Sidney Nolan’s 1946-47 paintings on the theme of the 19th-century bushranger Ned Kelly is one of the greatest series of Australian painting of the 20th century and the National Gallery of Australia holds all but one. Nolan’s starkly simplified depiction of Kelly in his homemade armour has become an iconic Australian image.
Nolan’s paintings take us through the main events of the story of Ned Kelly and his gang, from the shooting of police constables at Stringybark Creek to the siege at Glenrowan and ending with the trial at which Kelly was sentenced to hang. However, Nolan did not intend his paintings to be a literal depiction of the events. Rather, they are the setting for the artist’s meditations on the universal themes of violence, injustice, love and betrayal. Above all, the Kelly saga was a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape; he believed that it was ‘a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush.’
In 1977, Sunday Reed donated 25 of the 27 paintings in Nolan’s first exhibited Kelly series to the National Gallery of Australia. The series was first painted while Nolan was living with Sunday and her husband John Reed at their homestead, Hede, in Heidelberg, Victoria.