“Sidney Nolan’s Odyssey”: his life revisited

Posted by on Mar 19, 2015 in Nolan | 1 comment

Sidney Nolan, perhaps this country’s best known painter, was born on 22 April 1917. As his centenary approaches, so are new books making their appearance – beginning in 2014 with Brian Adams’ online Kindle e-book Sidney Nolan’s Odyssey: a life.


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Although he was written about in countless monographs, catalogue essays, journals and newspaper articles etc, the first Nolan biography as such was published in 1987 only five years before his death. Sidney Nolan: Such is life, a biography was also written by Adams.


Brian Adams, "Sidney Nolan: Such is life, a biography, Century Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1987. 

Brian Adams, “Sidney Nolan: Such is Life, a biography”, Century Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1987


Today it is seen to be hagiographic, although proving useful in seeing how Nolan himself wished to be remembered. Adam’s new e-book Sidney Nolan’s Odyssey, essentially a rather obvious rewrite of Such is Life, is little different.

The following comparison, describing the occasion in 1977 when Nolan visited Heide with his new wife Mary but remained secreted in the car, is typical.

In Such is Life we have: “The Reeds had invited Mary to see them when she was in Melbourne, but Nolan was unable to bring himself to come face to face with them again after a separation of thirty years. On the appointed day he drove Mary out then sat in the car a discreet distance from the new Heide, next to the original weatherboard cottage where Sweeney Reed now lived.”

In Odyssey this becomes: “The Reeds invited Mary to visit them when in Melbourne but Nolan could not bring himself to face them again after a separation of thirty years. On the appointed day he drove Mary to Heidelberg and remained in the car a discreet distance from the new Heide residence, next to the original weatherboard cottage where their adopted son, art dealer Sweeney Reed now lived.”

Moreover, the Kindle e-book format, at least as I received it, makes for no easy read.  There is no index, and the text is not word-searchable. This Odyssey is not one to be undertaken lightly. [NOTE that the book is now available in hard copy with index. See Brian Adams’ comment below.]

The title had me almost hoping for a Ulysses or a Bloom …. perhaps Molly on the shore, Penelope by the hearth. Not to be!

Nevertheless, because Adams makes it clear that Odyssey has been prepared using the many tape recordings he made with Nolan over the course of a year when he wrote Such is Life, some differences between the two books may prove valuable to the astute Nolan scholar.

One such category is material first included in Odyssey and which, if able to be sourced directly to Nolan, could point to material he spoke about on tape, but perhaps did not want to appear in Such is Life.  This could include a number of more explicit sexual references.

Thus we learn that when he first visited John Reed’s law office in 1938 and Reed invited him home that evening for dinner, “Nolan was concerned there might be sexual overtones attached to such a forward approach, knowing nothing about Reed’s circumstances, but thought there might be a decent meal after a demanding day and stammered an acceptance.”  In the earlier book we merely have that “Nolan was surprised but stammered a vague acceptance.”

In Odyssey we hear too of Sunday Reed’s “wild affair” with Sam Atyeo after her marriage to John Reed, and that “after settling at Heidelberg, their circle widened into a free-living, free-loving commune where culture and politics, together with every degree of human relationships, including marriage, adultery and homosexuality, were practiced well away from social, moral – and legal – constraints of the stuffy city.” He writes too that “there were also some searing tracts about Sunday Reed’s aggressive sexual demands, and her husband’s handling of a three-way relationship that could only end in heartbreak at Heidelberg.”

A second category, having nuances possibly attributable to Nolan, concerns material written descriptively in the third person in Such is Life, but reworked in Odyssey to appear as a Nolan quote. A third category is material not appearing at all in Such is Life, but rather first surfacing in Odyssey as a directly attributable Nolan quotation.

Detailed investigation is continuing to list examples in this last mentioned category.

The tapes Adams recorded with Nolan are important.  One senses an affinity between the younger Adams and the older Nolan.


Sidney Nolan and Brian Adams at Bundanon, c. 1986

Sidney Nolan and Brian Adams at Bundanon, c. 1986


The consumate interviewee, Nolan was adroit at managing interviews to tell what he wanted to be told.  It is now fascinating to listen to old tapes, and learn how, as the interview progressed and the interviewer gained his trust and confidence, Nolan would begin to speak more with the heart than the head.  His 1991 interview with Michael Heyward about Ern Malley is a good example (a copy of the tape is held in the State Library of Victoria.)

It is to be hoped that the Nolan/Adams tapes have been, or will be, placed in a Manuscripts Collection or the like in a suitable library.  They will most likely prove to be of inestimable value to future researchers.

Nolan, maker of myths with his brush, was no less skilled a myth-maker when it came to himself. His many cataloguers, curators, historians, gallerists and enthusiastic journalists made him a legend – often with his active assistance and connivance.

In introducing Odyssey, Adams writes that Nolan “often adopted an engaging cross-cultural blend of Australian bullshit and Irish blarney for both creating and deconstructing mythologies to plumb the depths of his own and his nation’s psyche.”

No better proof of the veracity of this statement will be found than the simple fact that it has been made.

One Comment

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  1. Brian Adams

    Dear David. Was nterested to read your comments about my e-book. Now that the centenary is imminent. I’m providing the Sidney Nolan Trust in Britain with material for inclusion in their year-long celebrations . I fear, however, that Sid is being hijacked as a British painter because of his long residence there – an old UK cultural trick! He loved playing the role of an English country squire, while claiming that his heart would always be in the beloved Australia of his birth and the Ireland of his imagination. I was well aware of the indexing problem with Kindle. It was explained that it was difficult to have one because of a system allowing for different type sizes, meaning that page numbering was invalid. Anyway, it’s now published in book form, with index, as I’m sure you’re aware. Anyway, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK. Regards – Brian Adams

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