In late 1947, following a number of months travelling throughout Queensland, Sidney Nolan settled in Sydney. In March 1948 he married Cynthia Hansen (née Reed), a writer and the sister of his patron John Reed. The marriage between Nolan and Cynthia caused a painful rift with John and his wife Sunday and, after an unsuccessful visit from the newlyweds in March 1948, Nolan would never see his first and most important patrons again. The Nolans settled in Wahroonga, a leafy suburb in the municipality of Ku-ring-gai about 20 kilometres north of Sydney on the edge of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
Ku-ring-gai Chase is a startling image of a hazy, smouldering bushfire. There had been an early start to the summer season of bushfires in 1947, the Sydney Morning Herald reporting in late October that:
… last summer’s late rains brought out a bountiful growth of tussock and grass as well as a record season of wildflowers. An almost continuous run of westerly winds to date has dried out the forest to a condition like tinder. It requires only a spark to start a fire, and with the prevailing winds behind it a small blaze would soon become an inferno.1
Nolan’s skilful handling of paint, swift brushwork and freshness of colour conveys the ferocity of this scene: the heat and dust of the wind, the crackling of leaves and grasses and the smell of burning bush. There is a heightened tension in the picture; uneasiness as to whether the fire is receding or approaching, a knowledge that with a change in conditions the situation could rapidly alter. In Ku-ring-gai Chase the advantages of living in rural suburbia seem reversed as the threat of danger encroaches.
An inscription on the back of the work suggests that Nolan gave the painting to Cynthia as a gift on 22 May 1948. A message in pencil (visible only with infrared screening) reads ‘Cynthia XXX Sidney’. In this powerful painting it is possible that Nolan is also exploring his personal reaction to events taking place in his own life, the fire serving as a metaphor for notions of passion, destruction and new beginnings.
1 ‘Danger of forest fires’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1947, p. 2.