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Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) Nolan (1917–1992)

from Canberra Times

Sir Sidney Nolan, who died in London on Saturday, first found work as an artist painting posters for a hat manufacturer.

Born on April 22, 1917, in Melbourne's inner-suburban Carlton the son of a failed gold prosector-cum-tram driver, Sir Sidney never disowned his working-class origins.

During a visit to Australia this year, Nolan said his humble background was a privilege.

"If I have another 10 years I want to look at all the things I have lived through, because a working-class background is a kind of privilege," he said.

He left school at 14, took work as a commercial artist at a hat factory, then became a cleaner and later a factory hand.

International acclaim came when historian and art critic Kenneth Clark — later Lord Clark — saw his work in Sydney in 1947.

Lord Clark said he was "the first artist to give us the real flavour of that strange continent. He has extracted its essences: the red desert, the dead animals, the stranded, ridiculous towns".

He persuaded Nolan to stage an exhibition in London, the break-through that brought him international fame.

Nolan moved to Britain in 1952 and made it his home but returned to Australia regularly to paint and sketch.

He was best known for his series of works depicting the 19th-century bushranger Ned Kelly.

He was also remembered for a prolonged and public slanging match with Nobel Prize-winning writer Patrick White.

Nolan spent the early part of his childhood in the old gold-mining town of Rushworth in central Victoria before the Depression forced his family to abandon the country life to look for work in Melbourne.

He married Elizabeth Paterson in 1939, a union which was dissolved in 1942. They had one daughter.

During World War II he deserted his post at an army training camp at Dimboola in northern Victoria and made it back to Melbourne, where he sought refuge at the now famous artists' colony Heide, owned by John and Sunday Reed.

After the war, he married Cynthia Hansen, who committed suicide in 1976, and in 1977 he married Mary Perceval, sister of Arthur Boyd.

Nolan's long-time friendship with Patrick White soured in 1981 after White's autobiography Flaws in the Glass was issued.

White criticised Nolan for remarrying too quickly after Cynthia's death in 1976.

In a television interview broadcast in October, Nolan said he and White had shared very deep feelings for each other, but White was a jealous and destructive man.

"Patrick White was a bitch and a bastard, really, and a great writer. He was a very destructive man."

Nolan said their disagreement stemmed from jealousy, because White envied the fact he was "fit, hetero and produced the goods".

White's attack provoked a two-panelled painting dubbed Nightmare, in which White is portrayed as a miserable mask and the head of his Greek-born lover Manoly Lascaris sits atop a distended pig which spans the entire work.

Sir Sidney was educated at St Kilda State School, Brighton Tech, Prahran Tech and the National Gallery Art School.

He was knighted in 1981 and made a member of the prestigious Order of Merit in 1983.

He designed sets for a number of ballets, beginning with a Sydney staging of Icare in 1940.

He won the Dunlop Australia Art Contest in 1950; a Harkness Fellowship in the United States between 1958 and 1960; a fellowship at the ANU in 1965; the Britannia Australia Award in 1969 and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1985.

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Citation details

'Nolan, Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) (1917–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Murray, Robin

22 April, 1917
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


28 November, 1992 (aged 75)
London, Middlesex, England

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