Sidney Nolan | A Fugitive Behind the Mask

Sir Sidney Robert Nolan was born in Carlton, [at that time an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne,] on 22 April 1917, the eldest of four children. The family moved to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. Nolan 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. From 1933, at the age of 16, he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, in Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. From 1934, he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

Sidney Nolan was a close friend of the fellow Victorian arts patrons, John and Sunday Reed, and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the so-called Heide Circle which also included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. In 1938, Nolan met and married his first wife, graphic designer Elizabeth Paterson with whom he had a daughter, but his marriage soon broke up because of his increasing involvement with the Reeds.

Nolan 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 fugitive outlaw and Australian bushranger “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.

  • In the 1940s, after deserting from the army during World War 2, Nolan became the editor of the Angry Penguins magazine and painted the cover for the Ern Malley edition published in June, 1944.

Nolan left the famous 1946–1947 series of Ned Kelly’s at Heide, when he left 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 Kelly’s, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art and also, possibly, because she collaborated with Nolan on the paintings. Eventually, she gave them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this resolved their dispute.

In the year prior to this resolve, Nolan’s wife Cynthia ended her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills at a London hotel, in November, 1976. Two years later, in 1978, Nolan married Mary née Boyd (1926–2016), the youngest daughter within the Boyd family and previously married to John Perceval.

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

Images featured include: Kelly in the Bush (1945), Carcass in a Tree [Sketch] (1955),
Policeman in Wombat Hole [From the Kelly series] (1946), Book cover illustrations for The Burnt Ones by Patrick White: Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1964, The Journey  [Kelly series] (1946), Kelly with Horse (1955), Ram Caught in Flood (1955), The Angry Penguins – Ern Malley cover (June, 1944).

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