Ern Malley

The mysterious Ern Malley first visited Heide in the late spring of 1943. More visitation than visit, his presence took the form of sixteen modernist styled poems – the entire corpus of his brief and tragic existence.

Ernest Lalor Malley was born in England in 1918, came to Australia after his father died in 1920, and went to school in Sydney. His mother died and he left school in 1933, worked as a mechanic and went to Melbourne in 1935 where he lived in a room by himself and sold insurance policies. By 1940 he was making money repairing watches, but returned to Sydney where he passed away from Graves Disease. Ern’s sister Ethel never knew her brother wrote poetry and finding his verse beneath his deathbed, sent it to the avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins for an opinion. Angry Penguins was edited by Melbourne lawyer John Reed and 22 year old Adelaide undergraduate Max Harris. Reed and his wife Sunday lived at Heide on the outskirts of Melbourne, from where they dispensed largesse, sustenance and encouragement to a group of modernist artists and literati that included Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd.

Malley’s poetry astonished Harris. How could a poet capable of such work be unknown? Collectively called The Darkening Ecliptic, the poems were published in early June 1944 in an Angry Penguins number boasting a brilliant coloured cover of the Nolan painting, Sole Arabian Tree. The introduction by Harris eulogised Malley as one of ‘two giants of contemporary Australia poetry’.

But Ern and Ethel did not exist and the poems were an elaborate hoax. The bubble burst in just three weeks when in Fact, the magazine supplement to Sydney’s Sunday Sun, two traditional Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, took responsibility for what they called ‘a serious literary experiment’. Within days it became a sensation in the local press, and was soon international news in reputable papers such as the London Times and magazines like Time and Newsweek. In a war-weary world what could be better than a good story deflating a group of pretentious intellectuals!

The debate as to the merit of the Ern Malley poems has ebbed and flowed ever since. The effect of the Malley poems on Nolan cannot be overestimated and on more than one occasion he said that without Ern Malley there could have been no Ned Kelly in his work.


Posts on Ern Malley include:

Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond

Sidney Nolan interviewed by Michael Heyward, 5 July 1991

Beyond is Anything

Sons of Clovis: A new book on Ern Malley

Ern Malley: an introduction


Proposed posts on Ern Malley, either in preparation or planned, include:

I tell you, these Erns are real

Portraits of Ern

A Malley bibliography: books, theses, essays and articles

Antigonish Portraiture: Painting the man who wasn’t there

The Darkening Ecliptic: Publications of the poems

Le Scandale Ern Malley

The Hoaxers’ Libraries