This is a lively bravura portrait of a modern Melbourne woman of fashion, style and elegance. It has an arresting vitality. Her belongings, a luscious blue stole, elegant feathered hat and jewelled ring, are as much the subject of this work as is Miss Collins herself, and contribute to it a sense of opulence. Her flamboyant pose, with her head slightly tilted back and poised to one side, and her arms caught in mid-action, matches her vivacious personality. Her eyes appear to be laughing in accord with her smile and she seems to be deliberately posing or hamming it up for the artist.
The subject, Miss Gladys Neville Collins, was the daughter of J.T. Collins, lawyer, Victorian State Parliamentary draughtsman, and trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria. Lambert appears to have enjoyed painting her portrait and described her to Amy on 10 December 1921 as ‘a dear girl [who] sits for the fun of it and because her Dad thinks I am it’ (ML MSS 97/10, p.393).
Lambert portrayed the individual features of Miss Collins but, with her collaboration, he arranged them to denote a characteristic type. Miss Collins’s tilted head, her half-open mouth, half-closed eyes, and almost-bare right arm suggest an individual sensuality, but they also indicate a form of codified (sexual) behaviour. Lambert's portrait presents a witty version of the pose of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa 1645–52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), an established expression of the ecstatic experience, and one which was subsequently taken up by photographers, film-makers and advertisers.
What is more, Lambert presented Miss Collins in a variation of the pose used by Joshua Reynolds in his portrait Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse 1784, which in 1921 (the year Lambert painted this portrait) the Duke of Westminster had controversially sold to The Huntington Library and Art Collection in California. By associating Miss Collins with this classic image of a leading actress, he hinted that she was playing a role in this portrait. It is also possible that Lambert knew Sargent’s Portrait of Ena Wertheimer: a vele gonfie of 1905 (Tate, London), a lively portrait of Ena wearing as a joke a black feathered hat and billowing cloak, painted essentially in black and white. It is similar to Lambert’s painting in its sense of extravagant posture and light-heartedness. If nothing else, both paintings are a reflection of the spirit of the times.
In this portrait Lambert used a limited range of colours to great effect: a dark Manet black and a Gainsborough blue, with the addition of purple in the jewel on a chain around her neck. Lambert paid close attention to the clothing, capturing an array of textures – the lustrous steel-blue silk of her stole, the fluffy white fur collar, the white leather gloves, the transparent black lace sleeve and the black velvet of the hat wreathed with white ostrich plumes.
Lambert painted the portrait with broad brushstrokes, and spontaneously, as a kind of ‘performance in paint’. When exhibited, it stood out from the prevalent brown tonalist portraiture painted at this time by other Australian artists, such as John Longstaff and W.B. McInnes. (W.B. McInnes’s much more restrained Portrait of Miss Collins was awarded the Archibald Prize for 1924 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales).
Lambert’s tour de force was purchased for 600 guineas by the Art Gallery of New South Wales when it was shown at the New South Wales Society of Artists exhibition in 1922; at that time the highest price paid by a public gallery for a portrait by an Australian artist.