Sir Sidney: The Kelly of Art

Photo of Sir Sidney Nolan © Michel Lawrence

What springs to mind if art and Ned Kelly are mentioned together? Invariably, Sidney Nolan. 

Sidney Robert Nolan, one of Australia’s most prolific artists, was born on 22 April 1917 to Australian parents of Irish heritage. His father, also named Sidney, was a military policeman before working as a tram driver in Melbourne. Sidney Senior’s side-line bookmaking operation employed his wife Dora, his namesake son and three siblings. 

Sid, as he was known, completed his schooling locally before enrolling formally in the department of Design and Crafts at the Technical College, through which he had previously begun a part-time correspondence course. At age 16 he was employed by United Felt Hats, aka the Fayrefield factory, where he became fascinated with the workings of spray paints and dyes. During his six years of employment he signed up for drawing classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School but which he attended only sporadically. His primary means of art education was through books including those on Picasso, Klee and Matisse.  

In 1938 he was introduced to John and Sunday Reed. He regularly visited their house ‘Heide’, now known as the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Heidelberg, Melbourne. The Reeds encouraged writers and artists who developed into a group called the Angry Penguins, after a magazine created in 1940 which expounded on the avant-garde movement of the time. His early career included designing sets and costumes for a production of the ballet Icarus. 

The Reeds were to have a huge influence on Nolan’s work. Sidney had married Elizabeth Paterson in 1938 but they separated in 1941 after their daughter’s birth and subsequently divorced. Nolan and Sunday had begun an affair which developed into a ménage à trois including John Reed.  

In April 1942 Nolan was drafted for duty in the Citizen Military Forces. Being sent art supplies by Sunday, he continued painting whilst in service based in Wemmera in Victoria. His work included painting the local scenery and illustrating the Angry Penguins journal. However, while on official leave in July 1944, he absconded after ascertaining that he was to be sent to fight in the New Guinea campaign against the Japanese. When he failed to return to his base, he was declared a deserter and was discharged in abstentia. 

Sidney spent the remainder of the war hiding out in a converted stable in Heide under the pseudonym Robin Murray. The military police would conduct raids to smoke Nolan out, but his disguise of dressing in Sunday’s clothes and pretending to look after the geese fooled the constabulary. This tactic had been used to great effect by Steve Hart, one of Ned Kelly’s gang; Nolan would later paint Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl 

It was during this period he would begin his Ned Kelly series of paintings for which he is best known.

Sidney had read Kelly’s “Jerilderie Letter” which fascinated him and influenced his depictions of the outlaw. The missive became known as such after the Kelly Gang executed an armed robbery in Jerilderie in February 1879 and Kelly wrote a 56-page account attempting to justify his nefarious activities, including the deaths of three policeman at Stringybark Creek in 1878. 

In his childhood, an exhibition of Kelly’s armour was also to influence Nolan’s art. His most iconic work First Class Marksman, painted in 1946, is a depiction of Kelly at the gang’s final stand-off with police at Glenrowan in Victoria in June 1880. They had fashioned protective covering from metal plough boards but their attempt at freedom was short-lived; Kelly was shot in the feet and his three cohorts killed. He was ultimately hanged in Melbourne on 11 November 1880. 

Masked Brawl – National Gallery of Australia

In 1948 Sidney received amnesty for his desertion from the army. He subsequently married John Reed’s sister Cynthia Hansen, which resulted in his estrangement from John and Sunday.  

Between June and September 1949, Sidney, Cynthia and her daughter Jinx, whom Nolan had adopted, travelled large parts of Australia. Their travels encompassed Central, Western and South Australia and the Northern Territory and was to inspire Nolan’s series Inland Australia, depicting the land from an aerial perspective.  

Moving to Sydney after his falling out with the Reeds, Nolan held a successful exhibition of this body of work at the David Jones Gallery in 1949.Two of the paintings, Pretty Polly Mine and Carron Plains were acquired by the director of the then National Art Gallery of NSW, Hal Missingham. These were the first publicly exhibited works by Nolan. When Sidney left Heide, he also left the 27 Ned Kelly works behind amongst other creations. Sunday eventually returned nearly three hundred pieces after Sidney demanded their return, but she refused to include the 25 Kelly paintings that remained in her possession. It has not been corroborated that Sunday did not paint some portions of the Kelly series. 

Whilst in Sydney, Nolan met the noted art British historian Kenneth Clark, who encouraged Nolan to uproot to London, where he lived until his death. He had never been charged with desertion, but his emigration would later become controversial. While in London he completed his “Kelly” series, some pieces of which were sold to MOMA, New York.  

In 1948, he painted the first of his Burke and Wills series, Burke and Wills expedition. Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills were intrepid explorers who attempted, unsuccessfully, to cross Australia from south to north. Both men ultimately died of starvation in 1861. 

Nolan and Cynthia were invited to the Greek island of Hydra in 1955, where Nolan became absorbed in classical Greek history and its sculpture. Nolan visited Gallipoli, the World War I site of an engagement which attempted to duplicate the centuries earlier Trojan campaign to control the Dardanelles (the Turkish strait which connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.) This instigated Nolan’s Trojan series of paintings, which also referenced the accidental drowning of his brother in World War II.  

Increasing recognition of Nolan’s work began in the 1960’s, with a retrospective of his work being held in 1967. He was awarded numerous honorary doctorates between 1968 and 1977, including from the University of London and the University of Sydney. Amongst other accolades, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts (London) in 1991 and knighted in 1981 for service to art. This was followed by the Order of Merit (OM) in 1983 and the Australian Companion of the Order (AC) in 1988. His knighthood was not well received by the RSL, which felt that Nolan’s desertion disqualified him from such prestigious recognition.  

Nolan’s personal life had not been as successful; in 1976 Cynthia committed suicide in London by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Cynthia bequeathed her estate to Jinx; included in this was a collection of Sidney’s art. Two years later Sidney married Mary Boyd, who herself had previously been married to the artist John Perceval, a fellow member of the Angry Penguins.

Nolan produced between 35 000 and 40 000 pieces of art in his lifetime. He donated several collections to Australian galleries and museums. More than two hundred of his Gallipoli pieces were donated to the Australian War Memorial in honour of his brother. The RSL was also donated a Gallipoli painting but later admitted it could have compromised itself by accepting the work. Proceeds from the sale of this were invested in a welfare trust for veterans. 

In 1978 Sunday Reed donated the twenty-five of the Kelly paintings that she had previously kept to the National Gallery of Australia. One of the two remaining works of the series is First Class Marksman. In 2010 the piece achieved the highest selling price of any Australian painting, going under the hammer for A$5.4 million. In 2007 the painting had sold for about A$3.5 million after its previous sale price of approximately $400 000 in 1992. This is also the only painting of the series that the National Gallery of Australia does not own, the Art Gallery of New South Wales being the winning bidder. Another Kelly painting, Nolan’s Outlaw (1955) also realized an exceptional A$2.1 million at the same 2010 auction. 

The 2017 centenary celebrations of Sidney Nolan’s birth culminated in numerous exhibitions in both the UK and Australia. In 1983 Nolan had bought The Rodd, a 17th century farmhouse at Herefordshire on the Welsh border. The last ten years of his life was spent there, and his work returned to the large abstract spray paintings of his early years. The establishment of the Sidney Nolan Trust in 1985 ensured his legacy would be maintained. In May 2017 The Rodd was opened to the public for the first time, showcasing in situ his spray paints, pigments, enamel as well as brushes, rags, and books amongst other personal objects. 

Sidney Nolan died in London on 28 November 1992, aged 75. His estate was valued as the third largest in Australia at the equivalent of £2.3 million, but his neglect of proper accounting practices resulted in substantial UK estate taxes. Artworks auctioned from the estate in 2001 attained A$4.4 million. 

Sidney Nolan’s prolific, sometimes haphazard output and his unconventional lifestyle choices made him a fascinating, sometimes controversial character, but his legacy as Australia’s best-known artist lives on.