Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head, c. 1977
Sidney Nolan, Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head, c.1977, crayon on paper, private collection, © Sidney Nolan Trust.
Michael Berkeley, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, CBE; composer, also presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions
"I really got to know Sid when he and Mary moved to the Rodd and put on music in their handsome oak-timbered barn. I would go over for tea or a drink and we would talk about music and, in particular, Benjamin Britten (my Godfather and a friend of Sid’s), Wagner and the visual stimulus Sid got from The Prince of the Pagodas and The Ring.
What I particularly liked about Sid’s personality was the combination of raw earthiness and his profound feeling for the aesthetic. That is precisely what I see in so many of his canvases and drawings.
My friendship with Nolan and love of his art made me keen to have some of his work so my heart leapt when I saw in a catalogue a crayon drawing which he had made in response to a Robert Lowell poem ‘Man and Wife’ and from which he quotes the last line, Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
Lowell was born in the same year as Sid, 1917, and they were good friends.
It was not simply my knowing Sid that attracted me to the picture but rather the curious and indefinable interplay between the two figures. To me the red nature (colour and content) of the picture relates not only to the red earth of so much of Australia but also (obviously) to the opening lines of the poem:
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed;
The rising sun in war paint dyes us red.
On the reverse of the picture is a sketch by Nolan of Lowell.
Psychological interplay between people and between poetry and the visual arts got me intrigued by that other great Australian artist, and brother-in-law to Nolan, Arthur Boyd. So when performing at the Sydney Festival I found in a gallery a picture by Boyd, Lovers and Lizard, from the 1993/4 series, The writer and his Muse, I could not resist buying it and hanging it below the Nolan. They make a powerful pair. But let me leave you contemplating the Nolan, and a clue to that interplay, by revealing a few more lines from the closing stanza:
Now twelve years later, you turn your back.
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your hollows like a child,
your old-fashioned tirade -
loving, rapid, merciless -
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head."