Policeman in Wombat Hole, 1946

Sidney Nolan Policeman in wombat hole 1946 Enamel on composition board Dimensions 91.8 x 122.3cms

Kay Whitney is the Nolan Access and Learning Officer at Canberra Museum and Gallery

"I chose this painting for the way it engages and enthralls the thousands of children who visit it each year. It is whimsical, playful, irreverent and loaded with symbolism. These qualities are not lost on young audiences. Children ‘get Nolan’. As an educator, I sit with them on the floor of the gallery and ask them to look and look again. “Tell me what you see? What do you think is happening in this painting?” Their eyes get wider, it’s hard not to giggle and the deluge of observation and opinion begins. The artist would be pleased I’m sure!

The painting retells the incident where the Kelly Gang thwarts a police search party at Stringybark Creek. Constable McIntyre managed to flee and hid in a wombat hole. True story! The trooper is comically depicted upside down, head in the sand, arms and legs protruding from the wombat hole. A handwritten note provides clues to the narrative:

“Ned Kelly and others stuck us up today, when we were disarmed. Lonigan and Scanlon shot. I am hiding in a wombat hole until dark”.

In the painting, we see a displaced and startled wombat and a magpie and lizard look on. Their inclusion suggests that Nolan was familiar with Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. At one point in the Jerilderie Letter, Ned Kelly describes the police officers as:

“a parcel of big ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs and English Landlords”.

The children are shocked by the cheekiness of this, but equally delighted, and they can’t contain their laughter by now. They promise me they will never to be so rude to a police officer!

The Jerilderie Letter offers an historical insight into Australian identity and is one of only two original Kelly documents known to have survived. In it, Kelly outlines the justifications for his actions and the injustices he and his family suffered at the hands of a corrupt police force. This manifesto is regarded by some as an early call for an Australian republic.

Children are drawn to Nolan’s vibrant use of colour, bold form and a narrative that transports them to Australia in the ‘olden days’. Nolan’s paintings are brought to life with what children see, think and wonder. “These paintings are about a game of hide and seek,” a child offers. “I wonder what it’s like inside a wombat’s burrow,” another child speculates. “Is it dark in there? Is it quiet? What does it smell like? Eeew!” We all pretend to be bushrangers, mount our steeds and set up camp in front of another painting.

I grew up in ‘Kelly Country’, near Jerilderie. Here, the sunlight flattens forms and big skies end abruptly where the earth begins like a hard-edge abstract painting. Nolan’s landscapes resonate with me. I reckon Nolan has nailed it, on so many levels, in this painting."

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