Australian Antarctic Territory 2023, Part 1 (March 2023)

Sir Sidney Robert Nolan was one of Australia’s leading artists of the 20th century. Working in a wide variety of mediums, his oeuvre is among the most diverse and prolific in all of modern art. He is best known for his series of paintings on legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. Nolan’s stylized depiction of Kelly’s armor has become an icon of Australian art.

Sidney Nolan was born on 22 April 1917 in Carlton, at that time an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne, the eldest of four children. His parents, Sidney (a tram driver) and Dora, were both fifth generation Australians of Irish descent. Nolan later moved with his family to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. He attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School and left school at age 14. He enrolled at the Prahran Technical College (now part of Swinburne University), Department of Design and Crafts, in a course which he had already begun part-time by correspondence. From 1933, at the age of 16, he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. From 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

Nolan was a close friend of the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the so-called “Heide Circle” that also included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. Boyd and Perceval were members of the Boyd artistic family who were centered at “Open Country”, Murrumbeena.

In 1938, he met and married his first wife, graphic designer Elizabeth Paterson, with whom he had a daughter, but his marriage soon broke up because of his increasing involvement with the Reeds. He joined the Angry Penguins in the 1940s, after deserting from the army during World War II.

“Kelly, Spring” by Sidney Nolan, 1955

He lived for some time at the Reeds’ home, “Heide” outside Melbourne (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art). It was here that he painted the first of his famous, iconic “Ned Kelly” series, reportedly with input from Sunday Reed. Nolan also conducted an open affair with Sunday Reed but subsequently married John Reed’s sister, Cynthia in 1948 after Sunday refused to leave her husband. He had lived in a ménage à trois with the Reeds for several years and after his marriage he continued to see them and visited Heide at least once during their lifetimes.

Nolan’s most famous work is a series of stylized descriptions of the bushranger Ned Kelly in the Australian bush. Nolan left the famous 1946–1947 series of 27 Ned Kelly paintings at “Heide”, when he left it in emotionally charged circumstances. Although he once wrote to Sunday Reed to tell her to take what she wanted, he subsequently demanded all his works back. Sunday Reed returned 284 other paintings and drawings to Nolan, but she refused to give up the 25 remaining Kellys, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art and also, possibly, because she collaborated with Nolan on the paintings. Eventually, she gave them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this resolved the dispute.

“The Encounter” by Sidney Nolan, 1946

Nolan’s Ned Kelly series follow the main sequence of the Kelly story. However, Nolan did not intend the series to be an authentic depiction of these events. These episodes became the setting for the artist’s meditations upon universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The Kelly saga was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story giving meaning to the place. Nolan wanted to create and define episodes in Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. A hero which now has become a metaphor for humankind—the fighter, the victim, and the hero—resisting tyranny with a passion for freedom.

Nolan recognized that the conceptual image of the black square (Kelly’s helmet and armor) had been part of modern art since World War I. Nolan just placed a pair of eyes into Kelly’s helmet which animates its formal shape. As in most of the series, Kelly’s steel head guard dominates the composition. Nolan also concentrates on the Australian outback and shows a different landscape in nearly every painting. Nolan’s paintings give the viewer an insight into the history of Australia but also shows others how beautiful Australia is. The intensity of the colors of the land and bush along with its overall smooth texture help create harmony between legend, symbol and visual impact. Kelly is in the center of the paintings but the colors around him help make him stand out. It’s a very simplistic picture but highlights that Ned Kelly is an Australian icon.

“Ned Kelly” by Sidney Nolan, 1955

In his series, Kelly is a metaphor for Nolan himself. Nolan, like the bushranger, was a fugitive from the law. In July 1944, facing the possibility that he would be sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty, Nolan went absent without leave from the Army. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was “Robin Redbreast”. When he created this series he viewed himself as the misunderstood hero/artist like the protagonist, Kelly. “Nolan like this Kelly figure has also been a hero, a victim, a man who armored himself against Australia and who faced it, conquered it, lost it…. ambiguity personified.”

In 1949, when the Ned Kelly series was exhibited at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the museum’s director Jean Cassou called the works “a striking contribution to modern art” and that Nolan “creates in us a wonder of something new being born”. Works from Nolan’s second Kelly series were acquired by major international galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. English critic Robert Melville wrote in 1963 that Nolan’s Kelly belonged to “the company of twentieth-century personages which includes Picasso’s minotaur, Chirico’s mannequins, Ernst’s birdmen, Bacon’s popes and Giacometti’s walking man”.

“Carcase in Swamp” by Sidney Nolan, 1955

In 1951, Nolan moved to London, England. He travelled in Europe, spending a year in 1956 painting themes based on Greek Mythology while in Greece. In Paris, he studied engraving and lithography with S. W. Hayter at Studio 17t. He became friends with the poet Robert Lowell and produced illustrations for some of his books. Nolan was a prolific book cover illustrator, his images enhancing the dust jackets of over 70 publications. During this period, Nolan’s first London solo exhibition occurred at the Whitechapel Gallery between June and July 1957.

In 1965, Nolan completed a large mural (20 meters by 3.6 meters) depicting the 3 December 1854 Battle of Eureka Stockade between rebellious gold miners and Australian armed forces, rendered in enameled jewelry on 1.5 tons of heavy gauge copper. Nolan employed the “finger-and-thumb” drawing technique of Indigenous Australian sand painters to create the panoramic scene. Commissioned by economist H. C. Coombs, the mural is located at the entrance to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Melbourne office on Collins Street.

Mural of Eureka Stockade by Sidney Nolan, 1965

During the period of 1968–1970, Nolan embarked on the creation of a monumental mural entitled Paradise Garden. This project consisted of 1,320 floral designs split into three subsections that were created using crayon and dyes. The intent of the subsections was to show the lifecycles of the plants, starting with the primeval plants emerging from the mud, transitioning to their full burst of color in springtime, and the completion of the life cycle with the withering plants returning to the earth.

In England, Nolan attended the Aldeburgh Festival and was encouraged by the organizer and composer Benjamin Britten to show paintings at the festivals. He continued to travel widely in Europe, Africa, China, and Australia. Once, during an exhibition opening, Nolan was questioned as to his nationality. He responded, “Earthling.”

“Central Australia” by Sidney Nolan, 1950.

Nolan died in London on 28 November 1992 at the age of 75, he was survived by his wife and two children. He was buried in the Eastern part of Highgate Cemetery, London.

Nolan never relied upon one style or technique, but rather experimented throughout his lifetime with many different methods of application, and also devised some of his own. Nolan was inspired by children’s art and modernist painting of the early 20th century. During this time many younger artists were veering towards abstraction, Nolan remained committed to the figurative potential of painting. In terms of art history Nolan rediscovered the Australian landscape (Australia has not been an easy country to paint). His love of literature is seen as visually evident in his work. Other key influences were the modernist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Locally, the arrival of the Russian artist Danila Vassilieff in Melbourne, with his simple and direct art, was significant for Nolan. During his travels, he went to many areas not normally visited by artists including Antarctica.

Grave of Sidney Nolan at Highgate Cemetary, London, photographed on 7 March 2021

According to Australia Post,

In January 1964, Sidney Nolan travelled with writer and fellow Australian Alan Moorehead to Antarctica, with a routine US Navy resupply operation. The pair visited the continent for eight days, during which time Nolan made around 200 watercolour sketches, which have since been lost, and photographed the deeply unfamiliar and awe-inspiring environment.

Returning to London, via New Zealand, the South Pacific and Australia, Nolan immediately set to work; the watercolour sketches and photographs, along with his memory, were the foundation for the paintings he made. Working at speed, he produced the Antarctica series of 68 paintings in oil on composition board between April and September that year, while also working on other paintings. The series comprises works depicting the landscape, explorers, scientists and more. The paintings represent not a passive white landscape, but one full of muscular forms, dynamic elements and intense and often-brooding colours. Shown in the UK, US and Australia between 1964 and 1967, the Antarctica series secured Nolan a significant measure of international critical acclaim.

Australia Post Collectibles

$1.20 – “Volcanic Ridge” by Sidney Nolan

April 1964, oil on composition board, 122 × 122 cm, private collection

Photo: courtesy Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

$1.20 – “Bird” by Sidney Nolan

14 September 1964, oil on composition board, 122 × 122 cm, private collection

Photo: courtesy Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

#2.40 “Antarctica” by Sidney Nolan

27 August 1964, oil on composition board, 122 × 122 cm, Nathan & Camit Cher Collection

Photo: courtesy Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

$2.40 – “Explorers” by Sidney Nolan

[20 September] 1964, 121.9 × 152.5 cm, oil on composition board, private collection, courtesy Pyms Gallery, London

Photo: courtesy Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

All stamp images © The Sidney Nolan Trust. All rights reserved. DACS/Copyright Agency, 2022

“Antarctica” by Sidney Nolan, 1964

Technical Information

Date of Issue:14 March 2023
Number of Stamps:Four (4) gummed stamps, miniature sheet of four stamps
Denomination:2 x $1.20, 2 x $2.40
Designer:Sonia Young, Australia Post Design Studio
Printer and Process:RA Printing, Callum Downs, Victoria, Australia by offset lithography on Tullis Russell 104gsm Red Phos. gummed paper
Stamp Size:26mm x 37.5mm
Miniature Sheet Size:130mm x 80mm
Sheet Layout:50 stamps per design
Perforations:14.6 x 13.86
FDOI Postmark:Kingston TAS 7050

Miniature Sheet of 4 Stamps

Presentation Pack

First Day Covers

Maximum Cards


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