standing figure is also like that of the classical marble sculpture Hermes Logios , the god of oratory. And as noted above (see cats 102, 103), the pose of Lambert’s loose-kneed gesturing figure of Lawson also resembles that of Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Bacchus 1497 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence), and that of the swagman is similar to Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.
The sculpture was formally commissioned by the organising committee of the Henry Lawson Memorial Fund on 18 November 1927, though Lambert had been notified of his selection in December 1926. The committee had raised funds from the public, including thousands of school children (ML MSS 97/7, item 27). The brief had specified a work of art which showed Lawson as an Australian of the bush, as well as an accurate bronze likeness of him. The sculpture had to be dressed as a bush worker without coat or vest, with his shirt open to the neck, close fitting trousers (not riding breeches), boots of the type worn by Australian soldiers during the war and a soft felt hat which had lost its stiffness (ML MSS 97/5). Apart from the soft felt hat, Lambert’s sculpture met the committee’s specification.
In 1926 Lambert had made several pencil studies for this group, and a sketch for the proposed group in its Sydney parkland setting. The final work was unveiled in the Domain, Sydney, on 28 July 1931 by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game.