Currently on view at the Queensland Art Gallery, our new commemorative display ‘From the battlefield to the home front’ marks Australia’s involvement in World War One and aims to show the involvement of artists in shaping the national perception of the war, and its aftermath. George W Lambert was commissioned by the Australian Government and concentrated on set-piece battle paintings in Palestine & Turkey. Recent conservation on one of these works, Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919-22 has involved examination and removal of a discoloured dirt and grime layer from the picture surface.
George Washington Lambert served as an Official World War One Artist from late 1917, attached to the ANZAC Mounted Division. He travelled to Gallipoli and the Middle East to record battlefields as well as make preparatory drawings and oil sketches for planned larger commissioned paintings that sometimes took years to complete.
Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919-22 was commissioned by the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance (LHFA) to commemorate an incident during the Battle of Romani on the 4th August 1916 in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. The core of the 2nd LHFA was formed in Brisbane, with a contingent of men from Gympie.
The painting depicts an incident where a sand-cart ambulance was deployed to an exposed part of the frontline in order to retrieve two serious casualties, when it was mistakenly shelled by Turkish artillery. Naturally the horses panicked and started to bolt. Tragedy was averted when the Corporal galloped to the front of the party to steady the teams and signalled “Walk”. After the horses were calmed, the enemy apparently recognised the Ambulance and stopped firing. As a result of their bravery and composure, the Corporal and drivers were awarded Military Medals.
The painting was commissioned in 1919, three years after the event, to be presented to the Gallery, then known as the National Art Gallery of Queensland, by the officers and men of the 2nd LHFA in memory of their comrades who did not return from the Great War. The event was re-enacted for Lambert at Kantara, Egypt in 1919, and a photograph of the artist painting ‘en plein air’ a preliminary oil sketch of the re-enactors is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra
This painting appeared to have had little conservation treatment since entering the Collection. Biographical and background information documents Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919-22 as being painted in two stages; firstly in Kantara, Egypt, in 1919, where the scene depicted was re-enacted for Lambert, and secondly back in Australia, where his commissions were shipped for completion. After sketching on location, it is probable that Lambert worked up the larger composition in a field-studio type arrangement. The canvas would have been tacked onto a solid support whilst he painted and then rolled up and shipped back to Australia, via London, in 1921.
The painting was examined in ultraviolet light and under magnification using a stereo microscope. The microscope allows for a detailed inspection of the surface, paint and varnish layers to further determine how the painting has been constructed and to clarify the relationship between original paint and subsequent dirt layers. Ultraviolet light enables these layers to be recognised through their individual fluorescence and application.
Lambert used a ready-primed linen canvas which has a light warm-grey preparatory ground layer. Small areas of this underlying layer are visible around all the edges of the painting where the painted brushstrokes have lightly skipped over it. In all four corners, and located in the upper and lower centre of the painting in the sky and foreground, there are numerous pin holes, showing where the canvas was attached with tacks during the first stage of painting in Kantara.
The central composition of the painting, and the foreground, were well executed and almost certainly completed during Lambert’s time in Egypt. The sky however, was rendered in thinner, more preparatory-style paint layers. The painting appears to have been lightly varnished at this time, with a natural resin varnish, probably dammar, characteristically fluorescing brightly in ultraviolet light. On the surface this appears as a thinly applied layer, now discoloured and yellowed through aging. The drips and brush-marks of varnish can quite easily be seen in the sky and along the lower edge of the painting. Under the microscope, tiny particles of dirt are seen to be embedded in this transparent layer.
In 1921, one year after his official war office contract ended, the Australian War Memorial paid for Lambert to return to Australia to enable him to complete numerous commissions, including this one. The rolled canvas would have been stretched over the present keyed stretcher back in Australia. Lambert seems to have re-worked parts of the painting at this stage, especially the lower half of the sky and horizon line, the sand-cart and flag. The paint appears to have been applied with rapidly executed, brisk vertical brush-marks conveying the speed and drama of the scene. The vigour of Lambert’s brush work can be seen on closer inspection of the paint layer, in some places leaving tiny brush hairs in the textural surface.
Lambert uses a combination of strong, thick brushstrokes and a palette knife technique, creating the central blast with powerful and expressive impasto passages of painting.
On completion, the painting appears to have been lightly varnished and Lambert signs himself “G.W Lambert A.R.A” (Honorary Capt. AIF.EEF). This indicates the painting was signed after Lambert was elected as Associate of the Royal Academy in November 1922.
One of the major observations in the lab was that the painting had a very grey and opaque dirt layer on the surface, with a rather patchy, discoloured varnish layer thinly applied by the artist over the paint layers.
Cleaning tests revealed how discoloured and obscuring the surface dirt layer was. It was therefore decided to clean the whole painting to reveal the original vibrant colours.
After surface cleaning it was decided to leave the original, if slightly uneven, thin varnish intact on the picture surface.
An area of canvas deformation and buckling, located in the lower left hand corner, was given a humidity treatment that allowed the canvas to relax and flatten.
A thin Conservation Grade varnish has been applied for saturation and protection of the cleaned surface, and small surface abrasions and losses have been retouched.
Although the painting has now undergone conservation treatment it is generally in excellent condition. Lambert has skilfully visualised the heroic actions of the men of The Second Light Horse Field Ambulance in August 1916, and his painting is an important testimony for the commemoration marking 100 years since the onset of World War One.
With thanks to Australian Art Curators Michael Hawker and Angela Goddard for their historical research