Melanie Eastburn on George W Lambert

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

George W Lambert

The red shawl

oil on canvas
Purchased 1934

Painted in London over 100 years ago, The red shawl captures a time of vibrant cosmopolitanism and global interconnection that feels quite removed from the insularity of 2020, when travel has come to a halt.

George Lambert was born in Russia to English and American parents and lived in Germany and England before migrating to Australia. The subject, Olave Cunninghame Graham, had Scottish and Spanish heritage. In her late 30s, unmarried and assured, she is wrapped in a silk shawl embroidered with pavilions and robed figures. Such shawls were mass-produced in Canton (Guangzhou), China, purely for export. Known as mantón de Manila after the Philippine port through which they were traded, the garments were especially popular in the Philippines, Mexico and Spain – their dramatic potential embraced by flamenco dancers.

With her fluid posture, Olave is relaxed, yet her fingers and limbs hold the possibility of movement. After months of stillness, this is a portrait that makes me want to dance.

Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian art, can’t resist a textile with a story

View this work and more as part of the Gallery’s collection online