George LAMBERT, Recumbent figure of a soldier (Unknown soldier) [Unknown soldier] 1928-31


Listens: 0

National Gallery of Australia | Audio Tour | George.W.Lambert Retrospective


Recumbent figure of a soldier is a starkly simple, natural image of a typical Australian digger. Lambert portrayed this soldier with a bullet hole in his left breast, his right arm reaching towards this wound as if to still the pain, and through his frowning brow capturing the soldier’s last spasm. Particular attention is given to the accuracy of the uniform: there is caked mud on the puttees and the soles of the boots are shown as being slightly worn. In this sculpture, Lambert commented on the human condition, creating a peaceful vision of death by showing the soldier looking ‘through closed eye lids at something he can no more understand than you & I can understand’(ML MSS 97/3, p.105). On viewing the plaster the Sydney Morning Herald ’s critic was struck by the natural expression on the soldier’s face and observed on 29 June 1929 that the figure had a ‘smile of peace’ and read it as ‘satisfaction at a duty nobly done’. The soldier’s calm appearance led the Sydney Morning Herald ’s commentator to remark on 7 March 1931 that ‘death in war would be beautiful if it only came thus’. The soldier’s long, lean body was typical of the Light Horsemen in Palestine; his face was, as Lambert suggested ‘Australian yet handsome’ (ML MSS 97/3, p.105), and as the Sydney Morning Herald ’s commentator perceptively observed on 7 March 1931, like those on the Sydney beaches. During the war a number of artists portrayed their fellow soldiers as rough and awkward, but by the end of the war artists began to create heroic images in which the Anzacs were ennobled and portrayed as bronzed heroes. Lambert’s soldier is in this tradition: he is an idealised national champion who was part of contemporary cultural attitudes and values and who became an integral part of the Australian identity. Lambert received his commission to make ‘one bronze recumbent figure of Soldier life size’ from the Roman Catholic Sailors and Soldiers on 19 April 1928 – for £1200 (ML MSS 97/7, item 28). He had made several pencil studies for the figure then, once the commission was confirmed, made a full-size plaster figure cast from clay. His assistant Sten Snekker was the model. Snekker and the clothed plaster figure then lay on two benches, side by side, while Lambert explored minor variations in the dress on the plaster figure. From this Lambert moulded a second clay model on a third bench. He asked Murch to assist him in modelling the figure, and gave Murch credit for this by asking him to co-sign the sculpture. Lambert held a private view of the plaster in June 1929, before it was sent to London for casting into bronze. The final work was unveiled at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, by Archbishop Kelly on 26 July 1931, after Lambert’s death. As Australia did not have an official tomb of the unknown soldier until 1993, Lambert’s recumbent figure came to be known informally as Australia’s ‘Monument to the unknown soldier’.