Desert Bird (1948)
Theguardian_ Two works by Sidney Nolan that haven’t changed hands since they were painted more than 70 years ago – including one believed to be the first he ever sold commercially and a Christmas gift to his wife – are heading to auction this month.
In Town and Desert Bird were both painted in late 1948, just before the Australian artist hit the big time in March 1949, when he exhibited a series of paintings inspired by his travels through outback Queensland to acclaim at David Jones Gallery in Sydney.
Desert Bird, which was part of that Queensland series, was purchased by the family of the present owner in early 1949 for 35 guineas, the equivalent of $2,300 today. It is estimated it will sell for $500,000 to $700,000 at auction.
It is believed to be the first painting Nolan ever sold to an independent collector, having previously sold works only to friends or acquaintances. In a 1967 letter to artist Hal Missingham, Nolan’s wife, Cynthia, described Desert Bird as “the first painting S[id] sold in Sydney from the Macquarie [Galleries] – in fact I believe the first he ever sold. Two or perhaps four to friends before.”
Around the same time as Desert Bird, Nolan painted In Town and gifted it to Cynthia, to whom the work is inscribed, for Christmas in 1948. It was inherited by their daughter Jinx Nolan after Cynthia’s death in 1976 and has never been sold.
The painting has been transported from Jinx Nolan’s home in the US to Australia, where it is estimated it will sell for $300,000 to $500,000.
Geoffrey Smith,chairman of auction house Smith & Singer, said it was a coincidence that the two works were coming up for sale together.
“I believe it is a completely unique instance to have two works that were included in Nolan’s breakthrough exhibition coming forward in the same sale, and to have two works consigned by the descendants of the original owners,” Smith said.
In Town (1948)
Both works were painted after Nolan’s famous series of Ned Kelly paintings were first exhibited in Melbourne in April 1948, to a generally hostile reaction: the show was a “complete commercial failure”, Smith said. The Kelly paintings were retained by his patrons John and Sunday Reed, who later gave 25 of the 27 works to the National Gallery of Australia.
Nolan, who had been having an affair with Sunday – Cynthia’s sister – while staying with the Reeds, left for Queensland, where he was inspired by the landscape to produce the paintings that would win him wider appreciation in 1949. Both In Town and Desert Bird were shown in that exhibition, titled Queensland Outback Paintings.
“There were record attendances, and all these people were suddenly buying Nolans,” Smith said of the exhibition. “It’s a really special, pivotal moment both in the history of Australian art but obviously in Nolan’s career. Ned Kelly is the series everybody has in their heads, but it’s this Queensland series that is really important.”
Desert Bird was first offered at auction in 2013, but the reserve price was not met and it was withdrawn from sale.
Also among the 60 lots in the auction are works by John Brack, Albert Tucker, Margaret Olley, Howard Arkley, Del Kathryn Barton and Charles Blackman, as well as two works from the art collection of actor Cate Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton: Rosalie Gascoigne’s Grasslands, a work constructed from wooden soft crates that is estimated to sell for $500,000 to $700,000, and John Olsen’s 1998 painting The Bath.
The lots in the auction, titled Important Australian Art, will be displayed to the public from Wednesday until 12 November in Melbourne, then in Sydney from 16-21 November before the auction on 21 November.
The total sale estimate of the 60 works is $8.8m to $12.3m.