Radical, driven and wildly successful, Sir Sidney Nolan did more than anyone else to shake up the conservative art world of post-war Australia. His powerful images of the Australian Outback, especially those depicting the bushranger Ned Kelly, brought him worldwide fame – and a place in the British establishment.
Born in 1917, Nolan was largely self-educated and always saw himself as an outsider, an intellectual fugitive. ‘I wanted to know the true nature of the “otherness” I had been born into,’ he once said. ‘It was not a European thing.’
Despite a modest upbringing – his father was a Melbourne tram driver – Nolan always dreamed of escaping the sterile, conservative mindset of 1950s Australia. As a student he travelled to tropical Queensland and Central Australia at a time when travel within Australia was costly, time-consuming and uncomfortable.
He was not an easy travelling companion. A filmmaker who accompanied him to Innamincka, a desert settlement in South Australia, in the 1980s recalls Nolan’s punishing schedule and eccentric fashion sense. Despite the heat and flies, the artist insisted on wearing his English suits from Savile Row. When a sheep farmer offered to lend him a pair of shorts, the artist refused. ‘A well-tailored suit deserves harsh treatment,’ he said.
By then, of course, Nolan was at the height of his fame and after almost 40 years living in Britain had acquired many of the habits and tastes of an English gentleman. Despite his experimental art practice, the Australian-born painter always dressed like a country solicitor.
Nolan was an astute operator who collected famous people with the same enthusiasm as he collected new stamps in his passport. Early patrons included the composer Benjamin Britten and art historian Lord Kenneth Clark, while the British Royal Family acquired several of his early Outback paintings. He was knighted in 1981, and two years later he bought an apartment in Whitehall and a magnificent 17th century manor house, The Rodd, in rural Herefordshire. His transition from wild colonial boy to landed English gentlemen seemed complete.
Despite his artistic celebrity and work commitments, Nolan kept up a relentless schedule of travel. As a young man he travelled to Greece, Italy, Morocco, the US and Antarctica. Later journeys took him to China, Tahiti, Brazil, Norway and Zaire (known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo). But Nolan did not travel for pleasure and relaxation. ‘Travel became Nolan’s weapon against creative and personal depression,’ wrote one biographer. Yet he never ceased drawing inspiration from his homeland. During the 1980s, Nolan journeyed by off-road vehicle and light aircraft to the remotest parts of the continent.
As a teenager Nolan had toyed with the idea of becoming a writer, and throughout his life he sought out the haunts of his literary icons. I would have particularly enjoyed accompanying him to the DH Lawrence Ranch in Taos, New Mexico, in 1978. Nolan had a special interest in the English writer and his 1923 novel Kangaroo, set in Sydney after the First World War.
By the time he died on 29 November 1992, Nolan was a towering figure in both the British and Australian art worlds. His funeral was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London; he is buried at Highgate Cemetery, the resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot and Michael Faraday. The Rodd is today a thriving creative hub and houses Nolan’s last major Outback series. He never painted the rolling green English countryside outside his front door.