Sidney Nolan: A Unique Australian Vision - Art Collector

Issue 25, July - September 2003

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Sidney Nolan produced a vast body of work during his lifetime and his romantic vision of the Australian landscape is enduring. But John McPhee cautions collectors to be well informed before buying.

Those few people who saw Sidney Nolan’s first exhibition in 1940 must have been amazed. In his studio in a condemned terrace in Russell Street, Melbourne, opposite the Melbourne Museum, he showed a small group of paintings and drawings. Opened by Melbourne’s great patron of the arts, John Reed, and condemned as ‘highly esoteric’ by the usually more adventurous critic Basil Burdett, only a few works from the exhibition can be identified. Undoubtedly this exhibition set the scene for the rest of Nolan’s life, in which his desire to experiment ensured that his work was never predictable. Even at the height of his success, Nolan delighted in playing the larrikin and challenging accepted standards.

Unlike many of his contemporaries Nolan never settled into the complacency that fame might have offered or turned to painting pot-boilers. He was always interested in a new challenge and excited by it. I remember meeting him on a visit to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in the late 1980s when I was Senior Curator of Australian Art. After a leisurely lunch with the Director, James Mollison, and some of the curatorial staff, Nolan was pleased to be talking about what he was up to – painting, and reached into his pocket to show us a Polaroid. Crumpled from being carried around, and obviously proudly shown, it confirmed his dedication to painting when many would have given up. The photograph showed a huge Chinese landscape executed using spray cans because he found the act of wielding a brush over such a large surface too difficult with arthritic hands. Nolan was excited at this new way of painting, but quickly pointed out that it was not a novel experience. A drawing, from the Gallery’s collection, had been painted using an airbrush in 1936!


Born in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, Nolan was the eldest child of a tramway employee, and later, publican. Brought up in the bayside suburb of St Kilda, he played and later earned a living, in and around Luna Park and the sea baths on their long piers which ran out into the flat waters of Port Phillip Bay. Aged 14 Nolan attended part-time classes in design and crafts, and learnt to paint on glass, and soon after worked producing advertising material where he gained experience of spray painting and dyes. In 1934 he began to attend the art classes at the National Gallery School but with stuffy teaching stifling the students he found the delights of the public library, next door, more stimulating. At this time Nolan made friends within Melbourne’s vital art scene, shared studios and living quarters with other struggling artists and met the affluent collectors and supporters of contemporary art, John and Sunday Reed. In 1938 Nolan married Elizabeth Patterson, another Gallery School student and the grand-daughter of John Ford Patterson, a painter associated with the Heidelberg School.

The Reeds, especially Sunday, whose wealth and enigmatic beauty had a strong effect on the handsome and impressionable Nolan, fostered and promoted the young artist. Nolan left his wife and moved to the Reed’s house, Heide, which became the centre of his life for the next few years.

Encouraged by the Reeds, in the 1940s Nolan began an extraordinary period of experimentation and productivity out of which emerged some of his most memorable paintings. Conscripted into the army in 1942 and stationed in the Wimmera, his paintings of the lonely almost heroic life of the wheat farmers and some tellingly crude images of army life, show him beginning a search for a peculiarly Australian icon. After going absent-without-leave, late in Australia’s involvement in the Pacific war, when the country was looking for an heroic leader, Nolan drew and painted the first of the Ned Kelly images, his best known works.

The post war period continued to be productive and Nolan travelled north to tropical Queensland, then central, northern and western Australia. The Australia he saw during these years, the jungles, empty desert, rocky mountain ranges, occasional outback town offering a semblance of civilization, and the people who lived there, provided inspiration for his art throughout his life. Late in his life Nolan still loved to visit remote parts of Australia and to revel in the weird beauty of the landscape. He had married Cynthia Reed (John Reed’s Sister) in 1948 beginning a long and productive partnership.

With her, Nolan travelled to Europe for the first time in 1950 and like several of his contemporaries felt at home and lived for long periods of his life in England. After Cynthia’s death in 1976, Nolan married MaryBoyd, the sister of his great friend Arthur Boyd and ex-wife of the painter John Perceval.

Nolan developed the habit of exhibiting frequently in solo and group exhibitions and through regular exhi-bitions in London established a reputation there as well as in Australia. His first retrospective was held at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1957 and was followed by numerous honours throughout the restof his life, including being created Knight Bachelor for services to the arts in Britain in 1980. Nolan died in 1992.


Numerous exhibitions of Nolan’s work have been held in Australia and overseas. The most significant of which have been the 1967 Art Gallery of New South Wales’s retrospective exhibition which featured both the 1964 Riverbend and the 1966 Inferno paintings, the later undoubtedly one of Nolan’s most important works. In 1987 the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Sidney Nolan Landscapes and Legends, a retrospective, more fully assessed the scope of the artist’s career. The catalogue of this exhibition remains the most useful account of the artist’s life and work. In 2002 Thomas Rosenthal’s Sidney Nolan was published by Thames and Hudson and is a popular account of his art.

More specialist exhibition catalogues, including the NGA’s Sidney Nolan Drawings, published in 1989, and the Museum of Modern Art at Heide’s The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, published in 1997 are useful for more specific information. The current NGV’s Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought exhibition offers a chance to examine another important series of works by the artist, and is accompanied by a catalogue.


All Australian and many British public galleries have works by Nolan. Undoubtedly the Ned Kelly series, in the NGA, a gift from Sunday Reed in 1977, and other works in that collection, especially works on paper, make it the most significant public holding. The NGV’s collection and the Nolan Gallery at Lanyon near Canberra which exhibits Nolan’s generous gift, are other important collections.

Throughout his life Nolan was extraordinarily productive. He constantly drew to amuse himself and explore ideas and seems to have hoarded every scrap. As a result of his productivity, almost every auction of Australian art features a range of works by Nolan, from major paintings to scraps. Every dealer specialising in twentieth century Australian art has a few, or many works, by Nolan. Of course, the artist’s estate has a large number of works which it has sold through auction and the London dealer Thomas Agnew and Son over the past few years. When looking at the wide variety of works by Nolan on the market at any one time, the collector would be wise to remember this and exercise considerable caution.


The Australian Art Sales Digest records 2084 works by Nolan sold in the past decade and 101 so far in 2003. The highest price achieved for a painting was for a Riverbend series painted in 1966 which sold at Christie’s, London, in 1993, for $1,022,181. In Australia the highest price achieved was for a 1955 Glenrowan painting sold at Sotheby’s in August 2002 for $520,000. Kelly subjects, and early and unusual paintings bring the highest prices, as shown in auction sales in 2003 when Deutscher-Menzies sold an outstanding Luna Park, 1941, painting for $152,750, and Sotheby’s sold a Bushranger portrait, 1945, for $141,000. Paintings thought of as less interesting, such as works from the Antarctic and African series sell for about $50,000. The market has not yet caught-up with Nolan’s later works which sell for much lower prices, but taking their quality into consideration, will undoubtedly appreciate as earlier works come up for sale less frequently.

Works on paper, especially drawings, sell well and bring high prices. But the careful collector could pickup significant and early works, especially of odd or seemingly unattractive subjects, such as the carcass drawings of the 1950s. Prices vary according to subject, date and size, as well as the degree of apparent finish, but begin as low as $5,000.

The enormous number of off-set lithographs made after Nolan’s Kelly paintings which he signed, and sometimes editioned, are a curse in the market place. While regularly selling for several thousand dollars, they are finally worthless, and represent the buying of ill-informed collectors who are impressed by the name, the signature and the subject.


As one of Australia’s most important twentieth century artists Sidney Nolan’s work is worthwhile for every interested collector. With a thorough knowledge of the range of Nolan’s art, gained by reading as much as possible, especially catalogues devoted to the lesser known aspects of his career, by looking at works in exhibitions, and being familiar with the market, at auction and through commercial dealers, the collector can become familiar with Nolan’s career and work. The wide range of works available means that with care a collector of modest means can own a significant work by Nolan. As different aspects of Nolan’s work are assessed in specialist exhibitions and dealers and collectors become more aware of its great range, the value of what can be bought for modest sums now can only increase.

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