Three men in a boat...

Three men in a boat...
The Papers of Sidney Nolan
18 July 2017

Below, Library volunteer Lynne Sumsion uncovers just one of the many stories held in the Papers of Sidney Nolan (MS 10245). 

On 1 January 1967, noted Australian painter Sidney Nolan took one of his regular walks from his home in Putney along the Thames, drawn to the river’s changing scenes, birdlife, mood and light. He recorded in his diary:

In morning see burnt out boat on opposite bank of Thames on river bend.

Nolan often briefly recorded images he had seen as well as ideas for possible works in his diaries and notebooks: it formed an important aspect of his artistic practice. He often revisited what he had written, with entries over time reflecting an ongoing mental gestation. Photographs were also an important reminder of visual experience, triggering different perspectives and providing a resource for art making. Many of his diaries, books and photographs are held by the National Library of Australia (NLA).

Black and white photograph of burned boat on bank of the Thames River

Sidney Nolan, Burned boat on bed of the Thames, 1967, nla.cat-vn6263893, © Sidney Nolan Trust.

Images that resonated with him often evoked tangential memories and associations, in turn spawning ideas for use in artworks. His immediate response to the boat (as recorded in his notebook on the day) was:

Ern Malley line:

                Sting them my Anopheles

                                ie Angry Penguins

                Et cetera…in heaven

This entry relates to a set of poems of significance for the artist. Early in his career, he had been closely associated with the Angry Penguins magazine, together with Sunday and John Reed with whom he had been living at their Heide property on the then outskirts of Melbourne. In 1944, the magazine published poems submitted as the work of an unknown dead poet named Ern Malley. They were later exposed as a literary hoax, concocted by two living poets as a parody of modernist verse. The consequences were harmful for the magazine and those involved.

Nolan, nonetheless, remained drawn to the poems and the potential for their illustration and from the mid-1960s was dwelling on particular lines of the verse and possible associated images. The burnt boat sparked thoughts of the Malley poem Culture as Exhibit, the final line of which is “Sting them sting them my Anopheles.”

He mused in his notebook that the burnt boat could be the ark, or from Troy (1 January 1967) and later a coffin (9 January 1967) and pondered who might be placed on board in a future painting. The first figures to come to mind were his earliest and most iconic: Ned Kelly, Moonboy, Mrs (Eliza) Fraser and “the Convict” (1 and 9 January 1967). Nolan first painted these figures in the 1940s and saw associations with the Angry Penguins period and characters.

Moonboy first featured in a painting entitled Boy and Moon shown by Nolan in a 1940 Contemporary Art Society exhibition. He also painted it on the roof of Heide until its removal was ordered by military authorities. According to Nolan, it was inspired by seeing a friend’s head against the moon and a desire to see whether shape could evoke a presence and emotional content. He used it as a visual device throughout his career, including in theatre sets for the ballet Rite of Spring (1962) and the opera Samson and Delilah (1981), in illustrations for Robert Lowell’s poetry Near the Ocean, and in his Paradise Gardens and Ern Malley works. The disc-like shape carries a metaphysical and totemic presence, at times benign and at others somewhat menacing.

The bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly, his helmet and story surrounding him are the images most commonly associated with Nolan. He painted his first Kelly series in 1946–47 while at Heide with the Reeds. He reprised the theme many times throughout his career: in a further series (1955), panels and individual pieces, re-exploring and re-imagining the story of Kelly, his gang and other players in the saga, through different modes, settings and techniques. The frequency of references to Kelly in Nolan’s diaries and notebooks—for example, in his many lists of ideas for works—show the outlaw and his portrayal were never far from his mind. Kelly came to represent a tragi-comic mythic hero, an outcast and a fugitive.

In 1947, Nolan visited Fraser Island. He soaked up the environment the myths surrounding the 1836 shipwreck of the Stirling Castle and the captivity of some of the survivors by Indigenous people. One of those captured was Eliza Fraser, the captain’s wife, whose return to civilisation was aided by a convict. Painting Mrs Fraser as part of a series in 1947–48, he depicted her on all fours, vulnerable, animal-like and faceless. Bracewell, the convict rescuer in Nolan’s telling of the story, is shown as an outcast become hero, but later as ultimately betrayed by Mrs Fraser. Again, he returned to the Mrs Fraser and Bracewell motif many times (e.g. Mrs Fraser, 1959 and Convict, 1962), and to the underlying themes of being outcast, lost, vulnerable and betrayed.

To complement this core group, Nolan contemplated including other figures in the boat scene. He made a number of notes in the days after seeing the boat about adding a dog, including the reference:

Alsation/ Carol (9 January)

Other entries around the same time show he was thinking of using an Alsatian dog in works he was considering on Auschwitz, as well as for an Ern Malley depiction. The reference to Carol for the latter appears puzzling at first, but this exemplifies Nolan’s propensity for cross reference and allusion, Karel being the name of John Reed’s Alsatian during the time Nolan lived at Heide.

He also thought to:

                Add Emperor Penguin to the coffin boat (9 January)

These penguins made a strong impression on Nolan during his 1964 trip to Antarctica, and again served as a reference to the Angry Penguins.

On 14 January, he made a rough drawing of the image in one of his sketchbooks (NLA MS10245). It has a more developed appearance than many of the skeletal pen drawings in the diaries and notebooks. 

Sketch of Ned Kelly, penguin and Moon Boy in a burned out boat with Mrs Fraser on the shore

Sidney Nolan, Burnt out boat on bed of Thames, nla.cat-vn6263893, 1964?, © Sidney Nolan Trust.

Extracted from their usual settings and narratives, Nolan’s iconic figures are thrown together in this image. Set off by the boat, the figures are freighted with meaning as well as autobiographical sensibilities, both in themselves and in their juxtaposition. Reflections on his time at Heide had become increasingly bitter and resentful, with the relevant diary and notebook entries taking on an obsessive quality. Nolan identifies with the Kelly and Bracewell figures as outsiders, on the run and betrayed. Sunday Reed is referenced by Mrs Fraser, the vulnerable but betraying female. Appearing as a looming presence, Moonboy is possibly intended here as the voyeur, which Nolan associated with John Reed.

The characters are bound together in a journey that has a darker tinge than is immediately apparent. The mood of the sketch connotes something of a stygian voyage of lost souls. Nolan saw the Heide experience as destructive, wasted years that damaged souls including his own. He had long been fascinated by Dante’s Inferno, including its depiction of the underworld ferry; his imaginings of possible modern representations feature frequently in the diaries and notebooks, and in 1966–67 he produced a number of Inferno-related works.

Later in 1967, Nolan produced a painting using Ripolin on board depicting the Thames boat scene, entitled Kelly and Figures.

Painting of Ned Kelly, penguin and Moonboy in a boat with Mrs Fraser on shore

Sidney Nolan, Kelly and Figures, 1967, © Sidney Nolan Trust and Bridgeman Images.

The boat setting is similar, but more developed. Mrs Fraser is more clearly portrayed in the same relationship to the boat. Kelly and Moonboy are on board, together with a more delineated and prominent Bracewell. This time they are joined by a large Emperor Penguin towards the prow: the new character reminiscent of Dante’s ferryman.           

As was typical, the boat lodged in Nolan’s memory. In 1969, for example, he was still thinking of the Ern Malley ‘Sting them my Anopheles’ line through an image of:

 Angry Penguins group in boat ……….burning burial Viking boat on Thames (14 April 1969).

Nolan’s focus on the Malley poems had intensified with notations increasingly appearing in the diaries and notebooks as he pondered on different images to highlight the verse, as well as Malley “himself”. A series of works on Ern Malley ensued, including for the 1974 Adelaide Festival Exhibition. Nolan also produced a book of poems and illustrations, The Darkening Ecliptic, which brings together Kelly, Mrs Fraser and Moonboy in pictographic form. The boat has another outing in more abstract form illustrating ‘Culture as an Exhibit’ as first envisaged by Nolan on his walk along the Thames. This time it is a burial boat, bodies on board, with Mrs Fraser sprawling above it. The image below comes from page 48 of The Darkening Ecliptic (published by R Alistair McAlpine, 1974).

Coloured abstract sketch of burial boat

Sidney Nolan, sketch in The Darkening Ecliptic, 1974, nla.cat-vn1814901, © Sidney Nolan Trust.

As noted above, many of Nolan’s diaries, notebooks and photographs are accessible as part of an important collection of the artist’s material held by the National Library of Australia. The collection also comprises poetry notebooks; personal correspondence with family and friends; business correspondence with galleries, museums, universities and publishing houses; financial records including the sale of paintings and purchase of art supplies; printed documentation and research materials relating to a number of the artist’s major works; press clippings, postcards and art catalogues. Together they provide a rich vein for further exploration and understanding of both Nolan the man and artist, particularly relevant in this the centenary of his birth.