#Nolan 100

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

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No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

Sidney Nolan’s ‘Death of a Poet’ (1954) is an image that stays in the mind long after viewing it.

Perhaps this is because of its dreamlike and even Surreal qualities. At first the image seems so serene: the cast of a head with its eyes closed, as if in sleep, seems to float in the air amidst foliage before an intense, cerulean sky. And yet, it depicts the death mask of the Australian bush ranger Ned Kelly, a hero/ anti-hero figure who obsessed Nolan. This depiction of Kelly is so unlike all the other images of him created by Nolan: the distinctive armoured helmet is absent and literally disembodied, Kelly is not presented with a heroic gait or in a dramatic moment from his infamous history. Instead we have the man at peace, no longer a threatening or heroic figure, but passive and introspective. The death mask has been on display in Melbourne since Kelly’s death, no doubt originally to provide conclusive evidence of his demise, but inevitably it has given life to the myth that surrounds him. Here it is presented like an archaeological fragment from an ancient civilisation found amongst the foliage, but in a way that also carries other resonant associations. As TG Rosenthal has stated it suggests images of Christ and the Crown of Thorns, but it also recalls the famous life mask of the British poet William Blake, and through its title perhaps relates to Arthur Rimbaud, whose poetry Nolan admired and whom he related to Kelly through their early deaths. 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 this painting. It raises the question of whether Bacon had seen this painting. Nolan had settled in Britain in the previous year, and although the foliage is clearly based on Australian plant forms (which recall other paintings from the same year such as Australian Honeyeater  and Australian Foliage, both 1954, Leicester County Council Artworks Collection), it suggests that he may have been influenced by paintings by British ‘Neo-Romantic’ artists of the 1940s and 50s, such as Graham Sutherland’s series of Thorn Trees and images of poets surrounded by foliage by John Craxton such as Dreamer in a Landscape (1941, Tate) and Poet in a Landscape (1941, private collection) which had been published in Horizon magazine in 1941.

We were very keen for this work to be part of the exhibition Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain’  at Pallant House Gallery because through these resonant connections it reveals how much Nolan’s work was bridging both Australian and British art in the post-war period. We are very grateful to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool for lending it to the exhibition, but also the members of the Exhibition Supporters Circle who have helped fund the conservation and loan preparation costs to enable this important work to be included."


Simon Martin is a curator, writer and art historian. He is also Director of Pallant House Gallery.

Sidney Nolan, Death of a Poet, 1954, Ripolin on Masonite board, 91.5 x 122 cm, © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust/Bridgeman Art Library  

No.1 - Four Abstracts - Alexander Downer

No.2 - Self Portrait - Angus Trumble

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

No.4 Riverbend I - Francine Stock

No.5 - Desert - Andrew Logan

No.6 Dog and Duck - Jane Clark

No.7 Vivisector - Tim Abdallah

No.8 In the Cave - Rebecca Daniels

No.9 Young Soldier - Clare Woods

No.10 Ned Kelly - Shaun Gladwell

No.11 Bird - Deborah Ely

No. 12 Hare in Trap - Nicholas Usherwood

No.13 Untitled (Catani Arch, St Kilda) - David Rainey

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

No.16 Rimbaud at Harar - Edmund Capon AM OBE

No.17 Quilting the Armour - Jackie Haliday

No.18 Snake - David Walsh

No.19 Angel and the Tree - Dr Nicky McWilliam

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

No.21 Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl -Jennifer Higgie

No.22 Women and Billabong - Anthony Plant

No.23 Agricultural Hotel - Philip Mead

No.24 Policeman in a Wombat Hole - Kay Whitney

No.25 Peter Grimes - David Lipsey

No.26 Self Portrait in Youth - Barry Pearce & Duncan Fallowell

No.27 Riverbend I - Ian Dungavell

No.28 Drowned Soldier at Anzac as Icarus - Paul Gough

No.29 Thames - John Tooley

No.30 Girl - Amelda Langslow

No.31 Ned Kelly and Policeman - Daniel Crawshaw

No.32 Tarred and Feathered - Nick Cave

No.33 Self Portrait - Denise Mimmocchi

No.34 Peter Grimes's Apprentice - George Vass

No.35 The Emu Hunt - Roger Law

No.36 Luna Park - Paula Dredge

No.37 Rose in Coffee Pot - Anthony Collier

No.38 The Cardplayers - Nevin Jayawardena

No.39 Bathers - Lesley Harding

No.40 Aboriginal Girl - Jennie Milne

No.41 Pretty Polly Mine - Michael Brand

No 42. Roses in a Merric Boyd Vase - Jack Galloway

No 43. Brett Whiteley - Jonathan Watkins

No 44. Island - Nick Yelverton

No 45. Luna Park - Bill Granger

No 46. Face of the Damned - Kate McMillan

No 47. Central Australia - Leanne Santoro

No 48. Crane - Brian Adams

No 49. Myself - Simon Mundy

No 50. Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel, 1948 - David Ferry

No 51. Figure at Harar - Andrew Turley

No 52, Greek Figures - Simon Pierse

No 53. Randolph Stow - Suzanne Falkiner

No 54. Landscape No.27 (Convalescence) - Suzanne Falkiner

No 55. Self portrait - Oliver McCall

No 56. McMurdo Sound - Mike Clements

No 57. Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse - Mark Fraser

No 58. Season in Hell (Benjamin Britten) - Anne Bean

No 59. The Slip - Humphrey Ocean

No 60. Central Australia - Chris Drury

No 61. Riverbend - Christina Slade

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

No 63. Myth Rider - Desmond Browne

No 64. Stockman - Bridget McDonnell

No 65. Untitled (flower) - Roma Piotrowska

No 66. Chinese Landscape - Celia Perceval

No 67. Untitled - Des Hughes

No 68. Crucifixion - Rod Bugg

No 69. Icebergs - Laurence Hall

No 70. Bather in a Lily Pool - Amanda Fitzwilliams

No 71. Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head - Michael Berkeley

No 72. Carcase in Swamp - Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

No 73. Ern Malley - Isabella Boorman

No 74. Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan - Adrian Kelly

No 75. Landscape Carnarvon Range, Queensland - Catherine Noske

No 76. Abraham and Isaac - Sarah Bardwell

No 77. Rosa Mutabilis - Catherine Hunter

No 78. Artist drawing nude - Victoria Lynn

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

No 81. All Tastes Like Dust in the Mouth... - Carolyn Leder

No 82. Young Boy Who Was Good at Latin - Roxy Shaw

No 83. Mrs Fraser - Anne Carter

No 84. Paradise Garden - David Oliver

No 85. Leda and the Swan - Marilyn Sweet

No 86. Burke and Wills at the Gulf - Jenny Watson

No 87. Dream of the latrine sitter - Ryan Johnston

No 88. Footballer - Gerard Vaughan

NO 89. Sketch for Ned Kelly - Amanda Fuller

NO 90. Woman in Lagoon - Jinx Nolan

No 91. Cherries in a bowl - Peter Blake

No 92. Fountain - Heywood Hill

No 93. Artist and painting - Charles Nodrum

No 94. Death of Constable Scanlon - Anita Taylor

No 95. Untitled (abstract) - David Jaffe

No 96. Digital image - Joe Studholme

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

No 98. Burke and Wills expedition 'Gray sick' - Gary Sangster

No 99. Kangaroo at Ayers Rock - Pru and Anthony Napolitano

No 100. The Galaxy - Elizabeth Langslow

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