George W Lambert liked to entertain, to have fun and to be the centre of attention. He once made his exit by cartwheeling across the centre of a room in a flowing cape. He enjoyed dressing up and acting out roles, and remarked that ‘artificiality is the quality which makes man the master of the world’.
In Chesham Street Lambert certainly showed off. It is a bravura work in which the artist displayed his considerable ability in depicting naked flesh. He also presented the physical prowess of his bare torso; taut and tense and gleaming in the light. He showed himself with head held high, lips closed and looking down on the viewer. Or did he?
It has been said that Lambert’s model, Williams, posed for the nude figure. But the features of the face resemble those of Lambert; so it may be that Williams posed for the kneeling man to the right and not the central figure. Or did Williams pose for the torso and Lambert place his own head on it? That would be a clever conceit. We will never quite know. Certainly, the central figure was intended as a self-portrait, whether Lambert used a model or not.
In 1910 Lambert was working in London, at the height of his powers, and receiving good notices in the press. A British critic linked Lambert’s work to that of the successful artists Augustus John and William Orpen, ‘painters of real strength, originality, and occasional charm’.
Chesham Street has been read narratively as a scene in a consulting room in Chesham Street, London with a doctor examining the heart or lungs of his patient. This, however, is not the subject of the painting but the excuse for the composition; dramatically, it is about the psychological intrusiveness of such a physical examination. In 1901, Freud published his Psychopathology of everyday life and, during the decade, his ideas about exploring the psyche gained wider understanding. This painting appears to be a metaphor: this man seems to have nothing to hide, to be literally and metaphorically bearing his chest, exposing his heart and soul to the world in an outrageous fashion. And yet, as we have seen, it is also an artifice—Lambert may merely have pretended to display his body. Moreover, the drama of the body draws attention away from the face, and the identity and psyche of the subject.
 George W Lambert, Sketchbook: figure studies and horse studies [1921–30], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p 31.
 H Wilson, ‘G W Lambert, ARA, painter’, Australian Quarterly, Sydney, no 7, September 1930, p 93.
 L Housman, ‘The international exhibition of Fair Women’, Manchester Guardian, 27 May 1910.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010