Sidney Nolan / Australia/England 1917–1992 / (Birdsville Hotel) (from ‘Drought photographs’ series) 1952 / Archival inkjet print / 23 x 23cm / Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate /

Sidney Nolan
(Birdsville Hotel) (from ‘Drought photographs’ series) 1952

Not Currently on Display

Sidney Nolan’s ‘Drought photographs’ series from 1952 captures Australia’s dry and deserted rural heartland.

Nolan was an avid and innovative photographer, even creating his own wide-angle camera to capture the panoramic qualities of the outback. Despite continuing to take photographs, this was the only series Nolan intended for exhibition. It was commissioned by The Courier-Mail to document one of the worst droughts in the history of far north Queensland, but the images were deemed too graphic for display by the newspaper and never published.

On Nolan’s first trip to the Australian outback from June to September 1949, he took hundreds of photographs of trees, buildings and dusty figures that later became important motifs in his famed ‘Ned Kelly’ (1946–47 and 1954–56) and ‘Central Australia’ (1949–1953) series of paintings. This image of the iconic Birdsville Hotel is saturated with light, providing sharp contrasts to the shade created by the building’s awning.

Nolan’s close-up of the hotel’s frontage simultaneously obliterates and replaces the landscape’s horizon line, emphasising its importance to the town. It also reflects that sense of the panoramic, which Nolan explored in his outback images.

Born in 1917, Sidney Nolan lived with his family in an Irish-Australian enclave in Melbourne. After leaving school, he began a part-time art correspondence course, and in 1934, he attended evening drawing classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

Nolan believed that the emotional potency of mythology can add resonance to the facts of history. Across his body of work, he experimented with size and technique, returning to the formal task of positioning a focal subject within a context and in front of a background.

His first solo exhibition, a series of abstracts and collages, was held in 1940. Between 1942 and 1945, Nolan served in the Australian Army, guarding stores in western Victoria, where he began painting outback landscapes.

He first depicted bushranger Ned Kelly in early 1945. The following year, he was discharged in absentia after failing to return to service following a month’s leave. Nolan ventured to Queensland in July 1947, spending several weeks visiting Brisbane and Fraser Island.

In 1950, he left for England, and in 1957, he was recognised with a retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Nolan had more than 70 solo exhibitions and was knighted in 1981.