Menzies Art Brands



Sidney Nolans standing as Australias pre-eminent modernist painter is unchallenged a status confirmed most recently by the reception of the major survey exhibition curated by Barry Pearce in 2007 for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. While immensely productive throughout a long career, the early years from 1943 to 1946 were most fertile, producing two of Nolans most original and remarkable series of historically significant paintings: the Wimmera landscapes followed by his first series of Ned Kelly paintings. The latter were donated by Sunday Reed to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977.

The very first Kelly picture was painted in March 1946 at Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed. Two months before this Nolan had produced another key painting, one that was originally untitled, but which is now known as Mrs Reardon & Child, and which is signed and dated by the artist 27 January 1946. As a near contemporary of the first Kelly series it is also painted with Ripolin on hardboard - and was almost certainly also painted at Heide. This painting is one of the most fascinating of the artists works from this early period. The central figures, identified as Mrs Reardon and her young child, were to appear later as key dramatis personae in three major Kelly paintings, Siege at Glenrowan and Glenrowan - and most significantly Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan (12 October 1946). Each painting includes the figures of Margaret Reardon clutching her child, Bridget, who together with other members of her family had been used as hostages by the Kelly gang in the shoot-out of 1880, the climatic event that finally brought about the bloody end to the whole Kelly bushranging episode. In each of these paintings Margaret and her child flee for their lives from the besieged hotel, which, raked with police gunfire, is already engulfed in flames. The head and shoulders of a police trooper at the bottom right hand corner is the only other figure present at this moment of high drama - one from which mother and child miraculously escape unharmed.

In his astute discussion of this first Kelly series the art historian Andrew Sayers (former director of the National Portrait Gallery) has observed that this mother and child may be an allegory for [the artists] first wife Elizabeth and their daughter Amelda, whom he had left in 1941. 1 Sayers also notes that Nolan was to paint further similar maternal subjects for several years after 1947. For the artist the period between the years 1941 and 1947 was a time of great emotional turbulence - beginning with the separation from Elizabeth Paterson and their child. Nolan had met Elizabeth (the grand-niece of the eminent landscape painter John Ford Paterson) at the National Gallery School and they had married in 1938, with their daughter being born in 1941. After barely a year the couple divorced - an event which followed from Nolans move to Heide to join his new lover Sunday Reed, together with his patron John Reed.

Following three years of army service based in the Wimmera, Nolan returned to Melbourne where he went awol in 1944, taking refuge in a studio-loft in Parkville. Initially the return to Heide gave a powerful impetus to his new work, but this was accompanied, however, by a corresponding period of profound personal angst. On the one hand all this storm and stress worked to intensify and energize the imagery of the Kelly story with its emotional drama of violence and betrayal. Nevertheless, as Nolan himself was later to confess the experience brought with it an almost unendurable level of conflict, stress and anxiety: really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself. You would be surprised if I told you. From 1945 to 1947 there were emotional and complicated events in my own life. Its an inner history of my own emotions. 2

Its also a measure of the immense personal significance that the painting Mrs Reardon and Child held for Nolan that it remained in his possession throughout his life, never being exhibited, and only after his death being given by his widow Mary Nolan to his daughter Amelda. The painting is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic of Nolans entire oeuvre. In the foreground stands a young dark-haired woman wearing a scarlet coat and holding a baby covered in a blue wrap. She also is wearing boots and carries a staff, indicating it would seem that she has embarked on an arduous journey through a dark and somewhat mysterious woodland landscape with only distant dwellings on a far horizon. Curiously, the staff itself has sprouted leaves similar to the shrubbery that surrounds the figures. The yellow orange foreground is also putting forth flowering plants.

While this theme suggests parallels with a key subject in the history of Western art - that of the biblical flight into Egypt (notably Annabile Carraccis (1560-1609) baroque masterpiece Landscape with the Flight Into Egypt of 1604). Nolans painting, however, presents two instead of the traditional three figures of this archetypal family group.  Nonetheless, Nolans own work would appear to reference a comparable perilous journey - the womans expression registering feelings of both anxiety and determination. If it is difficult to locate a particular art historical source for the subject of the painting there is nonetheless a significant earlier equally enigmatic painting by the artist himself from 1944 soon after his return from the Wimmera. The subject of Lublin (Baroque Exterior) derived from a newspaper report of a recently liberated German death camp in eastern Poland next to the city of Lublin. The painting contains a curious lattice-like structure enclosing rudimentary heads that resonates with a not dissimilar inclusion within our 1946 work.

Nolans preoccupation with the holocaust and the terrible experiences of refugees from Eastern Europe may well relate to the character of the figures in Mrs Reardon & Child  - a mother and child set upon a pilgrimage towards a new and more positive future as indicated by the symbolism of the flowers and a staff also springing forth with life. This reading indicates a deep response on Nolans part to one of the most significant and historical events of this turbulent time.

The 1946 Kelly painting, Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan, offers a relatively straightforward depiction of the violent historical event depicted - eschewing the complex layering of symbolic motifs and use of temporal simultaneity characteristic of many of the other paintings in the series. By way of contrast the two related Kelly paintings of the same month - Burning at Glenrowan (October 1946) and Siege at Glenrowan (October /November 1946) - are altogether more challenging in terms of the exploration of their symbolic significance.  These works are most probably, as Andrew Sayers argues, intended to act as a traditional diptych.3 As a connected pair they attest to Nolans masterful orchestration of archetypal figures seemingly acting out a final Wagnerian climactic moment of operatic death and destruction. In Burning at Glenrowan Steve Hart and Dan Kelly lie dying in the burning hotel. Ned Kellys own empty suit of armour stands totem-like dominating the entire painting - an immense mythic presence. In the second diptych painting, Siege at Glenrowan, we witness again the flight of Mrs Reardon, clutching her child and fleeing from almost certain death.

Both these Kelly paintings, together with Mrs Reardon and Child, exploit to the full Sidney Nolans masterly play of the layered representation of a remembered past, whilst also disclosing a unique capacity to draw upon a profoundly personal psychological bank of personal imagery and emotional experience however painful. Yet, in opposition to expressionisms trope of emotional excess, a Nolan painting invariably retains that sense of calculated emotional distance and controlled feeling that great art demands.

In 1941 the American literary critic Edmund Wilson published his influential critical text The Wound and the Bow, drawing on the Greek myth of the damaged warrior Philoctetes to demonstrate how great creative achievement so often comes with the price of emotional suffering and exile. If this seems to be the case with the Kelly series, so too the correspondingly enigmatic and highly emotional imagery of Mrs Reardon and Child appears even more freighted with a profound sense of the artists own troubled personal history above all the trauma of the loss of his first family, followed by the sense of entrapment at Heide from where he was compelled to flee into permanent exile in July 1947 following upon the completion of a final Kelly painting.



1. Sayers, A., Kellys Words, Rousseau, and Sunlight, in the catalogue, The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, Warwick Reeder (ed.), Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1997, p.75

2. Lynn, E., Sidney Nolans Ned Kelly, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1985, pp. 8-9

3. Sayers, op.cit.


Haese R., Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981

Lynn, E., Sidney Nolans Ned Kelly, Australian National Gallery, Canberra,1985

Pearce, B., Sidney Nolan 1917-1992, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007

Reeder, W. (ed.), The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1997

Rosenthal T. G., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2007


Dr Richard Haese
Dip. Art, South Australian School of Art; BA (Hons.), University of Adelaide; PhD, Monash University
Honorary Research Associate: History Dept., La Trobe University
Fellow: Heide Museum of Modern Art

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