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Sidney Nolan and Mrs Fraser


Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-92 | Mrs Fraser 1947 | Ripolin enamel on hardboard | Purchased 1995 with a special allocation from the Queensland Government. Celebrating the Queensland Art Gallery's Centenary 1895-1995 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Courtesy of the Artist's Estate /www.bridgeman.co.uk

Currently on display | Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries | Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)

In July 1947, Sidney Nolan left Melbourne to travel north. Nolan had met the young Brisbane poet Barrett Reid among John and Sunday Reed’s artistic and literary circle at Heide, who suggested he would find new artistic inspiration in the mining sites, small towns, deserts and rainforests of Queensland. Reid’s prophecy was accurate: Nolan’s trip to Queensland was a turning point in his career.

During visits to Brisbane’s John Oxley Library, Nolan read accounts of the story of Eliza Fraser, a woman shipwrecked, in 1836, on Fraser Island. Called K’gari by the island’s Badtjala people, the island was subsequently renamed after her. Nolan was fascinated by the story of Eliza Fraser’s survival, her time spent with the Indigenous people (an experience variously described as one of captivity or salvation) and her rescue by the convict David Bracefell. Nolan also visited the island, and the result was an exhibition of Fraser Island paintings at Brisbane’s Moreton Galleries, in February 1948.

In 1957, after moving to Britain, Nolan began a new Eliza Fraser series using a palette that merged the colours of the Thames’ muddy reaches at Putney, where he now lived, with memories of the Queensland rainforest. The new painting medium of polyvinyl acetate allowed him to emphasise a heavy and psychologically-charged atmosphere, where the figures of Fraser and Bracefell hover in a dark world of swampy vegetation. The continuing presence of Eliza Fraser in Sidney Nolan’s work, almost 20 years after he first explored it, suggests that the episode was instrumental in his artistic development.

Collection Highlight

Sidney Nolan Mrs Fraser 1947

In 1947, Nolan became intrigued by the story of Englishwoman Eliza Fraser, whose vessel was shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836. Her story appealed to Nolan’s preoccupation with the outsider. Nolan appears to have been particularly influenced by Robert Gibbings’s 1937 account, John Graham (Convict) 1824.

It was a source of continual ridicule that when gathering firewood she was compelled to bend down and collect it with her hands instead of just picking up the sticks with her toes as she went along . . . Twice daily they plastered her hair with gum, fixing in it the teeth and bones of animals and fish; twice daily they rubbed fish oil into her skin and painted her body with clay. 

For Kids
Mrs Eliza Fraser was shipwrecked on Fraser Island in 1836. While she was on the island she lived with the local Aboriginal people and was rescued by an escaped convict. In this image the artist has shown Eliza hungry, alone and with no clothes, almost like a wild animal. Do you know what a convict was, where they came from and why they would want to escape? 

Of Interest 

The Queensland Art Gallery houses a significant collection of Australian paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper. Find more information on these selected Collection highlights | Indigenous Australian Art | Queensland Heritage | Australian Art to 1975 | Contemporary Australian Art 

Search the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection online for works by Sidney Nolan | Collection Search