Menzies Art Brands

SIDNEY NOLAN, Untitled (Mrs Reardon & Child)


By the time Sidney Nolan died in London in 1992 the art world of Australia and abroad had long been splintered over the extent of his genius. Time is already helping to clarify his achievement, but back then it seemed impossible to compress it into a defining idea the way we can now with, say, Titian, or Rembrandt, or Seurat, through less than a handful of singular telling masterpieces. Which should we nominate for Nolan? It is a seriously confounding question. 

Nolan’s en série speed and dazzlingly prolific output – defined by Albert Tucker as the result of an eidetic blink method, and by Kenneth Clark as like the sequential nature of ballet, helped through the mercurial properties of Ripolin enamel – seem in concert to defy all notions of a classic, slowly built mastery.1 Indeed there has never been anything very concrete about Nolan’s evolution. One of his last spray-painted canvases, White Swans Flying over the Karakorams (China) of 1986 for example, looks for all the world like a striped beach tent turning to ash, or an arrested nitrate film melting on the screen in an old cinema, as if to declare a long, high-risk game of hallucination was nearing its end.2 Our protean antipodean himself was soon to disappear, leaving us, as always, to continue pondering symbolic possibilities of his vision without any help from him.

Yet to the end painting remained for Nolan always a quest to define something, fueled by an extraordinary curiosity for evidence of a universe more vibrant than the one he occupied in working-class Melbourne in the decade before the Second World War. He wanted to make the intangibility of this universe more tangible; to push imagery to the edge of surprise; and in doing so court failure along with triumph. 

Now, amongst a vast oeuvre spanning more than half a century, persuaded to nominate, if not one particular masterpiece perhaps, at least a crucial year above all others, which might we choose to represent Nolan’s indelible importance to the story of Australian art? It would be hard to go past 1946.

In that year Nolan was combusting with a mixture of electrifying promise and turmoil. The genesis of this was perhaps in 1937 when he attempted unsuccessfully to stow away to Paris, hoping to immerse himself not just in the city of artists but the source of an obsession with the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.3 The following year he married Elizabeth Patterson, who bore him his first and only biological child in 1941; a union that was doomed. He became involved with the Contemporary Art Society, and the visiting Russian Ballet invited him to design décor and costumes for its production Icare, performed in Sydney in 1940.4

Australia was at war and soon, any semblance of settled domesticity evaporated. Separated from his wife in April 1942, he was conscripted.  At the same time he was deeply ensconced with John and Sunday Reed, contemporary art patrons at Heide whose possessiveness of his genius had contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Sunday’s vivacity – not to mention her shared passion for Rimbaud whom she could read perfectly in French – was irresistible. Nolan, with his exciting, wildly subversive vision, had become her lover. That relationship too was doomed.

Until he deserted the army in mid 1944, Nolan was stationed mainly in the Wimmera, dryland farming country in Western Victoria. Sending him painting materials – including Ripolin – Sunday encouraged him to look at the Heidelberg landscape tradition and bring to it a whole new vernacular. 

The spectacular effect of what he achieved in 1946 with paintings of the first Ned Kelly series tended to overshadow the astounding originality of those earlier Wimmera works, but a cocktail of turbulence, growing tensions at Heide, and Nolan’s status as army fugitive, imbued his Kelly paintings with a personal undercurrent he refused to articulate. Yet they remain the artist’s most powerful legacy, cleverly pitching an Australian story of pursuit, violence and bloodshed against a landscape in the guise of a lyrical comic opera, utilising a flat black image of an outlaw from the genre of cinematic caricature.

It would be a mistake in all this to focus on the collateral damage of a certain ruthless energy in Nolan’s aspirations. For during 1945, when he was toying with Kelly images following the Ern Malley hoax, and until the end of 1946 when he had completed the first astonishing half of the full-blown series, he made several paintings on other themes which hint at aspects of emotional sensitivity that lay hidden beneath the Kelly veneer. Nolan had a deep concern for the human condition reflected in his various relationships. We may see this born out in several works such as Giggle palace 1945, Rosa Mutabilis 1945 and Hare in Trap 1946, where he, and individuals close to him, seem incarcerated against an illusion of freedom.5

That group is now joined by an important painting of late January 1946, Untitled (Mrs Reardon and Child), recently come to light, unpublished and never exhibited, and which Nolan apparently kept in his possession until his death in 1992. A strangely beautiful picture reminding us how much the theme of mother and child meant to him in the period 1937-46, it is without doubt a prototype for Mrs Reardon, who ran from the besieged Glenrowan Hotel, holding her baby wrapped in a shawl with police bullets flying all around. She appears in no less than three of the Kelly series, most prominently Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan.6

But it also resonates with three key mother-infant figures who were of crucial significance to Nolan in the early, tumultous part of his journey as a painter, conflating between them guilt, compassion – maybe even religious significance – and the ultimate need for a family that sympathised with his ambition for a gypsy-like wanderlust. Clearly that was something he could never hope to have at Heide.

The first was his wife Elizabeth and daughter Amelda, from whom Nolan separated after a last attempt to patch up the marriage in 1942. One writer has ventured they may be related allegorically to Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan (figure 1) suggesting they were, as Nolan saw it, lucky to escape the complexity of his life.7 Difficult to substantiate of course. In fact, Nolan and Amelda were to have a close relationship and he remained concerned about Elizabeth until his death. 

If the setting of Untitled (Mrs Reardon and Child) is Templestowe however, rather than Wimmera or Kelly country, we might extrapolate that the butterfly-like flowers represent a scattered variant of Sunday’s precious Rosa Mutabilis (figure 2) bush, from which the mother is using a cane as a walking stick. Thus the baffling scaffolding at bottom left is not the relic of a conflagrated Glenrowan Hotel but a symbolically dismantled farmhouse, with the white head peering from inside that of a dog held by John Sinclair in a photograph of the kitchen at Heide with Nolan and the Reeds et al during Christmas 1945.8 And so we could have here, in reflection, a guilt picture.

Alternatively, might the subject of Untitled (Mrs Reardon and Child) also have been inspired by Cynthia Reed and her child Jinx, born a few months after Amelda, Cynthia and Jinx were living at Heide for a short period before moving up to Sydney and Nolan would have been familiar with their presence. 

However the most plausible source for Untitled (Mrs Reardon and Child) is related to Joy Hester and the child she gave birth to in February 1945, a son named Sweeney who was eventually abandoned to the Reeds for adoption in 1947. Nolan regarded both Hester and Sweeney with great fondness, and shared with Hester – who was married to Albert Tucker – an enduring mutual respect since they had met in Melbourne in 1939. In particular Nolan admired Hester’s informal style based on an influence from German Expressionism, opening up the possibility that the mother figure in Untitled (Mrs Reardon and Child) actually reflects drawings Hester was making from about 1942 of females with disheveled hair and troubled postures and faces, such as European (figure 3) c1945.9 

But what exactly haunted Nolan about this particular painting to hold on to it for so long we may never really know. It was, in the end, simply another emanation of his state of mind.


1. Reeder. W., The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, Heide Museum
of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1997, p.11

2. Pearce, B., et al Sidney Nolan Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007 p.226

3. ibid. refer to biographical notes p.240 

4. ibid

5. ibid pp.109, 112, 113

6. The other two Kelly paintings with the image of Mrs Reardon are Siege at Glenrowan 1946 and Glenrowan 1946. All of the first Kelly series are in the
collection of the National Gallery of Australia

7. Reeder. W., op. cit. p.75

8. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan: landscapes & legends, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987 p.18

9. Gellatly, K., The Art of Joy Hester: Leave No Space for Yearning, Heide Museum
of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2001, p.21

Barry Pearce
Emeritus Curator of Australian Art
Art Gallery of New South Wales

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