The Celtic Image
26 May - 16 July, Gallery, The Rodd
We are delighted to present for the first time in the UK, Sidney Nolan’s complete Celtic Image series.
In 1987 Nolan travelled to Ireland for the final time, returning to his ancestral home in the Burren, County Clare. The monochromatic paintings, created shortly after this trip, were made here at The Rodd and are in some ways representative of the final chapter in Nolan’s life, where he returned to an abstraction only witnessed early in his career. During this time, working with commercial spray paints was his chosen device, mostly on canvas and at scale.
Nolan left very few clues about the making of these paintings so through this exhibition we aim to unpick the creation myth of the Celtic Image.
Roots in Ireland
In Nancy Underhill’s 2015 biography, Sidney Nolan: A Life the writer introduces Nolan’s Irishness as ‘an obsessive badge of difference’.
Sidney Nolan was a fourth-generation Australian of Irish descent. William Nolan, son of William Bedford Nolan and Martha Webb, was born in 1830. Aged 23 he migrated to Adelaide and a year later moved to Victoria. Nolan’s Grandfather, also William (Bill) was born in 1856 in South Melbourne.
Underhill suggests that the Irishness was ‘fanned by Nolan’s Grandfather’. At that time an Irish name was associated with stable employment. His Grandfather was in the police for a short while and Nolan’s father and uncle worked on the trams. Despite Nolan’s claims of Roman Catholic heritage, evidence proves that his Irishness was Protestant Northern Irish.
Nolan’s protagonist, the infamous outlaw bushranger Ned Kelly was born in Victoria in 1854 to Irish parents. Nolan’s Grandfather recounted his time with the police during the chase of the Kelly Gang, which was the starting point of Nolan’s lifelong obsession with Kelly’s story. In Kelly, Nolan found a shared ancestry but also identified with the outsider underdog. Nolan was proud of his Irish roots and used his Irishness, as he did Kelly, to help shape an anti-establishment exile persona that he worked hard to maintain throughout his life.
Nolan first travelled to Ireland and the Burren in 1971. Two years later he unveiled his vast triptych of murals at the Royal Dublin Society. Oceania was his homage to the indigenous Australian civilisation on a truly vast scale - 4260 separate paintings which when hung many were only just dry.
In 1987 Nolan returned to Ireland for the opening of an exhibition of his large-scale abstract spray paintings and later he donated a group of six works from a planned series titled Wild Geese to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The works were inspired by the Irish soldiers who fled the country after the failed Jacobite wars of the 1690s.
During several trips to Ireland, Nolan was also searching for his Irish roots and found them in the tiny village of Ballyvaughan on the south shore of Galway Bay, set against the landscape of the Burren.
The Burren – an ancient landscape
The Burren (Boirinn), meaning ‘rocky district’ is a landscape centred on County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. The sparse limestone landscape laid down 325 million years ago sits in stark contrast to the surrounding verdant landscape.
The Burren would provide the bedrock for the Celtic Image series. In searching for his ancestral home, Nolan would have encountered this otherworldly landscape and the indelible marks left by civilisation. Evidence of humans in the Burren stretches back to Ice Age hunters and today the landscape is littered with structures from the Neolithic period c. 4000 BC.
The ‘ancient heads’ that dominate the paintings are similar to Pagan/Christian stone carvings found on the walls of numerous ruined churches in the Burren. Nearby the Poulnabrone dolmen (Poll na Brón) or portal tomb is situated on one of the most desolate and highest points of the region. These ancient sites of ritual and burial no doubt fascinated Nolan. He’d spent a lifetime travelling to some of the most remote and ancient regions of the world. The ancient rock art of Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland, the caves of Lascaux, and the classical civilisations of the Middle East had all fed into his artwork. He was intrigued by how civilisations have marked the landscape and in turn how the landscape has moulded and shaped civilisation.
Now it was time to return to the beginning. At The Rodd Nolan claimed to be coming full circle and dealing with his life in the abstract.
“painting in abstract means that you can convey the most intense of emotions.”
In true Nolan fashion, the series was likely painted in quick succession, as he continued to experiment with and develop the possibilities of working with cans of spray paint.
At this retrospective time of his life and with an appreciation of the autobiographical nature of much of Nolan’s artwork, it might be possible to read the paintings as a type of autobiographical memory. “To see the ‘ancient heads’ (…) with Nolan’s 1939/40 painting Boy and the Moon (Moon Boy) is perhaps where the ancient and future meet. (…) Moon Boy is Celtic Boy, as it were, and both were him (Nolan).”
Through the Celtic Image, Nolan ‘was able to distil and digest his account of the Burren’ and presents us with the Genius Loci, the ancient worship of spirits of place.
This Introduction was written and compiled by Antony Mottershead, the Trust's Creative Producer, using written material from the first exhibition of Nolan’s Celtic Image at Burren College of Art in 2018 and an interview between artist and curator of that exhibition Prof. David Ferry RE, and the photographer and writer Stephen Clarke. The full interview is published below.
Walking with Ghosts: From Ballyvaughan to The Rodd (and back again)
The bare landscape of a barren plain seemingly offers scarce sustenance, yet in this wide open space Sidney Nolan found the beginnings for his paintings, notably the bushranger Ned Kelly. Equally hardy survivors of the Australian Outback are the wildflowers that Nolan observed on a visit to his native desert land in the late 1960s. i From his observations, he made more than a thousand small paintings that came together as a large mural of vigorous bloom titled Paradise Garden (1968-70); this was exhibited in Dublin in 1973.
Ireland was Nolan’s ancestral homeland. In 1971, after the completion of Paradise Garden, the artist made his first visit to the Burren, County Clare, on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Although of a different palette, this is a topography that resembles the Australian interior: harsh and desolate with little for comfort. The contradiction to a first viewing of the limestone pavement is the abundant flora that thrives in the grikes that dissect the plain.ii Nolan found himself at home in the remote Irish landscape. Recognizing his familial roots, he planned to buy a derelict family cottage in the village of Ballyvaughan, so, staking his claim on this ancient place.
Stephen Clarke: What was your first encounter with the Burren?
David Ferry: It was about fifteen years ago, to give a lecture at the small art school in Newtown Castle, Ballyvaughan. iii I remember distinctly driving in on a road called the New Line, a military road, and in parts wholly straight. The landscape changed after the town of Ennis and the main Galway road, the limestone pavement providing a distinct difference to the verdant green of regular pasture. A sense of bewilderment and exploration in equal parts; stone walls dividing stone fields!
The Burren College of Art looks out across the Atlantic and provides accommodation and creative education for students from North America. Strangers to this ancient land, some of these visitors might recognize their own lineage in the place as descendants of the Irish diaspora, while others become acquainted with ghosts of a people long gone. The college is located in Newtown Castle, close to the harbour village of Ballyvaughan that was itself the site of a castle occupied by the O’Lochlainn family who marked the territory of the Burren as their own in Medieval Times. The Celtic chieftains were haunted by their own predecessors whose scattered dolmens make their presence felt on the landscape .iv At the end of the twentieth century, cartographer Tim Robinson provided contemporary explorers with a map of the terrain. v
Stephen Clarke: How did you as an artist respond to this environment that is both extraordinary in terms of nature and mysterious in relation to its distant past?
David Ferry: I use Tim Robinson’s Folding Landscape map every time I venture into this place. From the outset, the Burren and its geology, its flora and fauna, and its prehistory, present a remarkable tapestry of image and form. The idea of a visual tapestry, interwoven layers of the sights and wanderings in the Burren, become collage and montage ingredients for artists. After my initial visit, I predicated student projects on the interplays of legend and time in specific places and encounters using firstly, Ingmar Bergman's epic masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957)the Burren’s backdrop of the medieval, and the coast so reminiscent of the film; and secondly, Ken Russell's horror comedy The Lair of the White Worm (1988) what may lurk in those caves of the Burren, so to speak! vi The Burren area seems to resonate with narrative, clinging and binding the landscape.
In Dublin, in 1973, alongside Paradise Garden was exhibited another gargantuan
artwork by Nolan. Snake (1970-72) is composed of 1,620 panels that feature
Australian aborigine motifs.vii The snake is an archetypal creature that winds its
path through numerous mythical backgrounds and into the Christian period. Strewn
in the path of the ancient serpent are the abandoned churches, isolated graveyards
and derelict farms of the Burren. In daylight, these remains of people long gone are
ghostly; at nighttime, animated by metamorphosis, the darkness gives them life.
Even more recent signs of modern man become transformed; a soulless caravan
park can take on the characteristics of an archaic burial site. viii
Stephen Clarke: What impact did the Burren have upon Nolan’s Celtic Image
David Ferry: Nolan would have been as fascinated as much by the interaction of man on this strange landscape as the environment itself. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that early man settled on a once seabed, and that in itself makes for a kind of fantastical encounter. It is no wonder after a lifetime of global travel that Nolan was able to distil and digest his own account of the Burren in his Celtic Image series. The ruins and their sentinel-like stone carvings, the humanoid faces and characters seemingly impervious to ruination and the weather, provide 'romantic', and 'gothic' readings.ix When I first saw Nolan's Celtic Image paintings I was immediately transported to an interpretation of place and a distinct atmosphere. It was pretty clear he was charged with an emotional recognition of the area through ancestry and sheer guttural visual fascination. These paintings resonate with prehistory but are made by our modern creative algorithms that can align the past and futures together. It seems to me that Nolan navigated ancient time and space as well as modern intercontinental travel, and fused recognition and personal understandings together. In his Australian paintings, he seemed to
glide across the dominant historical and political areas of that country’s social development, but also realised the more remote past as a living pulse. This awareness was carried over to his paintings instigated by his visit to Ireland the collision of very early indigenous rock art in Australia with Pagen/Christian stone carving on a wall of a ruined church in the Burren. To see the ‘ancient heads’ of the monochromatic Celtic Image in relation to Nolan’s 1939/40 painting Boy and the Moon [Moon Boy] is perhaps where the ancient and future meet. x
Going back to the Burren in later life, Nolan landed in a time space conundrum. Moon Boy is
Celtic Boy, as it were, and both were him. Many people across the globe claim Irish descent. The Irish diaspora has a lengthy history that dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain through to current
migration. It is this story of exiles that Nolan addressed in his series of paintings titled Wild Geese, specifically referring to the Irish soldiers who fled to France following the failed Jacobite rebellion of the 1690s. For the next hundred years these rebels became the Irish Brigade, fighting alongside the French army, often against the English. Smuggled abroad by sea, the Irish fugitives, many from County Clare, were officially described by the Ship Captains as ‘Wild Geese’. In Nolan’s pantheon of protagonists, they become companions to Ned Kelly. Outside the law and estranged from their homeland, it is a position that Nolan himself had held when he deserted from the Australian army during World War II. For Nolan the interplay between history and place is viewed from the position of dislocated wanderer.
Stephen Clarke: Nolan has been identified as a modern Australian artist; his work tied to a specific landscape the Outback. Is this viewpoint apparent in Nolan’s Celtic Image series?
David Ferry: When I first visited Rodd Farm, pointed out to me was a particular line of sight at the end of a drive. There were landmasses, hills and woodlands, on either side of a vast flat field. I was told this was Nolan's favourite view. The distinct colour of the landscape had a non-Northern European flavour to it. In 2016, I was the Federation University International Artist in Residence, whose art department is in the city of Ballarat, an hour and a half away on the train from Melbourne Nolan’s birthplace.xi The landscapes between Ballarat and Melbourne as viewed from the windows of the intercity commuter train, reminded me of that view at The Rodd.
Ballarat, famous for the Sovereign Hill gold rush in the 1850s and the subsequent ‘battle’ of the Eureka Stockade that Nolan painted in 1949, has the oldest regional gallery and houses a fantastic collection of paintings and prints. Sidney Nolan is well represented in the city’s Art Gallery. I was able to invest much time looking at the collection and at the timeline of Australian art influenced by Europe from the early days of settlement to the present. A remarkable aspect is seeing the juxtaposition of indigenous people's works with the artistic influences coming in from the United States later in the twentieth century.
Nolan’s Celtic Image series was probably created with great speed over a very short period of time and yet imbedded in these rock/cave-like images are the train journeys, the settlements, the histories and the human adversities that so powerfully bind landscape and its human secrets together. It is also worth pointing out here his use of media for this set of work. Nolan used the everyday paint spray can, as utilitarian as it is brutally simple. The wonderful textures and tonal fidelity of these paintings belies the means by which they were actually done.
Paradise Garden and Snake were joined by Nolan’s Shark (1972-73) as part of the Oceania triptych exhibited in Dublin in the early 1970s. A primeval creature that lurks in the depths, it is a feared predator that still stalks modern man’s imagination. Nolan’s Celtic Image series share this sense of foreboding of something lurking in the darkness. These spray paintings visibly incorporate the globular nature of water on a surface invoking the fluid environment of a land formed by the storms that sweep across the Atlantic. From these black foamy concoctions brewed by the artist, viewers project their own fears. There is, perhaps, a link to the gothic imagery of classic horror films that make use of a monochrome palette to evoke a dramatic narrative.
Stephen Clarke: A number of paintings by Nolan have a narrative purpose, such as his paintings of Ned Kelly. Is there an illustrative direction in his Celtic Image series?
David Ferry: I believe there must be. I sense that the unanswerable aspects of human interaction in a time before speech is an aspect of these paintings. Our interpretations of prehistoric rock art are an ongoing study with many interpretations and consequences. The myriad of improbabilities that make artists produce art in the first place is a bewildering mirage. In this sense any specific narrative locked into the Celtic Image is open to as vast an interpretation as his seemingly inexhaustible energy to make art.
For students to begin to understand the ‘mirage’ requires a certain amount of ‘stage set’. One of the reasons I brought cinema to the teaching of painting and printmaking at the Burren College of Art, was that cinema has a good way of connecting time and space in a setting. The simple analogy of a costume drama illustrates this very well. If we place a period template over location and place, then many interactive narratives and episodes can be unearthed and reinterpreted. The proximity of the Rodd Farm estate to the nearby town of Presteigne is one actual material fact that can easily be cast as an aspect of drama. If we supplant Nolan’s Jacobean manor house and the nearby village with the locational fictions that we find in Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man, then the manor house becomes a castle, and the small town of Presteigne, with its pub, its hairdresser’s, butcher’s shop, library and old Court House assumes fully, the village of the May Day! On one level of our understanding we can look at things and construe them as real, but through imaginative filters they are transformed. This illustration gives me a 'plug in' as to how the Celtic Image series manifests itself in the overall oeuvre of Nolan and his endless desire to re-trace, re-tread and re-evaluate.
In March 2013, David Ferry and Stephen Clarke met at The Rodd to discuss
Ferry’s multi-panelled artwork May Day in the Centre of England (2010-13), a rescripting of The Wicker Man film using photomontage and spray paint. xii
This conversation outlined how early memories form our viewpoint and continue to inform our understandings of place; it was one of the many reasons for choosing The Rodd as the setting. This relationship between Ferry and Clarke, in the shadow of Nolan, has its roots in an earlier residency in 2004 at Burren College of Art. Place, time, characters and converse continually shift. As David Ferry points out: “It’s all to do with that constant re-imagining of Nolan’s back and forth creative
energy through schemes, sets, series, travel adventures, and human encounters.”
© David Ferry, Stephen Clarke
David Ferry RE was born in Blackpool UK, and studied at the Camberwell and Slade Schools of
Fine Art in London.
He has recently co-curated ‘Zeno Factor, Mario Dubsky’ for the Chelsea Space in London 2017,
and the first book arts exhibition for the ‘Impressions’ group in Galway Ireland in 2016, an exhibition
of the Galway International Arts Festival. Other projects include: the Welsh International
Printmaking Biennale, Wrexham in 2013; the UK National Printmaking Exhibition, London 2011;
and the Royal West of England Printmaking competition, 2008.
An internationally exhibiting artist, specializing in printmaking and photomontage, he was awarded a Pollock/Krasner grant in 2002, and won awards at the First and Second International Book Arts Competition in Seoul, Korea in 2004 and 2006. His works are in international museum collections
including the V&A London, MOMA, New York, Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of
David is the Emeritus Professor of Printmaking at the Cardiff School of Art and Design, Cardiff
Metropolitan University, and Hon Doctor of Arts at the Southampton Solent University. He is
currently the Chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club in London, and contributes to the work of the
Sidney Nolan Trust.
Stephen Clarke (b.1962) is an artist, writer and lecturer. He studied Fine Art and Photography at
Newport Art College, South Wales (1983-86), and followed this with Masters’ Degrees in
Contemporary Art and Theory (1994-96), and Fine Art Printmaking (2003-04) both at Winchester
School of Art. He has photobooks published with Café Royal Books and The Velvet Cell, and writes
for Photomonitor, The Art Newspaper, Source, and The Double Negative. He has collaborated with
Professor David Ferry since 2012, writing consistently on his work; a selection of essays was
published in Ferry’s exhibition catalogue The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles (2016).
Copy-editor Julia Clarke (b.1970) studied History of Design and the Visual Arts at Staffordshire
University (BA, 1994), and Museum Studies at The Textile Conservation Centre, Winchester School
of Art (MA, 2006). She is an independent editor and writer.
i ‘the Alpine Storm that created the picturesque landscapes of the ‘old world’ ignored Australia…On
this dry, hot land, grows a strange vegetation. There are ten thousand species of Australian flora,
far more than in Europe…’ (Colin MacInnes, 1957, in his catalogue introduction to Nolan’s 1957
Whitechapel show, republished as Sidney Nolan: The Search for an Australian Myth in England,
Half English, Penguin, 1966)
ii ‘The word boíreann, means a rocky place’ (T. D. Robinson, 1977) The Burren is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fertile Rock’ [anecdotal] ‘The rare combination of this landform and a mild, moist Atlantic climate nourishes a unique mixture of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants’. (T. D. Robinson, 1977)
iii Newtown Castle is a restored 16th century cylindrical fortified tower house. In the 1830s, the castle
was occupied by Charles O’Lochlainn, known locally as ‘King of the Burren’. It has been part of the
Burren College of Art since 1994.
iv A Dolmen is a single-chamber megalithic tomb, the oldest type of tomb dating from the Neolithic
period, c.4000 B.C. The Poulnabrone Dolmen is located five miles south of Ballyvaughan, one of
172 to be found in Ireland. It is one of the few to have been excavated; it contained the remains of
21 bodies and revealed that it was in continual use over a 600-year period.
‘The Burren could almost be defined by its rich concentration of archaeological sites. The Survey of
Megalithic Tombs of 1961 shows a close grouping of 66 of these graves of the earliest settlers,
nearly all wedge-graves of a local form they owe to the natural limestone slabs produced by the
rectangular fissuring of the region.’ (T. D. Robinson, 1977)
v Robinson, T.D. (1977). The Burren: A two-inch map of the uplands of North-West Clare, Eire. Arainn: T.D. Robinson
vi The Burren is Ireland's most important cave area. Aillwee Cave, which has been open to the public since 1976, is the most well known.
vii Snake (Rainbow Serpent) is installed in the purpose built Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart,
viii In 2004, Stephen Clarke photographed a caravan park in the Burren. The caravans stood as
modern metal monoliths and seemed imbued with the same sense of mystery that characterises the
ancient stones of the Burren’s surrounding prehistoric sites. a strange field is a concertina style,
hand-made artist’s book of ten photographs. It was made in collaboration with the artist bookmaker
Dr. Elizabeth Kealy-Morris. The field trip to the Burren was organized by Professor David Ferry.
The title a strange field is taken from Tim Robinson’s map of The Burren.
ix David Ferry has visited several abandoned churches in the Burren with his students from the
Burren College of Art. He recalls visiting Rathborney Church and Temple Cronan. The ruins of the
late gothic c.1500 Rathborney Church is located south west of Newtown Castle, the Burren. It is set
in a circular stone ringfort dating from the Bronze Age. Temple Cronan, Teampall Chrónáin is a
ruined 12th century chapel, near Carron in the Burren. It has two slab shrines, and stone faces
embedded in its walls.
x The use of the term ‘ancient heads’ makes reference to the only labelled Celtic Image spray
painting by Sidney Nolan as ‘Ancient Head’. Boy and the Moon c. 1939-40 is a single coloured head shape on a different single coloured background. It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
xi The residency resulted in the exhibition David Ferry: The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles at the
Post Office Gallery, Ballarat, Australia and the publication Clarke, S. & Ferry, D. & Heng, E. (2016).
The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles, (revised and reprinted 2017)
xii The constructed dialogue is published in Clarke, S. & Ferry, D. (2014). Summerisle Revisited: The
Artist’s Cut. In E. Shemilt (Chair), Borders & Crossings; The Artist as Explorer. (Proceedings of
Impact 8, International Printmaking Conference) Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design,
University of Dundee, September 2013 pp.110-115.
The Burren Annual is supported by funding from Clare County Council. The Celtic Image exhibition is a collaboration between Burren College of Art and the Sidney Nolan Trust.