Australian printmaker, designer, painter and teacher Thea Proctor (1879–1966) was significant in Lambert’s life as a friend, colleague and model. She studied with Julian Ashton in Sydney where Lambert was a fellow student. Chaperoned by her mother, she arrived in England in the summer of 1903 and sat for Lambert during the autumn in his studio flat at Lansdowne House, Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, London (AGNSWQ 1962). For this portrait Proctor wore her customary summer outfit for 1903, a softly flowing dark-blue-purple polka-dot dress, the pouched front a special feature of the time, together with a wide-brimmed hat. Throughout her life, Proctor presented herself as a woman who was aware of what was stylish, while adapting current trends to her own highly personal sense of elegance.
Lambert arranged his twenty-three-year-old sitter with an imaginary landscape behind her in the manner of earlier artists such as Thomas Gainsborough. He also worked in the tradition of the prominent society portrait painter, Charles Furse, who created a vogue for airy outdoor portraits. Like Furse, Lambert used fluid paint and superimposed dark shapes against light. He gave Proctor a sophisticated elegance by elongating her neck, torso and limbs. In his modelling of paint he suggested the tactile sensuousness of the skin and fabric he depicted. The languorous, rhythmical forms are in harmony with the rounded shapes of Proctor’s face and the sleeves of her dress.
In the landscape behind Proctor Lambert depicted two hounds pursuing a white stag or a unicorn (a fabled creature symbolic of virginity). This small detail provides two possible, divergent, interpretations of the painting. If it is a stag, this could refer to the Greek myth of Artemis, goddess of abundance, fertility, hunting and longevity, who was furious when she discovered the mortal hunter Acteon watching her naked. As a punishment, she turned him into a stag and set his hounds upon him to tear him apart. If the animal is a unicorn it could refer to the maiden in the Hunt of the unicorn tapestries (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), who tames the unicorn with her charms after huntsmen and hounds pursue the animal and bring it to bay.
In painting this portrait Lambert may also have been influenced by two (or three) remarkable works that he saw in the National Gallery when he first arrived in London: Rubens’s Le chapeau de paille c.1625 and Hogarth’s The shrimp girl c.1745. At this time Lambert suggested that Hogarth’s painting ‘fairly carried [him] off his feet’ (ML MSS A1811, pp.55–6). In his treatise, The analysis of beauty , Hogarth recommended the essence of beauty lies in the ‘line of grace’, or ‘line of beauty’, against the straight lines of academic classicism. This florid, ‘serpentine line’, was the fluid aesthetic that Lambert adopted at this time, and especially in this portrait. Like Rubens, Lambert painted his subject in a pose of modesty with a sideways glance. But unlike that of Susannah Fourment (Rubens’s subject in Le chapeau de paille ), Proctor’s bosom is not openly displayed, but fully clothed, perhaps to reinforce this modesty. Lambert was not by any means the first to refer to Rubens’s painting in his own, and he may also have been referencing the work of the most famous female painter of the eighteenth century, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, and her Self-portrait in a straw hat c.1782 (National Gallery, London), painted in free imitation of Rubens’s work.
This was the first painting which Lambert exhibited at the Royal Academy (in 1904), where it was prominently hung. For many years it remained in the possession of the Lamberts. Amy Lambert gave it to the sitter in 1946.