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Nolan, Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) (1917–1992)

by Nancy D. H. Underhill

This article was published online in 2016

Sir Sidney Robert Nolan (1917—1992), artist, was born on 22 April 1917 at Carlton, Melbourne, eldest of four children of locally born parents Sidney Henry Nolan, military policeman, and his wife Dora Irene, née Sutherland. Sid’s parents considered themselves Irish and lived in an Irish-Australian enclave in Melbourne. In 1853 William Bedford Nolan, Sid’s great grandfather, had migrated from Cork to Adelaide and worked as a mounted policeman in Victoria. His son, also William, farmed poor land around Rushworth and Seymour before moving to Melbourne. Sid would later delight in presenting himself as Irish in opposition to the Australian and British establishments, while seeking entry into both. In 1919 his parents settled at St Kilda. His father was by then a tram driver and ran an illegal starting-price betting ring for which Sid became a runner. Dora, his two sisters, and his brother were pleased for the extra cash and the car the bookmaking operation enabled the family to purchase, but kept the ‘Saturday job’ a secret. A preference for ready cash—no questions asked—would stay with young Sid.

Nolan’s schooling befitted a working-class youth who would take up a manual trade. He attended the local State school on Brighton Road and Brighton Technical School before moving to Prahran Technical College. Attached to the department of design and crafts, he studied lettering and drawing, including for dressmakers and milliners. His spare time was spent larking about at St Kilda’s funfair, Luna Park, swimming, and bike racing. He relished the suburb’s raffish reputation, and he would later reference imagery from his childhood and adolescence in his art. From the early 1930s he worked in several jobs including painting glass signs at Solaflex Illumination Pty Ltd and designing layouts for advertising at United Felt Hats Pty Ltd (known as the Fayrefield factory, after the company’s best known hat). During his employment he became intrigued by the properties of commercial paints, including gloss and spray enamel.

While at Fayrefield Nolan enrolled in drawing classes at the National Gallery School of Design (1934, 1936), but rarely attended. Next door was the Melbourne Public Library where he and fellow students—Max Smith, John Sinclair, Francis Brabazon, and Howard Matthews—steeped themselves in the poetry and views of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Verlaine. They read modernist literature in philosophy, poetry, and art. Through their reading they came to believe that myths provided an essential emotional response that enhanced historical facts. They believed that, as seers and outsiders, artists could link myth to history.

In early 1938 Nolan unsuccessfully sought the patronage of Sir Keith Murdoch to fund further study in Europe. His search led him to the solicitor John Reed, who was a supporter of modernist art. Nolan became a regular visitor to Heide, Reed’s farmhouse at Heidelberg, outside Melbourne. There Reed and his wife, Sunday, encouraged talented writers and painters to treat their home as a place of emotional openness and artistic growth. In July Nolan became a foundation member of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), established to promote modernist art.

At the Swedish Church, South Melbourne, on 16 December Nolan married Elizabeth Paterson. She was the grandniece of the artist John Ford Paterson and had studied at the Gallery School of Painting before becoming a graphic designer. Nolan and Elizabeth lived briefly at Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula where he continued to be influenced by the Reeds, who visited frequently. Following the assistance of Peter Bellew (a member of the New South Wales branch of CAS), he was commissioned to design the backdrops and costumes for the Ballet Russes production Icare, which opened in Sydney in February 1940. Encouraged by its favourable reception, in June he held his first solo exhibition at his studio in a condemned tenement in Russell Street, Melbourne, but it yielded no sales. He was already living apart from Elizabeth, and the couple separated soon after their daughter, Amelda, was born in 1941; they would later divorce. At Heide, Sunday became Nolan’s lover and encouraged him to focus on painting.

On 15 April 1942 Nolan was mobilised for full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). He served mainly in the Western and Wimmera districts of Victoria, attached to the 22nd Supply Depot Company, guarding stores. In February 1943 he was promoted to corporal. As a result of an accident in August, two of the finger tips on his left hand were crushed and subsequently amputated. Sent art supplies by Sunday, he continued to paint, taking on the challenge of depicting the flat wheat country in a modernist idiom. The artist John Olsen would later credit Nolan’s Wimmera works, along with his other depictions of the outback, as ‘shaking up Australian painting’ (2008). He also became involved in John Reed and the poet Max Harris’s publishing venture, providing designs and illustrations for several publications, including the journal Angry Penguins. Later he would help edit the broadsheet of the same name. In July 1944 he was granted a month’s leave to take up employment with Reed and Harris. Fearing that he would be sent to the front line, he failed to return when his leave ended on 20 August and was declared an illegal absentee. In June 1946 he was discharged in absentia for his misconduct.

Nolan had returned to Melbourne and adopted the name ‘Robin Murray.’ In early 1945 he began his first depictions of the bushranger Edward (Ned) Kelly. His paintings were based on a close reading of historical and current texts, including Kelly’s letters. They were also redolent with autobiographical references. As a boy Nolan had seen Kelly’s armour on exhibition in Melbourne and heard his grandfather’s account of chasing the Kelly gang. William Nolan had joined the Victorian police force in August 1879, soon after the reward for the apprehension of the gang increased to £8,000, and absconded in March 1881. During 1946 Sid’s memories were reinforced by a visit, with Harris, to Kelly locations across north-eastern Victoria. His paintings, while stylistically radical, continued traditions begun by earlier painters such as Tom Roberts by providing visual imagery to enrich the national ethos. Of his Burke and Wills paintings (from 1948), Nolan would later tell the writer Geoffrey Dutton that he commenced the series to ‘freshen history’ (Nolan 1967).

In July 1947, viewing life at Heide as stale, Nolan left for Queensland; he would never live in Melbourne again. Exploring the landscape, he travelled up the coast, including to Fraser Island, and read accounts of the nineteenth-century shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser. He then went to Sydney and prepared his first commercial gallery exhibition, which was held at the Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, in February 1948. On 25 March at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Cynthia Hansen, John Reed’s sister. Their marriage ruptured Nolan’s already fragile relationship with the Reeds. Cynthia was worldly: she had managed an interior-design shop in Melbourne, lived overseas, and later wrote respected autobiographical travel novels. Her support and contacts would be crucial to his success, but she was not robust and gained a reputation for jealously protecting Nolan from himself and his friends. He adopted her young daughter Jinx in 1949.

During December the Reeds exhibited Nolan’s Kelly paintings at Maison de l’Unesco in Paris. They were praised by Jean Cassou, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, as ‘the work of a true poet and a true painter’ (Argus 1949, 3). By the end of the decade Nolan had undertaken a series of outback tours, including to Central Australia, the far North, and Western Australia, and completed his earliest aerial landscape paintings. In 1950 he made his first trip out of Australia and he won the Dunlop Australian art contest for his painting, Inland Australia. The work was purchased by the Tate Gallery, London, in 1951. Becoming conscious of his growing profile overseas, two years later the family moved to Europe, where he would base the remainder of his career. From 1954 to 1956 he completed a further series of Kelly paintings. The works were well received and sold to collectors, as well as institutions, including the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although the family settled in London, Jinx was sent to boarding school and he and Cynthia travelled often. In 1955 they went to the Greek island of Hydra. There he began a series of paintings on the Trojan War and became interested in exploring connections between that war and the Gallipoli campaign. Unlike his earlier narrative paintings, his Gallipoli works furrowed the psyche of war. They also drew on his experience of wartime loss, his brother having accidentally drowned while attached to the 15th Small Ship Company in Queensland during World War II.

In mid-1957 a retrospective exhibition of over one hundred and fifty of Nolan’s works from the previous decade was shown at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery. The exhibition was well received by critics and confirmed his place as a painter of note. The accompanying catalogue, however, presented an airbrushed account of his life, omitting his training as a commercial artist, his first marriage, his life with the Reeds, and his dishonourable discharge from the army. When promoting his exhibitions Nolan carefully controlled how he was portrayed. In accounts directed to an Australian audience he ensured that little credit was given to John and Sunday Reed’s influence over his life and art.

Travel became Nolan’s weapon against creative and personal depression. He had journeyed to Italy in 1954 and again on an Italian government scholarship (1956), to the United States of America supported by a two-year Commonwealth Fund Harkness fellowship (1958), and to Canberra for a fellowship in the Creative Arts from the Australian National University (1965). He also made trips to Africa (1962), Antarctica (1964), and China (first in 1965), among other places. Throughout his painting career it was the exploration of materials, techniques, scale, and, above all, the challenge of placing an object in front of a background, that obsessed him. This sense of discovery is often obscured by chronologically mapping his career by subject matter.

In Europe Nolan began to paint classical myths and other subjects that were familiar to northern hemisphere tastes. Some critics considered that the works revealed an artist who had lost sight of his inspiration. Yet his 1960 London exhibition Leda and the Swan and Other Recent Work followed by Sidney Nolan: African Journey in 1963 were popular with the public and sold well. Their success enabled Nolan to take on stage-design projects such as Rite of Spring, London (1962); The Display, Adelaide (1963); and Il Trovatore, Sydney (1983). He also undertook time-consuming installations, including his Riverbend series (1964–65 and 1965–66), Inferno (1966), and the vast Oceania triptych: Shark (1972–73), Paradise Garden (1968–70), and Snake (1970–72).

Throughout his career Nolan depended on the emotional and financial support of others. Among his companions and correspondents were the composer Benjamin Britten, the author Patrick White, the printmaker Gordon House, and the artists Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. At their best, these friendships were a productive exchange: House designed his catalogues and oversaw most of his printmaking projects; he held joint exhibitions with Boyd and Tucker; Britten’s music inspired a number of his artworks; and he designed the covers of several of White’s novels. Those who funded or promoted his art included the former director of London’s National Gallery Kenneth (Lord) Clark, and the businessman and art collector Alistair (Lord) McAlpine. He relied on the latter’s backing to publish his self-illustrated volume of poetry Paradise Garden in 1971—its contents unflatteringly reflecting on his relationship with John and Sunday Reed. For a time, the London art gallery Marlborough Fine Art Limited also allowed him to draw large sums on future exhibitions. This funding abruptly stopped in 1975 after his poorly reviewed and financially disastrous Notes for Oedipus exhibition.

From the 1960s Nolan had gained increasing recognition. The earliest Australian retrospective of his work was mounted at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in September 1967 and later shown in Melbourne and Perth. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Australian National University (1968), the University of London (1971), the University of Leeds (1974), and the University of Sydney (1977). He was made an honorary fellow of the University of York (1971); a fellow of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1971); a life member of the National Gallery of Victoria (1983); and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (1985); and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1991). In 1981 he was knighted. He was also appointed CBE (1963), OM (1983), and AC (1988).

A prolific artist, Nolan gave several collections of his works to Australian museums and galleries. In 1974 he presented artworks in his Ern Malley and the Paradise Garden exhibition to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Later the same year, he gave twenty-four works to be housed in a purpose-built gallery at the property Lanyon, outside Canberra (later moved to the Canberra Museum and Gallery). In 1978 he donated 252 of his Gallipoli drawings and paintings to the Australian War Memorial in memory of his brother. Public holdings of his artworks were further enhanced that year by Sunday Reed’s gift of twenty-five early Kelly paintings to the National Gallery of Australia.

During the 1970s Nolan’s relationship with Cynthia had become increasingly distant. On 24 November 1976 she committed suicide in a London hotel. Her estate, which included a collection of his artwork and private papers, was left to Jinx. At the register office, Westminster, on 20 January 1978 Nolan married Mary Elizabeth A’Beckett Perceval, an artist. Mary was a sister of Arthur Boyd and a daughter of the potter Merric Boyd. She had previously been married to the artist John Perceval and had met Nolan at Heide. In 1981 Patrick White published his memoir Flaws in the Glass, revealing that he believed Nolan had remarried too soon after Cynthia’s death. Nolan considered that White had acted as ‘the sole judge and executioner’ (Kinnane 1982, 4). Embarking on a public vendetta, he retaliated by painting the diptych Nightmare (1982), a distasteful portrait of White and his partner Manoly Lascaris.

Earlier in 1981 Nolan had purchased land adjacent to Arthur Boyd’s on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, hoping to build a house and set up a study centre for a trust. Instead he remained overseas and bought The Rodd, a large manor on the Welsh border, in 1983, where he maintained his archive and created large spray paintings. They were a return to abstract art and recalled the techniques he had used when he worked as a commercial artist in the early 1930s. In 1985 the Sidney Nolan Trust was established to preserve The Rodd as a farm and a creative space.

Nolan’s seventieth birthday in 1987 brought a flurry of celebratory media attention and events. Most notably, in June the National Gallery of Victoria opened its Sidney Nolan, Landscapes & Legends: A Retrospective Exhibition: 1937–1987, which later toured to Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide. Also that year Brian Adams published his biography Sidney Nolan: Such is Life and released a film of the same name. At that time Nolan was Australia’s most distinguished living artist, although he remained an elusive personality and controversial man. He was applauded for his ability as an artist to recreate and manage myths, but was criticised for his high-volume and sometimes uneven output. Survived by his wife, Amelda, and Jinx, Sir Sidney died on 27 November 1992 in Westminster Hospital, London, and was buried in Highgate cemetery. Memorial services were held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. His estate was valued for probate at £2.3 million but his long-standing disregard for financial accounting meant that, when he died, he left a large, unpaid British tax bill. In 2001 an auction held in Melbourne of artworks from the estate realised $4.42 million.

For many people Nolan’s Ned Kelly (1946) epitomises the myth of Kelly as an outsider and white man’s alienation in the Australian landscape. The work is arguably Australia’s best-known painting.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Adams, Brian. Sidney Nolan: Such is Life. Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage, 1987
  • Argus. ‘Natives’ Art “Best in World”.’ 17 December 1949, 3
  • Clark, Jane. Sidney Nolan, Landscapes & Legends: A Retrospective Exhibition: 19371987. With an essay by Patrick McCaughey. Sydney: International Cultural Corporation of Australia and Cambridge University Press, 1987. Exhibition catalogue
  • Clark, Kenneth, Colin MacInnes, and Bryan Robertson. Sidney Nolan. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961
  • Gosling, Lorna. Interview by the author, Melbourne, 13 August 2008
  • Kinnane, Gary. ‘The Artist and Two Authors.’ Age (Melbourne), 10 April 1982, Saturday Extra 4
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V206559
  • Nolan, Sidney. Letter to Geoffrey Dutton, 28 April 1967. Papers of Geoffrey Dutton (1922–1998), MS 7285, Series 2, Folder 52. National Library of Australia
  • Nolan, Sidney. Notebook entry, 22 October 1990. Private collection
  • Nolan, William. Register No. 3051. Record of Conduct and Service, Book 27, 1881. Victorian Police Museum
  • Olsen, John. Interview by the author, Bowral, 22 June 2008
  • Pearce, Barry. Sidney Nolan. With an introduction by Edmund Capon and contributions by Frances Lindsay and Lou Klepac. Sydney: Art Gallery New South Wales, 2007. Exhibition catalogue
  • Underhill, Nancy, ed. Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in His Own Words. Camberwell, Vic.: Viking, 2007
  • Underhill, Nancy. Sidney Nolan: A Life. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nancy D. H. Underhill, 'Nolan, Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) (1917–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nolan-sir-sidney-robert-sid-17826/text29411, published online 2016, accessed online 22 November 2017.

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