Menzies Art Brands

49. SIDNEY NOLAN, Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition)


1964 was a stellar year for Sidney Nolan. From his home and studio-base in London, Nolan travelled to France, Scotland, Holland, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Antarctica. In that same year, Nolan produced over 140 new works inspired by such extensive travel, new experiences and thorough research. Foremost amongst these were around 45 Ned Kelly paintings, a whole new series of Antarctic paintings and a cluster of 18 major new works inspired by the 19th century explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. 

Nolan had worked on the Burke and Wills story 16 years before. The first exhibited Burke and Wills painting is dated 19481 and for this he read voraciously as well as undertook several trips to Central Australia. Rarely one to let fertile subjects or themes go, Nolan constantly reinvented and reworked his ideas and in the process brought new insights, permutations and ideas to light. Like the equally memorable images that depict Ned Kelly, he was to continue with the Burke and Wills theme throughout most of his life. 

In 1964, Nolan investigated Antarctic explorers, the Ned Kelly story and the legend of Burke and Wills from early April right through to the end of December. Strong visual correlations were established between each subject, including characteristic motifs that he included in each body of works. This cross-fertilisation can, in part, be gauged by the fact that he sometimes painted works from each series on the same day. Nolan greatly admired the character and resilience of explorers (and bushrangers), the way they drew on their strengths and their ambitious aims. He wrote to the poet and writer Geoffrey Dutton: ‘I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia, and realizing how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb will-power.’2

Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition), 1964, is one of the paintings by Nolan inspired by the journey of Burke and Wills. It is also one of two works that he completed on Thursday 1 October. In his private diary, Nolan catalogued works that he had completed and recorded his inner-most thoughts. He recorded on that day: ‘I paint one 4 x 4 Burke and Wills painting ... on unprimed hardboard. Moonlight, desert, camels in swamp.’ Continuing on, he describes a second and related work: ‘5 x 4 feet primed. Red earth + swamp + 2 men riding camels.’3

Burke and Wills set out from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in a party of 19 men in 1860-61. The aim was to cross Australia from south to north by traversing much of inland Australia. Due to poor preparation and management the expedition was doomed from the start. In the famous ‘dash’ for the Gulf of Carpentaria ordered by Burke; he, Wills, John King and Charles Gray broke away from the main party with six camels, one horse and enough food for just three months. Finding that they could not reach the ocean because of the camels becoming immersed knee-deep in the mangrove swamps, Burke and Wills left the camels behind and proceeded by foot. In a cruel twist they had to turn back around five kilometres short of the coast. The incessant mid-summer heat, the onset of the wet and a lack of supplies meant that the return journey to Cooper Creek was even more arduous and harsh. The camels either perished or were shot and eaten for food. Burke and Wills ultimately passed away near the Cooper Creek base camp on the return leg.

The notion of man and beast unmercifully pitted against hostile extremes of nature is a common preoccupation of Nolan’s and one he pursued vigilantly throughout 1964 and beyond. When Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) was exhibited for the first time at the prestigious Malborough‑Gerson Gallery, New York, in January 1965, contemporary commentators were quick to make the connection. The two eminent exhibition catalogue writers, authors Robert Melville and Alan Moorehead, pointed to the absurdity of the quest and the inhospitably of the land.4

Aside from the obvious difference in size, Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) and its companion painting from 1 October5 reveal that Nolan was pursuing a like-minded idea. In both works the fairer Wills is pictured in front, while the more dominant Burke and his camel loom larger than life to the rear. It is as if the unrelenting Burke is goading his loyal, though reputedly less adventurous, companion on. They both appear unclothed in one of the works, reinforcing the idea of man nearing the end of his time: the act of stripping is characteristically the last act of a person dying from thirst and hunger in the desert. Certainly nakedness signals vulnerability and impending doom.

In addition to the hardships they endured, Nolan was also intent on describing the wonder and awe explorers such as Burke and Wills felt for the country that they traversed. Nolan considered himself a modern day explorer and tried to translate his experiences into art. In Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) Nolan endeavoured to place the viewer in the guise of innocent strangers who are given totally new and fresh perspectives on the land. Alan Moorehead captured the same idea when he wrote in the Marlborough Gallery catalogue: ‘... these men had seen things no white men had observed before, the teeming birds around the waterholes, the antediluvian animals that managed to survive in the desiccated scrub ... the fantastic dawn colours of the desert and ... white salt pans [that] ran through scarlet sandhills with the cloudless sky overhead – a landscape of red, white and blue’.6

An order for new oil paints placed with his supplier just before Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) was produced included a request for more Burnt Umber, Cobalt and Fern Blue, Mars Violet, Paynes Grey, Sepia and Titanium, Flake and Zinc White, as well as 12 tubes of transparent gel.7 Nolan’s use of these colours, along with scarlet and yellow, successfully recreate the eerie feeling of travelling alone at night. The rich glow of the sky and redness of the dirt are omnipresent and the sepia tones reference contemporary photographs that had been taken of Burke and Wills as they left Melbourne at the beginning of their onerous trip. There is the overriding impression of an ancient, vast and timeless land. Patches of unprimed composition board are left, as if Nolan felt that the shiny, brown surface of the Masonite sheet was the bare earth. 

Leaving no doubt that these are Australian outback scenes, Nolan noted in his 1964 diary that if the Burke and Wills painting was stood sideways, it became the tree trunk of ‘a white pitted gum’8 Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) easily carries New York critic Laurence Campbell’s high praise made in January 1965 that Nolan had the ability to create images with both ‘surprising naturalistic effects’ and ‘mysterious romantic power’.9


1. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan Landscapes and Legends: a retrospective exhibition 1937-1987, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p.95

2. Nolan, correspondence with Geoffrey Dutton, quoted in Clark, Sidney Nolan, p.95

3. Diary entry, Sidney Nolan Papers, The Rodd, Presteigne, Powys, UK. I am grateful to Lady Nolan for allowing me access to the diary and to quote valuable excerpts.

4. Melville, R., ‘The poetry of painting’, p.5 and Moorehead, A., ‘Introduction’, Sidney Nolan, Marlborough‑Gerson Gallery, New York, January 1965, pp. 6-8

5. Burke and Wills, 1964,oil on composition board, 122 x 150 cm, Deutscher~Menzies, ‘Australian & International Paintings’, Sydney, 5 March 2002, lot no. 39. This work was sent by Nolan to his Adelaide dealer, Kim Bonython, from where it was sold on. 

6. Moorehead, Sidney Nolan, pp. 6-7

7. Rowney Order Form, 11 September 1964. Sidney Nolan Papers, The Rodd, Presteigne, Powys, UK

8. Diary entry, Sidney Nolan Papers, 1 October 1964

9. Campbell, L., Art News, New York, February 1965, p.18

Rodney James
BA (Hons.), MA

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