Sir Sidney Robert Nolan OM AC CBE RA (22 April 1917 – 28 November 1992) was one of Australia's leading artists of the 20th century. Working in a wide variety of media, his oeuvre is among the most diverse and prolific in all of modern art. He is best known for his series of paintings on legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. Nolan's stylised depiction of Kelly's armour has become an icon of Australian art.

Sidney Nolan
Sidney Nolan, 1940s, by Albert Tucker
Sidney Robert Nolan

(1917-04-22)22 April 1917
Died28 November 1992(1992-11-28) (aged 75)
London, England
Known forPainting
MovementAngry Penguins
Patron(s)John Reed, Sunday Reed



Early life


Sidney Nolan was born in Carlton, at that time an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne, on 22 April 1917. He was the eldest of four children. His parents, Sidney (a tram driver) and Dora, were both fifth generation Australians of Irish descent. Nolan later moved with his family to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. He attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School and left school aged 14. He enrolled at the Prahran Technical College (now part of Swinburne University), Department of Design and Crafts, in a course which he had already begun part-time by correspondence. 1933 onwards, at the age of 16, he began working for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes for six years. In 1934, he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.[1]

Years at Heide (1941–1947)

Heide I, where Nolan painted the majority of his early Ned Kelly works

Nolan was a close friend of the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the so-called "Heide Circle" that also included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. Boyd and Perceval were members of the Boyd artistic family who were centered at "Open Country", Murrumbeena.

In 1938, he met and married his first wife, graphic designer Elizabeth Paterson,[2] with whom he had a daughter, but his marriage soon broke up because of his increasing involvement with the Reeds. He joined the Angry Penguins in the 1940s, after deserting from the army during World War II;[3][4] he was an editor of the Angry Penguins magazine and painted the cover for the Ern Malley edition published in June 1944. The Ern Malley hoax poems were seen by Nolan and Sunday Reed as being uncannily prescient in touching on their own personal circumstances.[5][6] The Malley poems remained a real presence to him throughout his life.[7] He painted and drew hundreds of Malley-themed works and in 1975 said it inspired him to paint his first Ned Kelly series: "It made me take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object."[8]

He lived for some time at the Reeds' home, "Heide" outside Melbourne (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art). Here he painted the first of his famous, iconic "Ned Kelly" series, reportedly with input from Sunday Reed. Nolan also conducted an open affair with Sunday Reed but subsequently married John Reed's sister, Cynthia in 1948 after Sunday refused to leave her husband. He had lived in a ménage à trois with the Reeds for several years and after his marriage, he continued to see them and visited Heide at least once during their lifetimes. The years there together have been seen as a dominating factor in the subsequent lives of them all.[9]

In November 1976, Cynthia Nolan ended her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in a London hotel.[10] In 1978, Nolan married Mary née Boyd (1926–2016),[11] youngest daughter within the Boyd family and previously married to John Perceval.[12]


The Trial, held at the National Gallery of Australia, is one of 27 paintings comprising Nolan's 1946–47 Ned Kelly series.

Nolan painted a wide range of personal interpretations of historical and legendary figures, including explorers Burke and Wills, and Eliza Fraser. With time his paintings of Mrs Fraser came to be associated with his growing animus towards Sunday Reed. However, when first painted he was still on good terms with the Reeds and sent them photos of the works for their approval. Indeed, he gave one Fraser Island painting to Sunday Reed as a Christmas gift that year.[13]

Probably his most famous work is a series of stylised descriptions of the bushranger Ned Kelly in the Australian bush. Nolan left the famous 1946–47 series of 27 Ned Kellys at "Heide", when he left it in emotionally charged circumstances. Although he once wrote to Sunday Reed to tell her to take what she wanted, he subsequently demanded all his works back. Sunday Reed returned 284 other paintings and drawings to Nolan, but she refused to give up the 25 remaining Kellys, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art[14] and also, possibly, because she collaborated with Nolan on the paintings.[12] Eventually, she gave them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this resolved the dispute. Nolan's Ned Kelly series follow the main sequence of the Kelly story. However Nolan did not intend the series to be an authentic depiction of these events. Rather, these episodes/series became the setting for the artist's meditations upon universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The Kelly saga was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story giving meaning to the place.

Although the Depression and World War II happened during this period, Nolan decided to concentrate on something other than people struggling in life.[citation needed] Nolan wanted to create and define episodes in Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. A hero which now has become a metaphor for humankind—the fighter, the victim, and the hero—resisting tyranny with a passion for freedom. Nolan recognised that the conceptual image of the black square (Kelly's helmet and armour) had been part of modern art since World War I. Nolan just placed a pair of eyes into Kelly's helmet which animates its formal shape. As in most of the series, Kelly's steel head guard dominates the composition. Nolan also concentrates on the Australian outback and shows a different landscape in nearly every painting. Nolan's paintings give the audience an insight into the history of Australia but also show others from the world how beautiful Australia is.[citation needed] The intensity of the colours of the land and bush along with its overall smooth texture help create harmony between legend, symbol and visual impact.[citation needed] Kelly is in the centre of the painting but the colours around him help make him stand out. It's a very simplistic picture but highlights that Ned Kelly is an Australian icon.

In 1952, Nolan documented the effects of drought in outback Queensland. His photographs of desiccated animals were a catalyst for his later drought paintings.[15]

Nolan never relied upon one style or technique, but rather experimented throughout his lifetime with many different methods of application, and also devised some of his own. Nolan was inspired by children's art and modernist painting of the early 20th century. During this time many younger artists were veering towards abstraction, Nolan remained committed to the figurative potential of painting. In terms of art history Nolan rediscovered the Australian landscape (Australia has not been an easy country to paint).[citation needed] His love of literature is seen as visually evident in his work. Other key influences were the modernist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Locally, the arrival of the Russian artist Danila Vassilieff in Melbourne, with his simple and direct art, was significant for Nolan.

In his series, Kelly is a metaphor for Nolan himself. Nolan, like the bushranger, was a fugitive from the law. In July 1944, facing the possibility that he would be sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty, Nolan went absent without leave. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was "Robin Redbreast".[16] So when he created this series he viewed himself as the misunderstood hero/artist like the protagonist, Kelly. "Nolan like this Kelly figure has also been a hero, a victim, a man who armoured himself against Australia and who faced it, conquered it, lost it…. ambiguity personified."[17]

Nolan's Ned Kelly series is one of the greatest sequences of Australian paintings of the 20th century. His simplified depiction of Kelly in his armour has become an iconic Australian image. In 1949, when the series was exhibited at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, the museum's director Jean Cassou called the works "a striking contribution to modern art" and that Nolan "creates in us a wonder of something new being born".[18] Works from Nolan's second Kelly series (ca. mid-1950s) were acquired by major international galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York[19] and the Tate Modern in London.[20][21] English critic Robert Melville wrote in 1963 that Nolan's Kelly belonged to "the company of twentieth-century personages which includes Picasso's minotaur, Chirico's mannequins, Ernst's birdmen, Bacon's popes and Giacometti's walking man".

Paintings of Dimboola landscapes by Sidney Nolan, who was stationed in the area while on army duty in World War II, can be found in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Grave of Sidney Nolan in Highgate Cemetery

In 1951, Nolan moved to London, England.[22] He travelled in Europe, spending a year in 1956 painting themes based on Greek Mythology while in Greece. In Paris, he studied engraving and lithography with S. W. Hayter at Studio 17t two years there. He became friends with the poet Robert Lowell and produced illustrations for some of his books. Nolan was a prolific book cover illustrator, his images enhancing the dust jackets of over 70 publications.[23] During this period, Nolan's first London solo exhibition occurred at the Whitechapel Gallery between June and July 1957.[24]

In 1965, Nolan completed a large mural (20 m by 3.6 m) depicting the 1854 Eureka Stockade, rendered in enamelled jewellery on 1.5 tonnes of heavy gauge copper. Nolan employed the "finger-and-thumb" drawing technique of Indigenous Australian sandpainters to create the panoramic scene. Commissioned by economist H. C. Coombs, the mural is located at the entrance to the Reserve Bank of Australia's Melbourne office on Collins Street.[25]

During the period of 1968–1970, Nolan embarked on the creation of a monumental mural entitled Paradise Garden. This project consisted of 1,320 floral designs split into three subsections that were created using crayon and dyes. The intent of the subsections was to show the lifecycles of the plants, starting with the primeval plants emerging from the mud, transitioning to their full burst of colour in springtime, and the completion of the life cycle with the withering plants returning to the earth.[26]

In England, Nolan attended the Aldeburgh Festival and was encouraged by the organiser and composer Benjamin Britten to show paintings at the festivals. He continued to travel widely in Europe, Africa, China, Australia, and even Antarctica. [citation needed]



Nolan died in London on 28 November 1992 at the age of 75; he was survived by his wife and two children. He was buried in the Eastern part of Highgate Cemetery, London.


The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania, was built to accommodate Nolan's Snake (1970–72), a giant Rainbow Serpent mural made of 1,620 individual paintings.

Stage designs


Nolan's lifelong engagement with the theatre began in 1939 when he was commissioned to create décor for French ballet dancer Serge Lifar's revised version of Icare. Lifar, then on tour in Australia with the Original Ballet Russe, offered Nolan the job after a chance encounter with his abstract work. Icare premiered on 16 February 1940 at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

In 1964, Robert Helpmann enlisted Nolan to design the set and costumes for his ballet The Display. Set at a bush picnic, the piece relates the mating rituals of the lyrebird to the masculine posturing of Australian males. Nolan created a series of green-blue gauze panels to evoke the filtered light of the forest. One contemporary critic remarked that Nolan's décor "not merely recreates the haunt of the lyrebird. It is the deep, rich mysterious gloom of a sunlight shafted Australian rainforest with the pillars of its ghostly white gums rising through its depths."[27]

In London, he created the designs for Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring (1962) at the Royal Ballet, and for Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila (1981) and Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1987), directed by Elijah Moshinsky at the Royal Opera. Only The Rite of Spring remains in the repertory.[28]

Honours and awards


In the 1963 New Year Honours List, Nolan was appointed CBE. In the 1981 Birthday Honours List, Nolan was appointed a Knight Bachelor for service to art, despite his war desertion. He received the Order of Merit (OM) in 1983. In 1983, Nolan settled in Herefordshire. The Sidney Nolan Trust, chaired by Lord Lipsey, was established in 1985 to support artists and musicians, and provide exhibition space for works by Nolan and others at The Rodd, north of Kington, Herefordshire.[22]

He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1988 having declined being made an Officer in 1975. In 1975, Sir John Kerr, the then Governor-General, wrote to the Queen's then Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to inform him of Nolan's decision to decline. Kerr indicated in his letter that he thought Nolan should have been offered the rank of Companion instead and that he had intended to convey his view to Sir Garfield Barwick, the inaugural Chair of the Order of Australia Council, but that Barwick had already sent Nolan the letter asking whether Barwick would decline the honour of AO. Kerr speculated to Charteris that, having been made CBE in the 1960s, being made an AO, "...may have seemed to him no great advancement."[29]

He was also elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.


Detail of the three-dimensional frieze at the base of the Nolan apartment building in Docklands, Melbourne, inspired by Nolan's abstracted depiction of Ned Kelly's helmet and the Australian landscape

During the Tin Symphony segment of the 2000 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, a multitude of performers donned stylised costumes based on Nolan's distinctive Ned Kelly imagery, and a painting from Nolan's original 1946-47 Ned Kelly series was displayed on a giant screen in the stadium.[30]

In 2010, First-class Marksman (1946) became the most expensive Australian painting ever sold. Dubbed "the missing Nolan", the painting was the only one in Nolan's first series of 27 Ned Kelly paintings not in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for $5.4 million.[31]

The cinematography for English film director Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Australian film Walkabout was heavily influenced by Nolan. The small boy's hallucination of camel riders in the desert was a direct reference to Nolan's Burke and Wills paintings.[32]

Two of Nolan's paintings, The Abandoned Mine (1948) and Ned Kelly (1955) were included in Quintessence Editions Ltd.'s 2007 book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die.[33]

Melbourne writer Steven Carroll's 2011 novel Spirit of Progress is inspired by Woman and Tent (1946) by Nolan, who based the painting on Carroll's eccentric great-aunt. The young artist in the novel, Sam, is based on Nolan.[34] Nolan's relationship with Sunday Reed provided the framework for Alex Miller's 2011 novel Autumn Laing.[35][36]

Nolan will be the subject of an upcoming film titled When We Were Modern, directed by Philippe Mora and starring Clayton Watson. This film had not been made as of July 2014. Mora's film Absolutely Modern premiered in 2013. Based on 1940s Heide, it tells of Modernism, the female muse and the role of sexuality in Art.[37]

David Rainey's 2014 play "The Ménage at Soria Moria" is a fictitious performance piece exploring the relationship between Nolan and the Reeds – both the heady days at Heide during the 1940s, and the less well known degeneration over the next 35 years.[38]

Several documentary films have been made about Nolan. This Dreaming, Spinning Thing was commissioned by ABCTV as a companion film to Nolan's 1967 retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was made with a script by Australian novelist George Johnston.[39] Kelly Country (1972), directed by Stuart Cooper with commentary by Orson Welles, explores Australia's landscape and folklore through Nolan's imagery.[40] Nolan's Paradise Garden poems and drawings are examined in British director Jonathan Gili's 1974 film of the same name.[41] A 2009 documentary by filmmaker Catherine Hunter, Mask and Memory charts the course of Nolan's personal life, including his complex relationship with the Reeds at Heide. Narrated by Judy Davis, the film concludes that the three main women in Nolan's life, Sunday Reed, Cynthia Nolan and Mary Nolan, played bigger roles in the development of his art than is often discussed.[42]

Among Australian artists, Nolan's estate was identified as the third largest in Australia in 2013, following those of Brett Whiteley and Russell Drysdale.[43]

See also



  1. ^ Tremlett, Clayton (2006). "Unmasked: Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 1950–1990" (PDF). Education Kit. Heide Museum of Modern Art. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 April 2008. Retrieved 3 March 2008.
  2. ^ Underhill, Nancy D. H., "Nolan, Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) (1917–1992)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 6 November 2018
  3. ^ "Sir Sidney Nolan (1917-1992): Biography". Featured artists. Eva Breuer. 2007. Archived from the original on 13 June 2009. Retrieved 22 February 2008. 1942-44 Conscripted into the Army, stationed in the Wimmera. Went absent without leave in July 1944
  4. ^ Pearce, Barry (2007). "Sidney Nolan: A New Retrospective". Unleashed. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 22 February 2008. Nolan left the Wimmera in 1944, deserting the army for fear of being sent to the war front in New Guinea
  5. ^ Rainey, David. Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond. Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2009. ISBN 978-1-9213-3010-0, pp. 58-63. Nolan later recalled how he and Sunday felt they 'had a very intimate relationship with the poems', observing that Petit Testament 'was very much to do with our own lives. . . the poetry was tragic. . . and as it turned out our own lives did have a tragic outcome. ..’
  6. ^ "Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  7. ^ "1991 Interview on Malley poems". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  8. ^ Pearce, Barry. Sidney Nolan. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007. ISBN 1-74174-013-4, pp. 96–97
  9. ^ "Ménage à trois". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  10. ^ Patrick White, Letters, ed, David Marr, p. 487, footnote 52
  11. ^ Dewi Cooke, "Lady Mary Nolan, widow of painter Sidney Nolan, dies in Wales", The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2016
  12. ^ a b Thomas, Sarah (2004). "Cultivating Controversy (Review of Janine Burke, The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide)". Archived from the original on 28 October 2007. Retrieved 22 February 2008. Burke provocatively suggests that Sunday collaborated with him on some of his most famous works, the Kelly series among them. "The Kellys are Sunday and Nolan's swansong", Burke writes, "the last brilliant burst of their creative duet." What is most problematic here is that speculation " that Sunday painted the floor tiles and possibly the patchwork quilt in two of Nolan's paintings " is conveyed as fact. Burke's evidence is unconvincing, the main source being a quote from a subsequent letter from John Reed to Nolan, when the friendship between them had soured, that read: "Your paintings were part of your contribution [to Heide], even though you said Sunday painted them as much as you did " you said all your paintings were for Sunday, and I am quite sure you did not think of them otherwise. They were created with her in a sense which is almost literal, and it is certain without her, without your life at Heide, a great many would never have been painted." Surely the description of Sunday's contribution as being "almost literal" runs counter to Burke's argument?
  13. ^ "Nolan's "Mrs Fraser": Reconstruction and Deconstruction". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  14. ^ Burke, Janine (January 2004). The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide. Milsons Point, New South Wales: Random House. p. 350. ISBN 1-74051-202-2.
  15. ^ Digital Collections - Drought photographs, Queensland, 1952, National Library of Australia. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  16. ^ "Nolan 1991 interview with Michael Heyward". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  17. ^ The Bulletin magazine, 29 December 1962.
  18. ^ Turnbull, Clive. "Paris likes Ned Kelly paintings". The Argus (Melbourne). 15 December 1949. p. 7. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  19. ^ After Glenrowan Siege (Second Ned Kelly series), MoMA. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  20. ^ 'Glenrowan', Tate. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  21. ^ Douglas, Tim (7 November 2012). "Sidney Nolan daughter puts Ned Kelly's head on the block", The Australian. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  22. ^ a b The Sidney Nolan Trust. The Rodd, Presteigne, Herefordshire, England. (Leaflet)
  23. ^ "Nolan's covers". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  24. ^ "Exhibitions 1950-Present". Whitechapel Gallery. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  25. ^ Nolan Eureka Mural, National Trust of Australia. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  26. ^ Arts Centre Melbourne,
  27. ^ The Display (1964), Trove. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  28. ^ "Sidney Nolan". Royal Opera House. Retrieved 8 December 2021.
  29. ^ "Palace Letters" (PDF). The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 July 2020. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  30. ^ Seal, Graham. Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History. Anthem Press, 2011. ISBN 0-85728-792-3, p. 99.
  31. ^ Fulton, Adam (26 March 2010). "Record $5.4m for Nolan", The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 19 October 2011.
  32. ^ Walkabout, Retrieved on 16 October 2011.
  33. ^ 1001 Before You Die Archived 10 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Elliot, Tim (30 July 2011). "The shadows will always be long", The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
  35. ^ Stephens, Andrew (24 September 2011). "Leave it to Autumn", The Age. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
  36. ^ "Review of "Autumn Laing"". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  37. ^ "Review of "Absolutely Modern"". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  38. ^ "The Ménage at Soria Moria". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
  39. ^ Croskell, Wayne (5 January 1970). "A deep view of Nolan despite two-year lapse", The Age.
  40. ^ Lawrence, Mark (27 January 1977). "Orson Welles reads for Nolan", The Age.
  41. ^ Paradise Garden, British Film Institute. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  42. ^ "Mask And Memory: Sidney Nolan". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2009.
  43. ^ Tim Douglas (8 August 2013). "Royalties to flow with return of Sidney Nolan widow". The Australian. Retrieved 7 August 2013.