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Violet Cynthia Nolan (1908–1976)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

Violet Cynthia Nolan (1908-1976), writer, was born on 18 September 1908 at Evandale, Tasmania, youngest of six children of Henry Reed, an English-born and Cambridge-educated grazier, and his wife Lila Borwick, née Dennison (d.1928), who came from the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Her grandfather was Henry Reed. With her siblings at schools in England and at Geelong, Victoria, from 1911, Cynthia spent a lonely childhood at the family mansion, Mount Pleasant, Launceston, in a household run on lines of strict Nonconformist piety. She was taught by a governess, then boarded (1920-26) at the Church of England Girls' Grammar School (The Hermitage), Geelong. After leaving school she worked in an art shop in Melbourne. In 1929 she travelled to England where her sister Margaret was a medical practitioner at Cambridge. In London, Cynthia attended the theatre, ballet, concerts, exhibitions and lectures on art; by March 1930 she was living with a Jewish family in Germany, studying languages, art and music.

Back in Melbourne, she became a notable player in alternative art and intellectual circles. Maie, wife of Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey, who met Cynthia through (Sir) Daryl Lindsay and Basil Burdett, recalled her as 'tallish, graceful, always beautifully dressed. Her pale face shaded by dark hair was of rare sculptural beauty, her eyes were blue with black lashes, her mouth precisely drawn, sensitive, rather sad'. Friends and intimates included Edward Dyason, the H. V. Evatts, Moya Dyring, Reg Ellery, Sam Atyeo, (Sir) Bernard Heinze, Peter Bellew, and Sunday Baillieu who married Cynthia's brother John in 1932. She was associated with Fred Ward's furniture shop at 52a Collins Street before opening her own modern interior-design shop and gallery in Little Collins Street. Ward, Atyeo and Mark Bracegirdle designed furniture for her, and Michael O'Connell, fabrics. She showed Atyeo's controversial paintings in June 1933 and held Ian Fairweather's first exhibition in March 1934.

Cynthia went to Sydney where she studied dance and art. In mid-1935 she left for Hollywood and New York. Deciding to nurse, she trained at St Joseph's Hospital, Chicago, and in London at the Nightingale School, St Thomas's Hospital (from June 1936 to June 1939). During snatched leave she renewed friendships with expatriates such as Atyeo, Dyring, Clive Turnbull and Kenneth von Bibra. In August 1939 she began nursing at the American Hospital of Paris, escaping the German invasion in 1940 by accompanying an elderly invalid to New York. There she attended a course at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic of the New York Hospital.

Known as Mrs Jan Knut Hansen, she returned to Melbourne at the end of 1940. Her daughter Jinx was born on 6 May 1941 at Heidelberg. Cynthia spent time at Heide with the Reeds, but, following a serious breach with Sunday, moved with Jinx to Wahroonga, Sydney. Her first novel, Lucky Alphonse (Melbourne, 1944), based on her experiences at St Thomas's, was later rewritten as A Bride for St Thomas (London, 1970). Daddy Sowed a Wind! (Sydney, 1947) drew on her Tasmanian upbringing.

In the early 1940s Cynthia had met (Sir) Sidney Robert Nolan at Heide. In 1948 he called on her at Wahroonga. He was aged 30, she 39. Their marriage on 25 March that year at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, marked an estrangement from the Reeds and Heide. Sidney formally adopted Jinx on 7 June 1949. Cosmopolitan and well connected, Cynthia provided both aesthetic guidance and business contacts for Sidney. She believed him to be a genius, and threw herself into organizing and promoting his exhibitions. After touring outback Australia in June-September 1949, the Nolans travelled to England and Europe. They returned to Sydney, but, by late 1953, were again in London, thereafter their base. In 1957 they bought a house by the Thames in Deodar Road, Putney.

Over the next twenty years Cynthia accompanied Sidney on most of his travels, making notes and observations which formed the basis of her books. Outback (London, 1962), her account of their first trip, received good reviews. One Traveller's Africa (1965) recorded an expedition in 1962. She described travels in the United States in 1959-61 in Open Negative (1967); its title referred to her six-month stay in a New York hospital, receiving treatment for tuberculosis. Two trips in 1965, to Asia and New Guinea, provided Cynthia with material for A Sight of China (1969) and Paradise, and Yet (1971). Sidney contributed the dustcover designs, endpapers, illustrations and photographs to her travel books. While of interest for their account of Sidney's creative processes, these books stand on their own for the idiosyncratic and perceptive quality of Cynthia's writing, especially her vocabulary of colour, shape and form. Her chronically poor health was an underlying theme.

The Nolans' circle in London included Kenneth (Lord) Clark and his wife, C. P. (Lord) Snow and his wife Pamela Hansford Johnson, Benjamin (Lord) Britten, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris. Cynthia's direct manner and fierce protection of Sidney's professional privacy contributed to her reputation as a 'difficult woman'. In fact she loved to entertain close friends, in her home—which was described by Patrick White as wearing her 'peculiar aura, her simple, sometimes sombre elegance'—and in her garden, which she tended with passion. Elizabeth Harrower remembered her as a complex and contradictory woman, intuitive and intense. In 1974 Cynthia visited Australia for the last time. She died of an overdose of barbiturates on 24 November 1976 in an hotel in London. Her husband and daughter survived her.

The impact of Cynthia Nolan's suicide and the subsequent public feud between White and Sidney detracted from a proper assessment of her, both as a writer and as partner in Nolan's international career. Some recognition has since been accorded her with the republication of her books on Australia, Africa, China and New Guinea as Outback and Beyond (Sydney, 1994).

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1981)
  • P. White, Flaws in the Glass (Lond, 1981)
  • E. Harrower, 'Introduction' to Cynthia Nolan's Outback and Beyond (Syd, 1994)
  • M. E. McGuire, 'Paradise, and yet: the writings of Cynthia Reed Nolan', Age Monthly Review, Apr 1988, p 3
  • Australian Style, issue no 10, 1994
  • Australian, 7 Dec 1976
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1994
  • The Nightingale School Probationers' record book H1/ST/NTS/C4/25 (London Metropolitan Archives)
  • MSS 3865, letter to Pat Flower (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Nolan, Violet Cynthia (1908–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Reed, Cynthia
  • Hansen, Jan Knut

18 September, 1908
Evandale, Tasmania, Australia


24 November, 1976 (aged 68)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.