Sidney Nolan

Sidney Nolan
Behind an Artistic Empire
26 March 2018

The National Library of Australia has been trusted with the care of Sidney Nolan’s papers, which will soon be made accessible to researchers thanks to the generous support of donors to the 2017 Tax Time Appeal. The success of this appeal is enabling Library staff to perform much needed preservation and descriptive work to safeguard the Nolan collection for future generations and facilitate research. Excitingly, this will include the creation of a detailed finding aid spanning the entire collection, with item-level descriptions of Nolan’s correspondence and photographic work. As the project reaches the halfway point, project officer Fiona Milway pauses to reflect on the papers and the work that has been achieved so far.

How does an artist establish an empire?

The papers of Sidney Nolan offer a remarkable insight into the life and business of being an artist in the twentieth century. While listing Nolan’s personal papers, I was surprised to discover an army of men and women whose creativity and support behind the scenes helped launch this Australian-made icon—individuals such as the artist and Curator of Sydney’s Power Institute, Elwyn “Jack” Lynn, who tirelessly promoted Nolan throughout his career. Over the course of their three-decade-long correspondence, Lynn emerges as a significant figure in Nolan’s creative and commercial life.

Sidney Nolan archive including letters and storage boxes

Nolan, Sidney.  Papers of Sidney Nolan, 1915-2002,

In her recent biography of Sidney Nolan, Nancy Underhill suggests that much of the artist’s success can be attributed to the air of mystery which surrounded him. Nolan’s papers suggest that Lynn played a crucial role in creating and maintaining this public aura. In his letters Lynn can be seen acting as a kind of gatekeeper who carefully controls access to Nolan, his work, and the details of his private life—gallery owners, publishers and patrons would first seek Lynn’s blessing before approaching Nolan with their proposals. Lynn appears to have aggressively protected Nolan’s public image, regularly describing his lengthy disputes with publishers and critics over perceived slights or mischaracterisations of the artist’s life and works. His own biography of Nolan, Myth and Imagery, is often regarded as the definitive work on the artist. By carefully controlling access to Nolan and curating the information about him that was available, Lynn helped to forge Nolan’s reputation as an elusive creative genius. Nolan’s papers provide us with a rare glimpse into the mechanisms at play behind the scenes, and suggest how he and Lynn were able to carefully shape his public image into that of a legend.

The Project

Since joining the project in November, I have concentrated on listing and rehousing Nolan’s personal and business correspondence. Much of this work is fairly routine—my bread and butter involves listing collection items, removing rusty staples, and isolating or rehousing materials that would otherwise cause significant chemical and/or mechanical damage to the archive materials. Still the collection never fails to surprise: in the course of this work, senior project officer Lisa Joseph and I have stumbled across everything from original artworks and hidden love letters to locks of Nolan’s second wife Cynthia’s hair—each of which presents its own unique preservation challenge!

Hand holding paperclips over container with paperclips and bulldog clip with letters in background

Staff removing paperclips from the Papers of Sidney Nolan,

In addition to performing these crucial preservation tasks, Lisa and I have begun the process of listing and describing the collection’s contents down to the item level. Thanks to the support received from donors, the National Library will be able to provide library users with an extensive and highly detailed finding aid to help them navigate the collection. Once complete, the finding aid will be keyword searchable through Trove, meaning users searching for material relating to Patrick White or, Richard Divall of the Victorian State Opera for example, will also be pointed towards relevant White or Divall items in the Nolan collection. By laying the contents bare to researchers, these exciting enhancements to collection description will facilitate new research and make the Papers of Sidney Nolan accessible to a wider audience.

Over the coming months, we will continue to perform necessary preservation, rehousing and detailed listing work on this extraordinary and varied collection of letters, photographs, notebooks and diaries so that the Papers of Sidney Nolan will be fully available to researchers in July this year.

Keep up the good work. Real books are a treasure!
Thanks for sharing this project, great to learn about what you do and see behind-the-scenes.