In Sheoak Sam Lambert depicted a swagman and his dog sitting in front of a tent, with tall, slender sheoak trees in the background and spindly grasses in the foreground – a recognisably Australian scene. He presented it from a near vantage point and close to the ground. The sketchy nature of the brushstrokes and the use of a wood panel support suggest that Lambert may have painted it out of doors, possibly during his visits to the Hawkesbury River area around 1897.
The Hawkesbury district, beyond Windsor and Richmond, was popular with Sydney plein-air painters during the 1880s and 1890s. Charles Conder, Julian Ashton, Henry Fullwood and others visited the Hawkesbury in 1888. Fullwood returned there during the 1890s, and Arthur Streeton painted there in 1896.
In the late 1880s Lambert’s teacher, Julian Ashton (1851–1942), had directed artists to depict such subjects, to ‘paint the Australia of to-day … Pictures which … must perforce be Australian’ (Centennial Magazine , vol. 2, no. 1, 1888–9, p.32).
In its subject of a bushman in a rural setting, this painting resembles works which other Australian artists painted in the 1880s and 1890s: views of hardy pioneers in the bush, such as Tom Roberts’s The artists’ camp c.1886 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and Arthur Streeton’s The selector’s hut: Whelan on the log 1890 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra). Nonetheless, the bush which Roberts and Streeton (and possibly Lambert in Sheoak Sam ) depicted was an outer-suburban landscape and not the rural bush that Lambert had depicted in A bush idyll .