Sidney Nolan was born on 22 April 1917, the first of four children of a Melbourne tram driver, Sidney Nolan, and his wife Dora Sutherland. His parents were Australian born, but very aware of their Irish cultural heritage. Later that year the family moved to the seaside suburb of St Kilda, elements of which were later to feature in Nolan’s mature art.
In 1932 Nolan left school at the standard leaving age of 14 and enrolled in design and crafts at Prahran Technical College. The next year he began working for Fayrefield Hats where he produced advertising and display stands. This technical work gave him an early introduction to spray paints and experimental use of materials. In 1934 he enrolled in evening classes at the National Gallery School and within a few years was making plein air paintings within the Victorian impressionist tradition. His interest in art and ideas led him on a more adventurous path. In 1938 he met the art patrons John and Sunday Reed and through his involvement with them became a founding member of Victoria’s Contemporary Art Society. The same year he married fellow art student, Elizabeth Paterson, the grand-daughter of the artist John Ford Paterson and moved to Ocean Grove near Barwon Heads.
In 1939 Nolan saw the Herald Exhibition of English and European Contemporary Art, which introduced him to the art of 20th century Europe and radicalised his own approach to art. His first solo exhibition in 1940 was opened by John Reed. The same year Nolan’s daughter, Amelda, was born.
The following year Nolan left his family to live with the Reeds at their home at Heide Park. He remained romantically involved with Sunday Reed until 1947 and she actively encouraged him to take a more experimental approach with his art. He began to use Ripolin enamel paint, material more commonly used by house painters. Its fluidity and rapid drying enabled him to freely experiment with different styles and to quickly paint more than one work at a time. He was drawn into the activities of the Reeds, Max Harris and the Angry Penguins group, and in 1944 painted a series of paintings in response to the poems of the bq). naivebq). poet, Ern Malley. After an issue of the Angry Penguins magazine celebrated the genius of Malley (with a cover illustration by Nolan) the poet was revealed to be a hoax concocted by two anti-modernist poets.
The entry of Japan into World War II led to Australia conscripting soldiers for the first time in its history. Nolan was conscripted and posted to the Wimmera in rural Victoria. Two years later,faced with the possibility of being posted to New Guinea, he deserted the Army and took refuge with the Reeds at their Heide and Parkville homes.
Living a fugitive life may have turned his mind to the circumstances of other fugitives from justice. Douglas Stewart’s radio play in verse, Ned Kelly, was broadcast in 1942, but Nolan never admitted Stewart as a possible source for his Ned Kelly series which emerged in the second half of the decade. These paintings remain his most memorable work and he continually returned to this subject matter throughout his career.
In 1947 Nolan left Sunday Reed and her husband John to live with John’s sister Cynthia who was already establishing a reputation as a sensitive writer. They moved to Sydney where the new gallery director, Hal Missingham, was an active supporter of Nolan’s work. Their house at Wahroonga backed onto the property of the conservative artist Lionel Lindsay. When Lindsay observed Nolan’s practice of painting a row of paintings all at once he wrote to his friend Harold Wright, angrily denouncing Nolan as a charlatan. In 1948, he put his affairs in order, obtained a dishonourable discharge from the Army,and married Cynthia. The couple made several flights over outback Australia,and Nolan began his remarkable series of aerial paintings of the outback, where thin wiped layers of Ripolin are used to evoke the shapes of ragged mountains.
In 1951 they left for Europe and in 1953 they settled permanently in London, but made frequent visits to other parts of Europe, Africa, Antarctica and often returned to Australia. The London base was essential to establishing Nolan’s British reputation. He was honoured with a survey exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957, the same year as he created the set designs for the stage version of Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly play. He was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to the USA in 1959 and in 1963 was awarded an OBE for his services to art. Many retrospective exhibitions were to follow, including a 1967 exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a 1973 exhibition in Dublin and a 1987 national touring exhibition in Australia.
Cynthia Nolan committed suicide on 23 November 1976. In 1978 Nolan married Mary Boyd Perceval, the widow of artist John Perceval and sister of his friend Arthur Boyd. The relative haste of this marriage caused a permanent rift with his former friend Patrick White, who attacked him in his memoir Flaws in the Glass. Nolan responded in paint.
In 1981 he was made a Knight Bachelor for his services to art, and in 1983 they settled at Rodd Farm on the borders of Wales where he enjoyed the expansive landscape for the rest of his life. While he was honoured by Australian galleries with exhibitions in the later years, he was emotionally more committed to Britain and Ireland. In 1986, four years before his death, he gave fifty paintings to the people of Ireland.


Joanna Mendelssohn
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Sir Sidney Robert Nolan, painter, illustrator, printmaker and set designer, son of a Melbourne tram driver and occasional SP (starting price) bookmaker, was born at Carlton in Victoria on 22 April 1917. His parents, Sidney and Dora, were fifth generation Australians of Irish descent. At their son’s birth they were struggling to establish a farm at Nagambie in Victoria. They gave up and moved to the city, taking up residence in the bayside suburb of St Kilda where Nolan grew up. Three more children followed, two girls and a boy.

Nolan left school at fourteen and enrolled at Prahran Technical College to study design and crafts, where he also received some training in art. He worked at various odd jobs and for a time in a commercial art studio; thereafter he spent six years in the art department of Fayrefield Hats. From 1934 to 1936, Nolan sporadically attended evening classes at the National Gallery School (Victoria), but these held no interest for him. The National Gallery was located in the same building as the State Library and Nolan spent much of his time in the domed public reading room where he read William Blake, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Joyce and Marx, among others, and became familiar with the work of European artists through reproductions in books and journals. Fellow art student Howard Matthews introduced him to the poetry of Rimbaud out of which grew an obsession for the poet and his work. For a few years Nolan moved in a circle of young radical artists who behaved as intellectuals and he shared studios with some of them. He was painting all the time, mostly abstracts, and in 1938 decided to become a full-time painter.

The ten years following 1938 were transformative for Nolan and his art. In that year he met Melbourne solicitor John Reed and his wife Sunday; he formed an intimate personal relationship with the Reeds which continued until 1948. The Reeds became much more than Nolan’s patrons, a term repugnant to John Reed who, in a letter to Kenneth Clark in the second half of 1977, claimed that the three of them were 'intimate friends who loved each other’ and who 'were all working together in a very active and exciting way and discovering the world together’ (in Underhill, 2001, pp. 826-7 at p. 827). At Reed’s instigation Nolan became a foundation member of the Contemporary Art Society, which opposed itself to the conservative Australian Academy of Art, and he exhibited annually with the Society from 1938 to 1950.

1938 also saw his marriage to Elizabeth Paterson, the grand-niece of John Ford Paterson – a Scottish-born impressionist painter who was a foundation member and one-time president of the Victorian Artists Society – and a daughter, Amelda, was born in January 1940. The marriage was short-lived: the couple separated at about the time of Amelda’s birth and Nolan moved to the Reeds’ home, Heide, in semi-rural Heidelberg.

In 1940 Nolan designed the decor and costumes for the Russian choreographer Serge Lifar’s ballet Icare, which was performed in Sydney. His work at that time was almost entirely abstract and consisted of a world of symbols – stars, suns, moons, asterisks, lips, eyes, tent-like structures – which drew on Klee, Miro, Masson, Ernst and the writings of William Blake. In June he held his first solo exhibition which consisted of small abstracts, collages and transfer drawings; Basil Burdett, art critic for the Herald, described the work as 'highly esoteric’ (Melbourne Herald, 10 June 1940). Arthur Boyd, a visitor to the exhibition, would become Nolan’s life-long friend. Already Nolan had met and become friendly with Albert Tucker, another important figure of Australian modern painting to emerge from the war years. Forever linked as artists, this triumvirate would share the experience of war as soldiers in the militia as each was called-up in turn for compulsory military service.

Nolan enlisted in March of 1942 and reported for duty at Caulfield receiving camp on 15 April. Within days he was attached to a unit of the Australian Army Service Corps and by May found himself in Dimboola, a small country town located in the wheat-growing Wimmera district of western Victoria. Here he performed labouring and guard duties associated with the army’s bulk food and rations stores. Except for five months in Ballarat, Nolan was stationed in the Wimmera townships of Dimboola, Nhill and Horsham until February 1944 when his unit was transferred to the Watsonia Barracks near Melbourne. He had been promoted to corporal in October 1942. His duties left him with much free time, and he took advantage of this to paint in makeshift studios, and to read. In August 1944 Nolan deserted and went into hiding, assuming a false identity, 'Robin Murray’, arranged for him by John Reed. At the time he wrote: 'My conduct as an artist and as a soldier have finally proved incompatible.’ (letter, date and addressee not specified, referred to in Jane Clark, chronology p. 17). Never apprehended, in June 1946 he was discharged in absentia from the army due to 'misconduct during service’.

Nolan’s 1940 solo exhibition was a watershed for him as he turned from abstraction to a recognisably representational, but not necessarily realistic content in his pictures. His enforced isolation in the Australian bush during his army service obliged him to look closely at the landscape and to devise a pictorial language for its representation in a modern idiom. The result was his Wimmera paintings, which reinterpreted the Australian landscape tradition with their radical flatness, high horizons, absence of perspective and bright primary colours. After his desertion he made a series of St Kilda pictures based on his boyhood experiences in a neo-primitive style much in the manner of Danila Vassilieff whose pictures were familiar to him. Painting was not Nolan’s only activity: since late 1942 he had been closely associated with Angry Penguins, an avant-garde literary and art magazine under the editorship of Max Harris and John Reed, and later put out by their publishing company, Reed & Harris. In June 1944 Reed & Harris fell victim to a literary hoax when they published in a special issue of Angry Penguins the poems of the fictitious poet Ern Malley, which had been concocted by two soldier-poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley. Michael Heywood gives a thorough account of the hoax in The Ern Malley Affair (University of Queensland Press, 1993).

During 1945 Nolan carried out his first exercises on the subject of Ned Kelly, a Victorian bushranger of Irish descent hanged in 1880 for the murder of three policemen. Kelly and his gang’s daring exploits had long captured the imagination of Australians as representative of the struggle of the downtrodden against authority. The mythic quality of Kelly’s story fascinated Nolan whose interest in it as a subject for painting may have been suggested by Douglas Stewart’s play Ned Kelly, which was performed as a radio play in 1942. In 1946 Nolan commenced work on his first and canonical Kelly series which occupied him into 1947. Adopting a self-consciously primitive manner, Nolan executed these paintings in bright primary colours which emphasised their childlike mode, employing schematic figures and flattened perspective, and incorporating an archetypal symbol in the form of Kelly’s slotted black helmet. The paintings introduced Nolan’s preferred method of working in series and also his interest in myth and heroes explored and reworked in much of his later work as he drew on events from Australian history around which legends had gathered: Eliza Fraser (1947 and 1953), the survivor of a shipwreck captured by Aborigines; Burke and Wills (1950 and 1962), the doomed journey of explorers through Central Australia; Eureka Stockade (1953), the unsuccessful insurrection of goldminers at Ballarat; Gallipoli (1955-1963, 1977), the unsuccessful First World War military campaign involving Australian and New Zealand troops which gave birth to the Anzac legend. And Nolan would return to Kelly again and again, a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Nolan left Heide abruptly in July 1947 and travelled extensively through Queensland before arriving in Sydney. He renewed his slight acquaintanceship with John Reed’s sister, Cynthia Hansen – a divorcee with a young daughter, Jinx – and they married in March of 1948, bringing about a rupture in Nolan’s relationship with the Reeds. Shortly after the marriage Nolan formally adopted Jinx. The family now made a lengthy trip to remote areas of Australia which resulted in Nolan’s aerial 'lunar’ landscapes of Central Australia. In 1949 Nolan was visited by Kenneth Clark who had seen his work exhibited in the Wynne Prize and offered his assistance should he ever come to England. He exhibited in various group shows in Sydney and made an initial trip to England and Europe with Cynthia in 1950-51. A commission from Brisbane’s Courier-Mail in 1952 took Nolan to the Northern Territory to see the devastating effects of the drought which he later recorded in his stark pictures of carcasses.

In 1953 the Nolans joined the ranks of expatriate Australians living in London. Although Nolan frequently returned to Australia, he would never live there again. From their London base they struck out regularly for places around the globe: France, Italy, Greece, Japan, Mexico, America, New Guinea and China among many destinations. These journeys would provide Nolan with the material for several series of paintings, and would also form the basis for Cynthia’s travel books to which Nolan contributed dustcover designs, illustrations and photographs. Travels followed by periods of concentrated painting activity, and writing for Cynthia, would become the pattern of their life together for the next twenty years. Interspersed would be exhibitions and other projects such as Nolan’s set designs for ballets, cover illustrations for the novels of Patrick White and George Johnston, and an increasing number of social and public engagements as Nolan’s international reputation grew and as the couple drew around them a circle of friends which included Kenneth Clark, C.P. Snow, Benjamin Britten and Alistair McAlpine.

In the decade following the Nolans’ permanent move to London, Nolan produced new series on Ned Kelly and Mrs Fraser, as well as a Leda and swan series. A stay on the Greek island of Hydra during the European winter of 1955-56, at the invitation of George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift, also a writer, ignited an interest in the Gallipoli campaign and Nolan commenced a large series of paintings on that theme which occupied him steadily until 1963, and again in 1977. In the 1960s the Nolans’ travels resulted in the artist’s African and Antarctic paintings, and in 1964-65 he executed a nine-panel polyptych, Riverbend I, depicting Kelly’s murder of Constable Scanlon in a 'grand drifting landscape’. Other series treated Shakespeare’s sonnets, Rimbaud’s Illuminations and the myth of Oedipus, and he illustrated the poems of Robert Lowell and a collection of his own poems in Paradise Garden (1971). From 1965 he produced numerous attachable murals.

In November 1976 Cynthia Nolan died of an overdose of barbituates in London. Her suicide had a devastating impact on Nolan – a further blow was that Cynthia had left her estate to her daughter – and he was only to recover something of his equilibrium when he married Mary Perceval, the former wife of the artist John Perceval and the youngest sister of his friend Arthur Boyd, in London in January 1978. Nolan’s 'hasty’ marriage, according to Patrick White, led to a public rift between the artist and the novelist with whom he had been on close terms since the late 1950s. By all accounts the marriage was happy and successful and provided Nolan with the desire and wherewithal to continue to paint. In this atmosphere of new domestic harmony Nolan produced his late paintings, large spray-painted abstracts, signalling a return to his beginnings.

In 1987, when Nolan was seventy, Brian Adams’s biography Such is Life appeared to a mixed reception, particularly from the artist’s side. Nolan had co-operated with Adams but claimed he would not read the book adding that it had upset members of his family. Written in the style of a boy’s adventure story, it was not a 'warts and all’ biography but revealed sufficient secrets about Nolan’s life, including his desertion from the army, to excite the press and the public, albeit momentarily.

Honours followed Nolan during his life, chief among them a knighthood in 1981 for services to art. He was appointed CBE (1963), OM (1983) and AC (1988); and a number of honorary doctorates were also conferred on him. Some of these, no doubt, recognised Nolan’s generous acts of benefaction in donating substantial collections of his pictures to public art museums and other institutions both in Australia and elsewhere. Australian beneficiaries included the Australian War Memorial, the Nolan Gallery at Lanyon and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Nolan died suddenly of a heart attack in London on 28 November 1992 aged seventy-five. After a funeral service at St Martin-in-the Fields, the artist was buried at Highgate Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Mary and his two daughters.


* McCulloch, Alan et al, (2006), McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, (Place: Miegunyah Press, Melbourne)

* Robb, Gwenda and Elaine Smith, Robert Smith (ed), (1993), Concise Dictionary of Australian Artists, (Place: Melbourne University Press, Melbourne)

* Hughes, Robert, (1970), The Art of Australia, (Place: Penguin, Ringwood, VIC)

* Lynn, Elwyn, (1967), Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery, (Place: Macmillan, Melbourne)

* Heywood, Michael, (1993), The Ern Malley Affair, (Place: University of Queensland Press, St Lucia)

* Barber, Noel, (1964), Conversations with Painters, (Place: Collins, London)

* Rosenthal, T G, (1961), Sidney Nolan, (Place: Thames and Hudson, London)

* White, Patrick, (1981), Flaws in the Glass, (Place: Jonathon Cape, London)

* (10 June 1940), Melbourne Herald, (Basil Burdett’s review of Nolan’s first solo exhibition)

* Pearce, Barry et al, (2007), Sidney Nolan (exhibition catalogue), (Place: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW)

* Underhill, Nancy (ed), (2007), Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own words, (Place: Penguin, Camberwell, VIC)

* McCaughey, Patrick (ed), (2006), Bert and Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, (Place: Miegunyah Press, Melbourne)

* Rosenthal, T G, (1961), Sidney Nolan, (Place: Thames and Hudson, London)

* Burke, Janine, (2004), The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, (Place: Knopf, Sydney)

* Bail, Murray and Sayers, Andrew, (2002), Sid Nolan’s Ned Kelly: the Ned Kelly paintings in the National Gallery of Australia, (Place: National Gallery of Australia)

* Underhill, Nancy and Reid, Barrett (eds), (2001), Letters of John Reed: Defining Australian Cultural Life 1920-1981, (Place: Penguin, Ringwood, VIC)

* Clark, Jane, (1987), Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends (exhibition catalogue), (Place: International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, Sydney)

* Adams, Brian, (1987), Sidney Nolan: Such is Life, (Place: Hutchison of Australia, Hawthorn, VIC)

* Haese, Richard and Minchin, Jan, (1983), Sidney Nolan: The City and the Plain (exhibition catalogue), (Place: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, VIC)

* Haese, Richard, (1981), Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, (Place: Allen Lane, Ringwood, VIC)

* Lynn, Elwyn and Sidney Nolan, (1979), Sidney Nolan – Australia, (Place: Bay Books, Sydney)

* Gilchrist, Maureen, (1976), Nolan at Lanyon, (Place: Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra)

Michael Scheib
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