Nolan's Place in British Art
Dr Simon Pierse

A number of exhibitions have taken place in Britain in 2017 to mark the centenary year of Sidney Nolan’s birth. With reviews and articles in the British press, these shows have re-aroused a wider critical interest in Nolan, specifically the central position that he once held within British art during the 1950s and 1960s. It is too soon to judge whether this is the beginning of a more permanent change in the artist’s critical fortunes in Britain, but it will surely help to temper the legacy of a number of poorly reviewed exhibitions in the 1970s – especially the disastrous Notes for Oedipus show at Marlborough Fine Art (1975) – from which Nolan’s reputation in Britain never fully recovered. [1] It would be too easy to pass off Nolan’s fall from grace as part of a growing disaffection in Britain with Australian painting and Commonwealth art in general that took hold from the late sixties. Looking back on that period, Australian art historian and critic Bernard Smith wrote scathingly of the way that the British had taken up Australian art in the mid-1950s, seizing upon it as ‘exotica … like Omai the Tahitian’, only to discard it a short time later. [2] But in the case of Nolan, who lived more or less permanently in England from 1953, the reasons for the change in his critical reception are far more complex. When interviewed in 1992, a few months before his death, Nolan still seemed puzzled by it himself: ‘some people gained the impression that I was a sort of travel painter (he explained), … I left the English critics to it’.  [3]

Of the several Nolan centenary exhibitions taking place this year, Sidney Nolan and Graham Sutherland: A Sense of Place, is a show that explores parallels between the work of these two artists within the context of Wales, where Nolan lived on the border near Presteigne from 1983 until his death. [4] Another exhibition, Transferences, Sidney Nolan in Britain, held at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, brought together a number of important paintings from most periods of Nolan’s career, including loans from number of public collections. [5] The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool loaned Death of a Poet (1954), a painting that Simon Martin, Director at Pallant House, was very keen to include because, he explained, ‘it reveals how much Nolan’s work was bridging both Australian and British art in the post-war period.’[6] Martin describes how, in Death of a Poet, Ned Kelly is represented ‘literally disembodied’ – ‘presented like an archaeological fragment from an ancient civilisation found amongst the foliage, … in a way that also carries other resonant associations.’ Martin suggests that Death of a Poet might have been influenced by British Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s and 50s such as Sutherland and Craxton. He also notes a similarity with the famous life mask of the British poet William Blake, continuing: ‘The association with Blake’s life mask also brings us to Francis Bacon’s series of Studies for a Portrait after a life mask of Blake, which he began two months after [Nolan’s] painting. It raises the question of whether Bacon had seen this painting.’ [7]

Although we know that Bacon was complementary about Nolan’s use of colour, [8] it seems doubtful whether he was actively influenced by Nolan in his own work.  Nolan, on the other hand, took great note of Bacon, even before they were both signed up by Marlborough Fine Art. [9] So comparing the two painters and their working methods is perhaps not as daft as it might first appear. Both were largely self-taught and lauded by esteemed British critics John Russell and Bryan Robertson because of what they offered to British art – a new kind figurative language that seemed entirely appropriate to the post-atomic age. 

Bacon’s work has endured because it still somehow captures the sense of angst, foreboding and pessimism that prevailed in Europe during the post-war/cold-war period. After the horrors of Auschwitz, Belsen, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it must have seemed implausible to believe that art could ever be the same again. Guardian critic Eric Newton, in a review for a major Bacon retrospective exhibition held at the Tate Gallery in 1962, described the ‘essence’ of Bacon as ‘an uninhibited fearlessness, an unquestioning acceptance of the imagery offered to him by the deeper recesses of his unconscious mind.’ [10] An important link between Bacon and Nolan is the way that both artists (albeit in very different ways) drew upon the unconscious in their work. Whereas Bacon used accident and chance as an integral part of his creative process, Nolan relied on sheer speed of execution. Working at speed was Nolan’s way of putting down that instinctual first vision, in the full strength of its impact, before it could be alloyed with too much rational thought. Today we might call it using the right side (nonverbal and intuitive) of the brain, but in 1978, Nolan merely spoke of being ‘compelled and dedicated to transmitting emotions’ through his art practice and caring for very little else: 

I care for that process so much that I’m prepared to belt the paint across the canvas much faster than it should be belted: I don’t care so long as I can get the emotional communication I will sacrifice everything to it – and that I’ve done. [11]  

 Nolan conceded that such immediacy had its drawbacks: ‘if you don’t get it right like that, then there is no second chance … I don’t overwork [the paintings] much, just discard them and keep them. I’m just as fond of them as the others. [12] The best guide to an appreciation of Nolan’s working methods is his second wife Cynthia, who accompanied the artist on many of his frequent trips abroad and observed him while at work. When using board, Nolan would sweep on polyvinyl acetate (PVA) until the whole surface was thickly covered with paint. Then, with a short-handled squeegee, he would continue, ‘slashing and wiping, cornering and circling like a skater, until another painting was completed.’ [13] When he was ‘having a run’, Nolan would work late into the night, painting Leda and the Swan, over and over again, as he attempted to disgorge the image from his head onto paper or board. [14] 

Ironically, it is this highly idiosyncratic way of working, more than anything else, that now impedes our appreciation of Nolan’s genius, because Nolan’s speed of execution and the fact that he worked ‘in series’, during intense bursts of activity, means that he left us with an enormous body of work estimated at around 30,000 paintings. In a commemorative lecture given at the Hay Festival earlier this year, Germaine Greer contended that only a thousand of these could be any good – simply because no artist, however great, could paint more than a thousand great paintings in a lifetime – it was simply beyond the bounds of human capability. [15] Decades earlier, even Lord Clark had foretold that time and some ‘weeding out’ of Nolan’s ‘colossal output’ would be needed before his true importance was fully appreciated. [16]

Most artists self-edit, destroying work that they consider to be second rate, or getting assistants to do it for them, even when these ‘second rate’ works would certainly fetch high prices if ever they were allowed to reach the market. Bacon was notorious for destroying great numbers of his paintings, a fact remarked upon by Eric Newton in his review of 1962. [17] Nolan, on the other hand (leaving aside the paintings he sold), kept almost everything he did. Perhaps it was because each series of paintings, in its entirety, comprised a visual journal that the artist could later look back on and re-visit, documenting the development and (ultimately) exhaustion, of an idea. Destroying a single painting from the series would be like tearing out a page from a journal. On occasion, Nolan (using his friend Lord McAlpine as intermediary) even bought back paintings that he had sold decades earlier. One such example is Figures and Lilypool (1957), sold to a private collector from Nolan’s retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957. In a letter to gallery director Bryan Robertson, the buyer, who was an amateur psychiatrist with an interest in the unconscious mind, explained that he had chosen it because the image was important: ‘[T]he thing seen by the eye (inner or outer) & reproduced for another eye to see again, must be important’, he wrote. ‘How he does it is the artist’s affair, but he can’t paint nothing – though some artists seem to get very near it.’ [18] Such a comment from someone who was neither critic nor art expert, serves to illustrate one of the key reasons for Nolan’s appeal to British collectors, who were, almost without exception, literate, and in many cases, had enjoyed the benefits of a classical education and university degree. Naturally enough, they were drawn to Nolan’s work, particularly his contemporary treatment of mythical themes such as Leda and the Swan, Icarus & Daedalus and Daedalus and the Minotaur because these paintings readily offered themselves up to interpretation in terms of allegory and metaphor – terms that have an obvious literary derivation. Likewise, critics at the time were readily drawn to Nolan’s work because it could be enjoyed and explored in literary fashion: Ut pictura poesis. Or, putting it more bluntly, as Al Alvarez did in 1965, the English were hopelessly addicted to literature and bored by painterly values. For this reason, they were drawn to Nolan’s work because ‘It seemed possible for them once again to discuss paintings without ever quite discussing paint.’ [19] Nolan’s myths, legends and stories – whether their origin was Europe or the Antipodes – tapped into a collective subconscious, suggesting a common ‘store-house’ of myths – which, as Sigmund Freud first proposed, are a part of the human psyche, and which he called: ‘distorted vestiges of the wish-phantasies of whole nations – the age-long dreams of young humanity.’[20]

In the 21st century, where we live in a world of abundant colour images displayed on a flat digital screen or as cheaply produced glossy prints, it is difficult to fully appreciate the impact that Nolan’s choice of materials and way of painting had on 1950s British art. Nolan favoured the smooth surface of hardboard (which lacks the characteristic ‘tooth’ of canvas) and his use of highly pigmented industrial Ripolin paints (sometimes in conjunction with oil), and later, Helizarin dyes mixed with PVA, were in stark contrast to the methods of all other figurative painters of the period. Whereas followers of the Euston Road School painted thinly in flecks of greyish drizzle, Nolan’s paintings were smooth and richly coloured. The so-called Kitchen Sink painters (Beaux Art Quartet) merely larded their canvases with a dreary, dun-coloured impasto. What was known as ‘facility’ amongst these British art-school trained painters, was something to be deplored utterly, whereas visible signs of struggle on a canvas were at least some justification for the effete profession of an artist. Bursting into this aesthetic austerity came Nolan, whose flickering images seemed to be instantaneously conjured up, as Bryan Robertson put it, ‘with no sign of labour or contrivance’. To Robertson, who was director of the Whitechapel Gallery during this crucial transitional period in British art, Nolan’s paintings were the perfect antidote to all that post-war gloom, and to understand Robertson’s appreciation for Nolan’s work is key to understanding the central position that Nolan came to hold within the British art world.  

For a retrospective exhibition held in 1979 at the Arts Centre, New Metropole, Folkestone, Robertson wrote a catalogue introduction in which he compared Nolan’s painting to the ‘poetic imagery and atmosphere’ of Aaron Copland’s music. Nolan’s work had ‘certain energetic qualities that relate to popular art’, Robertson continued:

some of his paintings bring to mind the properties and style of the very best, most alive and intelligent pictorial journalism, or cinematic images projected onto a wide screen in Technicolor. … His pictures seem to be imaginative projections instantaneously realized … almost like lantern slides flashed onto a white background. [21]

Another Nolan centenary exhibition held at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery focused on a series of late spray paintings dating from the 1980s. Jonathan Watkins, Ikon’s Director, describes these large canvases as ‘like spontaneous breathings of colour … likenesses mainly of people staring wide-eyed out of their pictorial space … like ghosts wanting to make contact.’ [22] Although the scale and medium of these paintings surprised many people, it seems to me that there is in these richly coloured, floating images, seemingly projected onto the canvas, those very same qualities that Bryan Robertson had first identified in Nolan’s paintings sixty years earlier.

  1.  Sidney Nolan: notes for Oedipus, Marlborough Fine Art, London, November 1975.
  2.  Bernard Smith, ‘The Truth about Antipodeans’, The Death of the Artist as Hero, Essays in History and Culture, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 212.
  3.  ‘Sir Sidney Nolan interviewed by Mary Sara’, Contemporary Art, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1992, pp. 14-19.
  4.  Sidney Nolan and Graham Sutherland: A Sense of Place, Oriel y Parc, St David’s, 30 September 2017– 28 January 2018.
  5.  Transferences, Sidney Nolan in Britain, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 18 February – 4 June 2017.
  6.  See Nolan 100:
  8.  See Simon Pierse, Australian Art and Artists in London 1950-1965, an Antipodean Summer, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2012), p. 193.
  9.  Jane Clark, ‘Every conceivable approach of eye and mind …’, Sidney Nolan, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 10 June – 3 September 2017, catalogue, p. 8. 
  10.  Eric Newton, ‘Mortal Conflict’, Guardian, 24 May, 1962.
  11.  See Nancy Underhill (ed.), Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own words, (Camberwell, VIC: Viking/Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 238-9
  12.  See Barry Pearce, Sidney Nolan 1917-1992, Art Gallery of New South Wales, exhibition catalogue, 2007, p. 83. 
  13.  Cynthia Nolan, Open Negative: an American Memoir, (London & Melbourne: Macmillan, 1967), p. 224.
  14.  Cynthia Nolan, Open Negative, p. 224.
  15.  Germaine Greer, ‘The Sidney Nolan Centenary’, Tuesday 30 May 2017, Hay-on-Wye.
  16.  Kenneth Clark, The Other Half, a Self-Portrait, (London and New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977), p. 195.
  17.  Newton wrote that ‘Bacon’s 1962 Tate retrospective ‘contains 90 paintings (nearly half of his surviving works, for he is a ruthless destroyer of his own pictures)’. See Eric Newton, ‘Mortal Conflict’, Guardian, 24 May, 1962.
  18.    Letter from Dr. Abrahams, Wanstead, London to Bryan Robertson, 11th July 1957. Sales: WAG/EXH/2/51/3.
  19.  Al. Alvarez, ‘The Paintings of Charles Blackman: The Substance of Dreams’, Studio International, September 1965.
  20.  Sigmund Freud, ‘The relation of the Poet to Day-dreaming’ (1908), On Creativity and the Unconscious, (New York: Harper Collins, 1958), p. 53.
  21.  Bryan Robertson, preface to Sidney Nolan: 1937-1979, Arts Centre, New Metropole, The Leas, Folkestone, 5 May – 3 June 1979 (no pagination). Parts of this introduction are drawn from Robertson’s Preface to the 1957 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition catalogue.
  22.  Jonathan Watkins, Foreword to Sidney Nolan, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 10 June – 3 September 2017, catalogue, p. 3.



Dr. Simon Pierse is Senior Lecturer Emeritus School of Art at Aberystwyth University.

Images courtesy the Sidney Nolan Trust 

Sidney Nolan  Death of a poet  1954 Ripolin on Masonite board 91.5 x 122 cm Walker Art Gallery © the sidney nolan trust 

Sidney Nolan
Death of a poet 1954
Ripolin on Masonite board
91.5 x 122 cm
Walker Art Gallery
© the sidney nolan trust 

Sidney Nolan   Francis Bacon  Spray paint on canvas © the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan
Francis Bacon
Spray paint on canvas
© the sidney nolan trust