Artist's Biography

Sidney Nolan was born in Melbourne in 1917 and died in London in 1992.  He was known as a painter and a designer.

Nolan studied design and crafts at Prahran Technical College in 1932.  During the 1930’s he worked in advertising and in the art department of a hat factory from 1934-38.  During this period he shared a studio near the National Gallery of Victoria School with John Sinclair and Arthur Evan Read. He studied occasionally at the National Gallery of Victoria School evening classes in 1934 and also read extensively at the State Library of Victoria, mainly Kierkegaard’s subjectivist existential philosophy, D.H. Lawrence, Joyce, Faulkner and French symbolist poets.

He re-enrolled at National Gallery of Victoria School in 1936 after deciding on an artistic career. In 1938, Nolan met John and Sunday Reed and found encouragement in the circle frequenting their home “Heide”, including other artists Arthur Boyd and Alfred Tucker.  Sidney Nolan married Cynthia Reed, the sister of his patron.

He became a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society in Victoria, exhibiting with them from 1939-47.  During these formative years he was inspired by the French and British Contemporary Art Exhibition of 1939.

His first exhibition, in his studio in 1940, included works produced in accordance with “automatism” – a Freudian notion related to Surrealism – (whereby the artist supposedly acts under control of the unconscious).  The procedure, earlier practised by Atyeo, gave finished works the semblance of abstracts.

Nolan designed sets and costumes for the Russian Ballet production of “Icare” in 1941 and continued designing for theatre throughout his career.

He was drafted into the army in 1942-45 and was stationed in western Victoria, where he made many paintings of the Wimmera region in a neo-primitive manner using the only material available, synthetic enamels in bright primary colours, which emphasized the childlike mode.  He was also involved with the magazine “Angry Penguins” and provided painted illustrations for the purported poems of the non-existent “Ern Malley” – fabricated by two anti-modernist poets as a hoax to lampoon the symbolist and quasi-Surrealist attitudes espoused by editor Max Harris.

A 1946 journey by Nolan with Max Harris into the northern Victorian countryside resulted in 27 myth-making paintings on the life of the bushranger Ned Kelly, a theme re-worked as paintings and lithographs by Nolan in several subsequent periods. Most of the first  series (1946-47) are now in the National Gallery of Australia. The simulated primitivism of these woks with their schematic figures, flattened perspective and primal symbols such as the heroic but vacant helmet-head, was a further phase in Nolan’s personal version of the modernism of innocent vision.

Other outback works were similarly based on self-consciously “naive” attitudes.  Journeys in outback Australia in 1948 inspired a series of aerial red landscapes. Travels in Queensland produced the works of the Mrs Fraser series (1957-1964) which centred around Fraser Island which he visited in 1947. Nolan’s works of Mrs Fraser relate to the legend surrounding the time Eliza Fraser spent on Fraser Island. Eliza was the wife of Captain Fraser whose ship the “Stirling Castle” was wrecked on the Swain Reef near Rockhampton in May 1836.

Captain Fraser and several of the party who made it to shore on Fraser Island (which was then known as the Great Sandy Island), were murdered by aborigines, but Mrs Fraser survived to live with the tribe until rescued by a convict named Graham.

A rival story which had great appeal to Nolan and the author Patrick White is that Eliza was safely led away from the aborigines to Moreton Bay by another escaped convict Bracefell, who like Graham had lived among the aborigines. At the sight of Moreton Bay, Bracefell fled back into the bush trusting neither Eliza Fraser nor the convict authorities. Patrick White used Eliza Fraser as his inspiration for his book ”A Fringe of Leaves”.  A biography of Eliza Fraser, titled  “Mrs Fraser on the Fatal Shore” was written by Michael Alexander.  Eliza  Fraser died in Melbourne in 1958.

In 1948 Nolan travelled overseas for the first time to Europe. He took his Ned Kelly paintings to Paris and in 1949 they were exhibited at UNESCO. From this time on he became an inveterate traveller and later journeyed to the USA in 1958 on a Harkness Fellowship. While overseas he exhibited widely and sought out new subject matter: Antarctica, African wildlife, Greek mythology (such as the legend of Leda & the Swan), Gallipoli and the ANZAC’s.

In 1949 two of Nolan’s paintings were purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  During the early 1950’s he continued to exhibit in Sydney and Rome, and went to London for his first exhibition there, at the Redfern Gallery in 1951. In 1957 Nolan studied printmaking (engraving & lithography) in Paris at Atelier 17 with S. W. Hayter.

Nolan continued to paint prolifically, including designing for ballets and plays, illustrations and dust jacket designs for books. He also acted as an adviser to and organiser of the Australian contribution to the Biennale of Venice in 1954.

From 1965 he produced numerous attachable small discrete compositions together forming a composite image. Some were commissioned; some, like numerous other works, have been presented to public institutions. In 1974, Nolan donated his Gallipoli series of paintings and drawings to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, in honour of his brother, who was killed in World War II.

After the death of his first wife, Cynthia in 1976, he married Mary Perceval, the divorced wife of his old friend and fellow artist John Perceval.  Mary Perceval was also the sister of Arthur Boyd.

Much of Nolan’s late career involved travelling, being photographed, interviewed, written about and filmed.  In 1978 a television film, “Nolan at Sixty” was made by the BBC.

Major exhibitions of his work were organised during 1986 to 1992, including his Antarctic and African series at “Lanyon” in 1986 and a large retrospective, “Sir Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends: A Retrospective 1937-77” which toured the National Gallery of Victoria, and the State Art Galleries in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia in 1987-88.  This exhibition demonstrated the copiousness and fluency through which he was able to create seemingly spontaneous works. Other exhibitions at this time included: Australian Galleries in Melbourne in 1992.  He was also represented in “The Great Australian Art Exhibition” and “The Face of Australia” exhibition.

A book and film about Nolan was created by Brian Adams and released in 1987 to television audiences in  the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and Ireland.

During his last years, he made a number of important gifts to federal and state government instrumentalities, notably the Kelly paintings to the National Gallery of Australia. In 1985, he and Mary Nolan acquired the property adjoining Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s on the Shoalhaven River in NSW and in 1986 he donated some 50 paintings to Ireland after purchasing some land in County Clare.

During his career, Nolan was awarded several prizes, including: Dunlop Prize, 1950; Italian Government scholarship, 1956; Harkness Fellowship for study in the USA, 1958-60; resident fellowship, Australian National University, 1965; an honorary Doctorate in Literature from the Australian National University in 1965; Britannica Australia award, 1969; a CBE in 1963 and a knighthood in 1981; honorary member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters in New York in 1985.

Sidney Nolan’s works are represented extensively in Australian private, corporate and public collections, including: Art Collection of the Victorian Arts Centre, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Museum Armidale, Australian National University, Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Bendigo Art Gallery, Benalla Art Gallery, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum, City of Freemantle Collection, Deakin University, Flinders University Art Museum, Geelong Art Gallery, Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Griffith University, Horsham Art Gallery, Library & Information Service of Western Australia, La Trobe University, La Trobe University College of Northern Victoria, Museums & Art Galleries of the Northern Territories, Manly Art Gallery & Museum in Sydney, Mitchell Library (State Library of NSW), Museum of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre, Nolan Gallery in Tharwa, ACT, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Orange Regional Gallery, Parliament House Art Collection in Canberra, Perce Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland University of Technology Art Collection, Queen Victoria Museum & Art Galley in Launceston, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Shepparton Art Gallery, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Union Gallery in Adelaide, University of Melbourne Art Collection, University of South Australia Art Museum, University of Sydney Collection, University of Western Australia, Warrnambool Art Gallery, Wollongong City Gallery, Wagga Wagga City Art Gallery.


“Concise Dictionary of Australian Artists”, Gwenda Robb, Elaine Smith & Robert Smith, Melbourne University Press, 1993.

“The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art”, Alan & Susan McCulloch, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.