Sidney Nolan was just 21 when he met Sunday Reed the woman who would have a profound influence on his art and life long after the relationship between them irrevocably ended.
Sunday was variously Nolan’s mentor, patron, champion, lover, muse, friend and sometime studio assistant over a period of almost ten years. Nolan wasn’t the first artist lover Sunday installed in the marital home she shared with her husband John, but he would be the last. By the time Nolan left Heide and its capricious mistress towards the end of 1947, having completed the first and now iconic Ned Kelly series he was an artist, but he was also a man deeply scarred by what he had experienced under the Reed’s particularly incestuous patronage.
Sunday is, by Nolan’s own tentative omission, very present in a number of his key Australian series, notably the Wimmera, Ern Malley, Ned Kelly, and Eliza Fraser groups of works, and in Paradise Garden 1968-9, the art work and Paradise Garden the beautiful book of illustrated poems that Nolan produced in 1971 which is overtly about his relationship with the Reeds. In these particular series Sunday is a ghost beneath the layers of thick Ripolin enamel paint. A silent implacable haunting.
“For the one who paints such beautiful squares…”, which is the inscription on a little sketch that Nolan did for Sunday while in the throws of making the Kelly works immediately after the war, will examine the influence that the latter had on his work, from the early days of their relationship when she decided he should be a painter not a poet, through the honeymoon years when he was based in the Wimmera with the army and painted the landscape prolifically, the two years he spent at the Reed’s home Heide in Bullen, then on the outskirts of Melbourne and completed the first Ned Kelly works, and beyond, long after he had terminated all contact with Sunday. For Nolan, history, mythology and autobiography collided in these utterly Australian key works, and serve as a mnemonic not only for the narratives depicted, but also for Australian identity and indeed for the artist himself. A lone figure on the landscape, just like Ned Kelly. Themes he reworked periodically throughout his life.
Nolan married twice after leaving Heide, first to Sunday’s sister-in-law Cynthia Reed and later to her best friend Mary Boyd, and although he without a doubt lived a full and interesting life and painted many, many extraordinary works, and the Reeds have become something of a footnote in his biography, a small part of him remained the brash young Irish boy from St Kilda who foolishly, but providently loved another man’s wife. ‘I made you …’ Sunday wrote in a letter to her departed lover when Nolan tried to retrieve his Ned Kelly works a few years after he left Heide. And in many ways she was right.