Auction of significant Nolan painting

Posted by on Aug 9, 2017 in Events | 0 comments


How many paintings in total did Nolan create? Estimates vary widely …. 10,000?  30,000? …. who knows, he was nothing if not prolific. Whatever the number, few 20th century ‘name’ painters likely sold more works from a gallery wall than did Sidney Nolan.


The very first of these will go to auction in Melbourne tomorrow 10 August 2017. Remarkably, the fact that Lot 30 was Nolan’s first commercial sale is not mentioned in the Menzies catalogue.


Sidney Nolan, "Swamp", Oct 1947

Sidney Nolan, Swamp, Oct 1947


Swamp is one of twelve paintings exhibited by Nolan at Brisbane’s Moreton Galleries in February 1948.


Sidney Nolan, Catalogue of Fraser Island Paintings, The Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, February 17th to 28th, 1948

Sidney Nolan, Catalogue of Fraser Island Paintings, The Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, February 17th to 28th, 1948


The Moreton exhibition was Nolan’s first in a commercial gallery, but was hardly a success – Swamp was the only work sold off the wall. It is thus the first Nolan painting ever sold by a commercial gallery. All the more reason for it to be a hotly contested item at auction in his centenary year – but who will be bidding? Let us ponder this having regard to the known whereabouts of five others of the dozen Moreton Galleries exhibits – but first, a quick look at provenance.


As with many early Nolan paintings, provenance listings can be somewhat incomplete.  The Menzies online catalogue lists the provenance of Swamp as:

Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 1948
Dr Leopold Lofkovits, Brisbane
Collection of Lady Mary Nolan, United Kingdom
Private collection, United States of America.


The printed catalogue adds an extra line:

Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 1948
Dr Leopold Lofkovits, Brisbane
Thence by descent, private collection, New York
Collection of Lady Mary Nolan, United Kingdom
Private collection, United States of America.


Two devolutions of title in this listing are unclear: first, the transfer between Dr Lofkovits and Lady Mary Nolan; and second, the transfer from her to the current vendor.


Swamp was loaned to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1971 by Nolan himself (the frame backing carries AGNSW registry label ref 1971.1 to this effect), and so must have been in his possession long before Lady Mary’s entitlement, which presumably was not until after his death in 1992.  Indeed it is uncertain whether Nolan might not have re-acquired Swamp more directly. Dr Lofkovits died 10 October 1952 and willed his personal effects to his niece who lived in New York. Whether he still owned Swamp at his death is not known because the Inventory listing his effects is far from detailed.1


The catalogue for Nolan’s 1957 exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery lists the QAG work we know today as Mrs Fraser as having been No 9 in the 1948 Moreton exhibition, whose catalogue lists No 9 as Swamp. No painting listed in the catalogue is called Mrs Fraser, and the painting now known as Mrs Fraser was in fact No 11 Woongoolbver Creek.2 Nolan himself would surely have provided Whitechapel with its catalogue information just nine years after Moreton, and that makes me wonder whether Nolan might not have had Swamp in his possession in 1957 and intended to show it at Whitechapel, rather than a water-damaged Woongoolbver Creek. Perhaps at the last moment he cut down and modified Woongoolbver Creek to its present appearance as Mrs Fraser and used it instead of Swamp for Whitechapel, given that the figurative quality of the work relates much more closely to his new 1957 Mrs Fraser paintings included in the Whitechapel exhibition than does Swamp. 



Sidney Nolan, computer re-constituded Woongoolbver Creek.



Douglas Glass, photo from 1957 Whitechapel Art Gallery Catalogue showing Nolan in his studio

Douglas Glass, photo from 1957 Whitechapel Art Gallery Catalogue showing Nolan in his studio


Reference to Lady Mary Nolan in the chain of devolution is most likely to be sourced either to any acknowledgement by her, post-1992, of the long-term loan of Swamp to AGNSW; or to her sale, most likely in 2003 when this loan ceased, to the current vendor David Doyle – who is reported recently in the Australian Financial Review to be auctioning it with Menzies. The 2003 sale of Swamp would mesh with the new owner furnishing a newly acquired Darling Point mansion in 2002, and also with Lady Mary’s auctioning of paintings at that time, among them Hare in Trap (now in AGNSW), which led to the Victorian Supreme Court action between Jinx Nolan and Mary Nolan disputing ownership of a number of Nolan works.  Hare in Trap was purchased at the Christie’s auction by gallerist Eva Breuer, who perhaps brokered the sale to Doyle of Swamp.


Where are the paintings now and will this influence bidding for Swamp?


The whereabouts of most is unknown. At the time of Nolan’s 1987 retrospective, Jane Clark noted that Platypus Bay and Hervey Bay were in private hands.3 She recently advised that she thought both were in Nolan’s personal possession at the time (email to the author, 10 November 2013.) Perhaps then Hervey Bay is still at The Rodd.


Sidney Nolan, Hervey Bay, 1947, squared-up detail from photo of Moreton Exhibition.


Only two of the twelve Moreton paintings have been auctioned. The first, described as “inscribed with the title Frazer (sic) Island centre left,” was auctioned by Christie’s in 1999 and fetched $65,000 Hammer against the estimate of $30-50,000. This work, No 2 Fraser Island in the catalogue and marked n.f.s., was given by Nolan to Norm Crombie, an overseer at Central Forestry Station on Fraser Island. Nolan stayed on the island with Crombie, his wife Valda and daughter Anita. The painting moved with Crombie to Darwin where it survived Cyclone Tracey.4


Sidney Nolan, Fraser Island, October 1947, private collection, London



More recently in August 2013, QAGOMA purchased the landscape Platypus Bay for $94,550 inc. premium against an estimate of $35-45,000 at a Bonhams auction of early works from the Nolan Estate.5



Sidney Nolan, "Platypus Bay", Oct 47, Queensland Art Gallery

Sidney Nolan, Platypus Bay, Oct 47, Queensland Art Gallery



Woongoolbver Creek, or Mrs Fraser as it has been known since 1957, would remain with Nolan for the rest of his life – his Estate selling it to QAG in 1995.



Sidney Nolan, "Mrs Fraser", 1947, Queensland Art Gallery

Sidney Nolan, Mrs Fraser, 1947, Queensland Art Gallery



Painting No 8 in the Moreton catalogue, Island, is now owned by The Art Gallery of New South Wales.



Sidney Nolan, Island, 1947, collection AGNSW


The poet Judith Wright and her philosopher husband Jack McKinney, who visited the island with Nolan in October 1947, probably purchased Island from Nolan direct as no record of the sale appears in the Moreton Galleries ledger. Nolan eventually re-acquired Island, his Estate selling it to AGNSW in 2001.6  For many years the title Fraser Island has been applied in error to Island, but it is now  correctly titled on the AGNSW website.


Lake Wabby, the other n.f.s. designation in the Moreton catalogue along with Fraser Island, was Nolan’s 1947 Christmas gift to Sunday Reed. It remains at Heide Museum of Modern Art in the permanent collection.



"Lake Wabby", Sidney Nolan, 1947, Heide Museum of Modern Art collection

Sidney Nolan, Lake Wabby, 1947, Heide Museum of Modern Art collection



Of Fraser Island Nolan wrote “the psyche of the place has bitten into me deeply and I feel unresolved with it in a way that I cannot explain easily.”7 It remains to be seen whether the psyche of this first Nolan painting sold off the wall of a commercial gallery will bite deeply into the pockets of the three major Australian galleries currently holding works from Nolan’s first Fraser Island series, or from the National Gallery of Australia which holds none. Indeed, so far in this year of Nolan’s centenary, NGA has relocated Nolan’s first series Kelly to a dedicated space at the back of the gallery to make room for the bookshop and removed every other Nolan except Moonboy from its walls.


The auctioneer’s estimate for Swamp is $40-60,000. Will this be substantially exceeded in a bidding war between institutions? Major galleries who could be interested should include NGA seeking to make a significant acquisition in a late acknowledgment of Nolan’s centenary year, QAGOMA seeking to add to its Mrs Fraser (Woongoolbver Creek) and Platypus Bay, Heide seeking to find a partner for Lake Wabby, and AGNSW seeking to place Swamp beside its own Island as they appeared seventy years ago in the Moreton show seen below? (This latter though would seem unlikely given that AGNSW, even with its $M400+ recent funding pledge from Government, is looking to spread downwards towards Woolloomooloo Bay rather than upwards towards Fraser Island.)



Sidney Nolan, 4 of 12 Fraser Island paintings exhibited at The Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 17-28 February 1948.

Sidney Nolan, 4 of 12 Fraser Island paintings exhibited at The Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 17-28 February 1948. Left to right:  No 10 Hervey Bay, No 9 Swamp, No 8 Island, No 7 Indian Head.


We won’t wait long to find out. This article will be updated in a few days as soon as auction results are known.


More information on Nolan’s first series Fraser Island paintings can be found in Nolan’s “Mrs Fraser”: Reconstruction and Deconstruction, and in Re-discovered Nolan images include a second 1947 “Mrs Fraser”




Swamp sold for $106,250 (including buyer’s premium) to a private buyer in the UK. It is not known whether the work will stay in Australia or go overseas. The result is perhaps not surprising – certainly not the price. Even at $100,000 Nolan’s early larger works seem undervalued in comparison with much later work, particularly any having Kelly figuration. Neither is a UK buyer really surprising either – the Centenary effort by the Sidney Nolan Trust is working very well (read about it here), whereas in Australia it seems almost to be a case of Sidney Who? with major galleries paying little more than lip service to his Centenary by taking a few more Nolans from their stacks and placing them with existing hangings in one space along with a catchy sign and new wall plaques.


Of course, this may not reflect intent on the part of the galleries, but rather the parlous state of their funding. Unfortunately, curators are among the first casualties in the Efficiency Dividend wars and there is simply not the resources to mount fully curated exhibitions. It is therefore good news that two new Nolan exhibitions, fully curated in this Centenary year, are coming to Melbourne. An exhibition of around 60 of Nolan’s 1955-56 Greek works on paper is commencing at the Hellenic Museum later this month, and at Heide in mid-November an exhibition will be based on the 1942 hanging of his early works in the Sheffield Newsagency at Heidelberg.






  1. Queensland State Archive, Item ID747117, Will file no. 578/1953.

  2. Email from Geoffrey Smith to the author, 3 February 2014.

  3. Jane Clark, Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, a retrospective exhibition: 1937-1987, International Cultural Corporation of Australia, 1987, last footnote on p. 91.

  4. Northern Territory Times, 9 May 1968. My thanks to Anne Carter for this information.

  5. See

  6.  Jane Clark reports its circular provenance back from Judith Wright to Nolan via, inter alia, Charles Osborne and Bryan Robertson. (Jane Clark, Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, ibid, p. 91.) In her Judith Wright biography, Veronica Brady notes that when Jack and Judith’s daughter Meredith “wanted a pony … they sold a painting they had bought at Nolan’s first exhibition in Brisbane … It hung on Meredith’s wall, but she did not like it, finding it frightening, so the sale was no sacrifice for her.” (Veronica Brady, South of my days: a biography of Judith Wright, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1998, p. 153.) Judith Wright mentions the sale in a 1960 letter to Barbara Blackman: “Your Robertson (?) friend with the Whitechapel Galleries didn’t get here in the end … but he did buy the Nolan picture … This was a break for us because Brian (Johnstone) put it up for auction at one stage and the only bid was five pounds, which would never have paid for a saddle and scarcely even a bridle, but in the end we got 40 guineas for it …” (Judith Wright, letter to Barbara Blackman, 10 May 1960, Portrait of a Friendship, ed. Bryony Cosgrove, Meigunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007, p. 72.

  7. Sidney Nolan, letter to John Reed from Fraser Island, 28 August 1947, in Underhill, N., ed. Nolan, S., Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own words, Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria, 2007, p.138.

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