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Sidney Nolan Centenary: Thirteen facts about the man who painted Ned Kelly 1

a paintinbg of a figure with a rifle and a square helmet

Sidney Nolan, Kelly, Spring, 1956. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Sidney Nolan Trust

It’s the centenary of the great Australian painter Sidney Nolan (1917 – 1992), famed for his Ned Kelly series of paintings. With events and exhibitions happening across the UK here’s thirteen facts about him to whet your appetite


painting of a dark, looming abstract figure

Sidney Nolan – Convict (1959). © Sidney Nolan Trust

From a young age, Nolan yearned to travel and visit the places where his heroes – including French poet Rimbaud and Danish philosopher Kierkegaard – were born. In 1937 at the age of just 20, he even attempted to get to Paris by stowing away on a ship bound for Europe with a fellow student from evening classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. However, before the ship had even left the Port Phillip Bay, they were discovered and returned to shore on the pilot boat.

Sunday Reed

a painting of the Australian landscape

Sidney Nolan, Central Australia, 1950, oil on canvas. The University of York © Sidney Nolan Trust

In the early 1940s Nolan became a close friend of art patrons John and Sunday Reed and eventually lived with them at their home outside Melbourne, known as Heide (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art). Despite already being married, Nolan soon began an affair with Sunday. Although his time at Heide with the Reeds led to the production of Nolan’s first series of Ned Kelly paintings, one of the greatest series of Australian paintings of the 20th century, on a personal level it proved to be destructive, resulting in the breakdown of Nolan’s marriage. The subsequent failure of his relationship with Sunday became the catalyst for his move away from Melbourne and eventually Australia.

Ned Kelly

a portrait of a man with a beard

Sidney Nolan, Head (Ned Kelly) 1962 ® Sidney Nolan Trust

Nolan’s paintings of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, usually depicted as a figure wearing a square black mask that only revealed his eyes, have become icons of Australian art; so much so that it was used prominently in the Tin Symphony section of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony. Nolan was attracted to Kelly’s anti-hero status and used his figure to contemplate universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. His interest may have also had a personal element as Nolan’s grandfather was a police officer who had been involved in the hunt for the elusive Kelly.


an abstract painting of a man beheading a chicken as smoke rises from a building in the distance

Sidney Nolan, Untitled (Chicken) c.1943 ® Sidney Nolan Trust

Nolan may have identified with Ned Kelly as he too was an outlaw of some kind; after being conscripted into the Australian army in 1941, he deserted in 1944. Nolan went into hiding, living and working under the assumed name Robin Murray until 1949 when he was “discharged in absentia” by the Australian government. The first Ned Kelly paintings were produced during this time in hiding.


a landscape painitng of a seascape with cie capped mountains in the distance

Sidney Nolan, Antarctica, 1964. © Tate London, 2017 / Sidney Nolan Trust

Nolan travelled widely throughout his lifetime, exploring parts of the globe that very few painters of the 20th century have ever visited including Antarctica and into the Arctic Circle. When aked about his nationality after the opening of an exhibition of Australian art at Folkestone in April 1963, Nolan simply replied “Earthling”.

Life in the UK

a photo of a short haired man in shirtsleeves

Sidney Nolan in the 1950s. Courtesy NBAC ANUA 2

Nolan spent more of his life in the UK than in Australia. He moved to the UK in the early 50s and remained here until his death in 1992.


a photo of two people manhandling a large canvas into a barn

Sidney Nolan manouevres a painting into the at the Rodd, October 1986.

An extraordinarily innovative and experimental artist, Nolan was also highly prolific. He is believed to have produced over 30,000 artworks in his lifetime.

New materials

a painting of a prone person surrounded by fish

Peter Grimes’s Apprentice

Nolan began his artistic career working as a commercial artist in Melbourne and was encouraged to experiment with new materials, something that he continued to do throughout his career. He was the first artist recorded to have used alkyds (the dominant resin used in most commercial “oil-based” coatings) and began to use household paints in his own artworks before either Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning.

Spray paint

an abstract figurative portrait of a person in glasses

Sidney Nolan – Myself (1988). Sidney Nolan Trust © Sidney Nolan Trust

In his later life Nolan returned to his roots in commercial art and began using spray paint as his preferred medium. He even created a special rig in his studio that enabled him to spray paint while suspended from the beams with a can in each hand.


a painting of a figure in a brown landscape dominated by a tree

Sidney Nolan, Convict in a Billabong, c.1960, The University of York © Sidney Nolan Trust

In the early 1960s, Nolan was commissioned to design sets and costumes for a new production of Stravinsky’s controversial ballet The Rite of Spring. Daringly, both Nolan and the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan rejected the ballet’s Russian setting. Instead, Nolan drew inspiration from Aboriginal rock art and reimagined the setting in the arid regions of central Australia. Nolan was excited by Aboriginal art and saw it as being the first mark of art in the world.

Angry Penguins

a painting of a girl with a spotted dress inside a colourful cage of sticks

Sidney Nolan, Girl with a Spotted Dress c.1943 ® Sidney Nolan Trust

Nolan was a member of the Angry Penguins, an Australian literary and artistic avant-garde movement of the 1940s, who were early exponents of surrealism and expressionism. The movement took its name from a Modernist magazine originally published by the Surrealist poet Max Harris as a literary magazine, which under the patronage of John and Sunday Reed evolved to embrace the visual arts.


a photo of man stanidng in front of a large abstract painting

Sidney Nolan with large abstract at The Rodd, SNT121

Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia, elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of The Royal Academy of Arts.


an abstract paintibg of an upturned cow carcass

Sidney Nolan, Carcase in Swamp, 1955. © Tate London, 2017 / Sidney Nolan Trust

Sidney Nolan donated and gifted many of his most important works to galleries and museums around the world. In a final major act of philanthropy he gave property and land to the Sidney Nolan Trust, a charity registered in the UK, which he established at his home The Rodd on the Welsh Border. The charity survives Nolan and continues to maintain his legacy and vision to create a place for great art for everyone.

Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain is at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester until June 4 2017.

Unseen: Works from the Sidney Nolan Trust Collection is at the Australian High Commission in London until May 5 2017.

Nolan at The Rodd is at The Rodd Arts Centre from May 26 until August 29 2017.

Sidney Nolan: Spray portraits is at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham June 10 – September 3 2017.

These exhibitions are part of the Sidney Nolan Centenary 2017, a year-long programme of exhibitions and events organised by the Sidney Nolan Trust to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the artist Sidney Nolan. For full exhibition details see www.sidneynolantrust.org


Pallant House Gallery

Chichester, West Sussex

Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne townhouse and an award-winning contemporary extension. It is based in the heart of Chichester and holds one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. There is an extensive temporary exhibition programme including…


Sidney Nolan Trust

Presteigne, Herefordshire

The Trust was founded by Sidney Nolan in 1985 to create a unique setting for his artistic legacy and to provide inspiration and education across the arts. The Trust serves as a resource for the appreciation of the work and the career of its founder in addition to managing an…

One comment on “Sidney Nolan Centenary: Thirteen facts about the man who painted Ned Kelly

  1. Poly Ethylene on

    Sidney-Nolan can’t draw and his painting technique is high school. His work is well worth forgetting.
    Read about the mountains of this sort of work in,
    “Modern Art a Portrait of Mediocrity” on Amazon Kindle.


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