Menzies Art Brands

40. SIDNEY NOLAN Kelly and Horse c1964-65


Sidney Nolan is universally regarded as Australias foremost modernist artist. Famed for his prodigious output in a career that spanned over five decades, there is no question that his most celebrated creation remains his paintings on the subject of Australias most notorious bushranger Ned Kelly (1855-1880).

While Nolan was to produce other series of paintings on historical figures, no other subject so continued to obsess the artist, or so focussed his creative imagination as the complex, mythic narrative of this enigmatic figure. The first Kelly series (1946-47), comprising a group of twenty-eight paintings (twenty-seven of which are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra) was painted in Melbourne at Heide, the home of Nolans patrons John and Sunday Reed.

So preoccupied was the artist with the imaginative possibilities of the Kelly narrative, that he returned to the subject on at least two further occasions. The second series (1954-56) was painted at a time when the artist had relocated from Sydney to London. While many paintings in this series are recreations of the original key works, which the artist no longer possessed, others offer new and highly original conceptions of Kelly. At least one such key work, Kelly, Spring of 1956, was later included in Nolans major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957, and subsequently acquired by the Arts Council of Great Britain. There are symbolic references in this celebrated work to the failed Hungarian uprising the same year: Kelly was now newly conceived as the symbolic figure of a doomed freedom fighter.

The present painting, Kelly and Horse, belongs to the third and final Kelly series of 1964-65, and may be one of the earliest of the series. It appears the artist thought highly of this extraordinary work, and having written the name of his wife, Cynthia, on the reverse of the painting, he would appear to have reserved it for her personal possession.

The 1964-65 series itself may have been prompted, in part, by an exhibition at this time of the original Kellys that toured Sydney, London, Edinburgh and Paris to great critical acclaim. Extraordinarily enough, this show provided Nolan with his first sighting of the actual paintings since he left Melbourne in 1948. The new series was begun in December 1964 when he began work on the nine panelled, eleven metre long Kelly painting Riverbend I, completed in three months, and described by the art curator Barry Pearce as arguably his greatest masterpiece.1

Both of the two later series of Kelly paintings were to extend and redeploy the figure of the famous bushranger in new and often unexpected ways. In Nolans own words, the paintings were often shorthand for my own emotional state. 2 Riverbend demonstrates this dimension of the works, insofar as it represents a tribute to the artists father, who died shortly after its completion in London, evoking an inner landscape of his childhood through the visual metaphor of the brooding presence of the Goulburn River.3 A comparable correspondence of psychic inner emotion and external subject also surely seems to apply with Kelly and Horse, the work being painted most likely in late 1964 or early the following year, and thus firmly within the time-span of the third series initiated by the great Riverbend painting unveiled in an exhibition in the Albert Hall, Canberra, in August, together with thirty-seven other large Kelly works. At this same time, a book on the original Kelly paintings, together with a commentary by the English writer Robert Melville (1905-86), was published by Thames and Hudson.

Kelly and Horse, painted in oil on a large panel, is a fascinating work, sharing as it does a similar dominant use of the brown hues of Riverbend, the paint applied thinly, allowing the white of the ground to provide intense foreground light. Just as the Riverbend panels exploit the flat foreground surface of the brown Goulburn River, so too in Kelly and Horse the viewer enters the painting via the empty and disconcerting surface of the light foreground, before encountering the naked figure of Ned Kelly, still mounted on his fallen saddle and bridle-less horse.

Behind Kelly, in the background of the painting, are two rudimentary selectors bark and slab huts, with which settler families such as the Kellys were more than familiar. Such modest pioneering shelters dotted the plains and valleys of North-East Victoria. Behind the huts are the dark cloud shrouded forested ranges that had provided the refuges that the Kelly gang depended on for survival. The timber that had surrounded the huts has already been cleared once tall Stringybark and Ash eucalypts reduced to splintered remains, ready for final destruction by burning.  The figure of Kelly occupies a seeming wasteland.

Kelly, himself, is a transfixing figure arms outstretched as if crucified one arm still holding the horses neck, the other his rifle. But the horse is all but lifeless, and the gun useless; we might note that here again (as in the first series) that Nolan provides Kelly with a gun, the trigger of which is reversed. The rifle is reduced to an absurdity a point all the more ironic given that Ned was a crack shot, more than able to deal with the three troopers, Scanlon, Lonigan and Kennedy in that fatal shoot-out at Stringybark Creek in October 1878.

If this is Ned Kellys moment of defeat, there is, nonetheless, little here that suggests the Glenrowan battle of 1880. Nolan has stripped Kelly of his armour; only the vestige of the famous helmet remains, merely a decorative striped square framing Kellys staring, emotionless visage. Here is a Ned Kelly in extremis brought to the moment of death like a bull in a bullring, still defiant but equally fully conscious of a sense of finality.

The artist and critic Elwyn Lynn (1917-97) offers a further elaboration as to the existential relationship between the Kelly paintings and corresponding shifts in the Nolans own psychic life: As his life changed he painted different Kellys: from being heroic, unassailable and defiant, Kelly became dejected, forlorn and rather frightened in later paintings. 4 This pen portrait of a despairing but complex figure is surely the Kelly of Kelly and Horse one of the last of the significant Kellys, painted at a time when its creator was approaching the age of fifty, observing his own fathers imminent demise, recollecting how the two had shared time on that timeless river of childhood.

Riverbend is an immense painting in which an endless riverscape is haunted by the spirit-like presence of a helmeted Kelly. By contrast, in Kelly and Horse, the bushranger is all too human, cast as a figure painfully conscious of his own mortality. If this is not the mythic trickster Kelly of earlier paintings, it is perhaps now the all too human Kelly, inhabiting a convincing world of the struggling selector, a Kelly fallen foul of the law and about to pay the price.

The great achievement of the third Kelly series equal, by any count, to the first series that precipitated this immense creative enterprise - is one that Nolan could surely have never anticipated in the late 1940s: how far such a subject was to take him, with each succeeding decade seeming to insist upon yet a new Kelly continually being forged out of the vagaries of life itself.


1. Pearce, B., Sidney Nolan, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008, p.194
2. Lynn, E., and Semler, B., introduction, Sidney Nolans Ned Kelly, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989
3. Pearce, op. cit.
4. Lynn, E., and Semler, B., introduction, Sidney Nolans Ned Kelly, op. cit.


Clark, J., Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends: a retrospective exhibition: 1937-1987, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987
Lynn, E., Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery, Macmillan, London and Melbourne, 1985
Pearce, B., Sidney Nolan 1917-1992, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008
Rosenthal, T. G., Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne.




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