We revisit Sidney Nolan’s painting Mrs Fraser and its captivating story. In 1947 Nolan spent an extended period in Queensland, including several weeks in Brisbane and on Fraser Island (formerly known as Great Sandy Island). In Brisbane’s John Oxley Library he read, among other things, accounts of the shipwreck of the English brig, the Stirling Castle, off the south-east Queensland coast in 1836. Nolan was intrigued by the story of Mrs Eliza Frasers survival after the wreck, her captivity (or salvation) by local Aborigines and her controversial return to England.
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This spectacular colonial narrative of the displaced gentlewoman, made vulnerable to both the material primitivism and the perceived sexual savagery of ‘native’ life, proved an ideal source for Nolan. It continued the project he had begun a couple of years earlier with the ‘Ned Kelly’ series, in which he merged motifs from popular culture with modernist aesthetics; and it provided him with imagery which allowed for some personal blood-letting.
And in this sandy forest
a ganger takes a part
of a sprig with a flower
and wears it in his hat,
wears it all day,
a wave to memory setting him apart.
Barrett Reid, Fraser Island, looking west 1
Nolan had left Melbourne for Queensland in early July 1947. Specifically, he fled the ‘huge emotional climate’ of Heide, the home on the banks of the Yarra River he had shared with art patrons John and Sunday Reed for eight years.2 It has become acceptable now to openly acknowledge that Nolan and Sunday Reed were lovers and that he lived with the couple in a passionate and ultimately harrowing ménage à trois for almost a decade. For a long time, however, the domestic details of this intensely influential period of his personal and working life were excluded from commentaries on his work. Inserting Sunday Reed back into the picture enables us to observe the symbiotic relationship between Nolan’s Eliza Fraser and the woman who has recently been termed his ‘monstrous muse’.3
Mid-1947 was an opportune moment for Nolan to heed the call of the culturally influential Australian Geographical Walkabout Magazine to ‘know his country’.4 The dynamic atmosphere of crisis and creativity that had been so much a part of wartime Melbourne was on the wane. The Contemporary Art Society, the formal structure used by the Reeds to promote ‘modernist’ art practice in Melbourne, had (temporarily) ceased operations, and other core members of the Heide ‘group’ were dispersing — Albert Tucker left for Europe; his estranged wife Joy Hester was living with Gray Smith in Sydney. In 1945 Nolan’s younger brother Raymond had drowned while on secondment with the navy in Cooktown, North Queensland, and the artist declared that he needed to make an investigative pilgrimage to the site, to pay tribute to his brother and to find out as much as he could about the incident for the sake of his parents. In this way, Nolan was able to initiate what would eventually become his permanent exile from Heide. Needless to say, he arrived in the north (after his first trip in a plane) with plenty of emotional baggage on board.
In Brisbane, Nolan stayed with the precocious young poet Barrett Reid (who had been the youngest contributor to the modemist aesthetics journal, Angry Penguins) and it was with Reid that he made the trip up the coast to Fraser Island.5 Nolan first heard of Fraser Island from his friend Tom Harrisson, a former British army major who trained parachute commandos there during the war. His descriptions of the island’s exotic beauty had been one of the factors that enticed the artist north. On arrival, Nolan was not disappointed:
No wonder Harrisson was impressed … Ninety miles long and 30 miles wide … it covers a lot of country. Strange coast line, medium sized cliffs covered in small thick scrub, but the most impressive part is the way in which great cliffs of sand make a pattern against the scmb … The size of the island has rather taken me back.6
At this time most of Fraser Island was a Forestry Commission reserve and travel to the area was restricted. The island’s Indigenous owners, the Ngulungbara, Batjala and Dulingbara peoples, had long since been forcibly resettled and the atmosphere in the loggers’ camps, where Nolan and Reid were accommodated and where they socialised, was relentlessly male and more than a little eccentric — images of the hard-working, hard-drinking timber workers sporting wildflowers in their hats would creep into the work of both Nolan and Reid after this trip. Everywhere in the surrounding landscape the historical spectre of Eliza Fraser, naked and cowering in the mangrove swamps and merging into the rainforest, became a focus for Nolans powerful and bitter imagination.7
The great achievement of Nolans art during this decade (but perhaps never after with the same astonishing effect) was to relate the landscape, that key signifier of ‘Australianness’, to the concept of modern life. He accomplished this with a degree of menace and vernacular confidence that astounded the likes of the influential art historian and taste maker Sir Kenneth Clark.8 Nolans work of the 1940s features a single theme in a recurrent trope — the outsider set against an environment which resists occupation. The artist explored these ideas in three famous series which deal with historical characters given mythic status by the cultural claims made on their behalf — the outlaw Ned Kelly, the failed explorers Burke and Wills, and the amoral, unreliable widow Eliza Fraser.
When Nolan turned his attention to Mrs Fraser he was thirty years old, absent without leave from the army (he would be dishonourably discharged the following year) and miserably, angrily in love — at an emotional and artistic crossroads. Even the normally reticent Sir Sidney Nolan later admitted that this combination was an ideal genesis for a new and riveting series of works:
With these ghosts as his familiars, Nolan settles back, his eyes lost in a reverie of assessment and recalls the displacements of Eliza Fraser … ‘I’d painted her as someone who’d turned in her convict rescuer; she is called a traitress… In 1947 she was of interest to me because she was bound up with an emotional state I was in.’9
Related: Sidney Nolan
Nolan’s initial group of twelve paintings on the adventures of Eliza Fraser were first exhibited at the Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, in February 1948. In these works Nolan grappled both with the exotic, new landscape, its lush vegetation and brilliant blue lakes, and with the Fraser legend, which told (in various permutations) how the survivors of the Stirling Castle shipwreck were captured, stripped and enslaved by the island’s original inhabitants. The ‘modernist’ content of the exhibition provoked the usual conservative backlash in the local press, despite a catalogue introduction by critic Clive Turnbull pronouncing Nolan to be ‘the most interesting of all the younger Australian painters.10 Only two works sold — one, Fraser Island, to the poet Judith Wright, who conducted a spirited defence of Nolan in the Courier-Mail. However, the most startling and successful painting in the series, Mrs Fraser 1947, was not for sale. Indeed, it remained in the artist’s estate until 1995, an indication of its status for Nolan as a raw and private signifier.11
Mrs Fraser is one of Nolan’s most disturbing works. A submissive, faceless female is placed on all fours in a mangrove landscape made impenetrable to her view. She is collecting wood for her captors’ fire, and the sticks are scattered in her path like bones thrown out for a dog. The painting is cut across by a low horizon punctuated by three tall palms, testifying, with the intense, unclouded sky, to the vivid tropical geography she so desperately inhabits. Two of the sentinel palms extend up beyond the picture frame, reasserting the endless perspective stretching above and over her, and emphasising her imprisonment in the foreground. The taut skin of her figure is painted with touches of yellow, white and blue, a cold and grisly palette. Nolan plays his favourite technical hand — he builds a narrative out of abstract shapes and spatial ambiguity.
In this depiction of Eliza Fraser, Nolan appears to have been particularly inspired by a 1937 account of the convict John Graham’s experiences, written and illustrated by Robert Gibbings. (In some versions of the tale, Graham was the convict who rescued Eliza Fraser and led her to freedom.) Nolan borrows from John Graham (Convict) 1824 — An Historical Narrative both the compositional device of the painting (as in the reproduced etching) and the overall pathos of the subject:
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.12
Nolan focuses attention on Mrs Fraser as abject victim. Her body is harshly lit at the centre of an oval format and she is offered to the spectator as if through the sharp, personal viewpoint of a telescopic lens or, as Jane Clark has suggested, ‘down the barrel of a gun’.13 Nolan used this framing device on several other occasions, as in his adaptation of the oval-shaped convention of the historical, family portrait in Portrait of Barrett Reid 134714 Later, he made the subjective intent of this pictorial manoeuvre explicit in a studio photograph, taken in London in 1957, in which he pointedly glares at Mrs Fraser through a pair of binoculars.
There is no doubt that what we are being coaxed to witness here is a vision of humanity forced down the evolutionary scale; more precisely, a woman of ‘culture’ descends, too hastily, into ‘nature’. This is the kind of ‘primitivism’ made famous by the Euro-American avant-garde, a highly sexualised account of transgressive aesthetics. When Willem de Kooning’s first ‘Women’ series was introduced to New York critics in the early 1950s, the images were greeted with lurid excitement. For supporters like Artnews critic Thomas Hess, de Kooning had wrestled ‘his girl’ on to the canvas and shown her who was boss. A similar feverishness afflicts some of the critical forays around Mrs Fraser:
her plight arouses not pity but the sense of her openness to sexual assault. She is a woman liable to be taken from behind, like the women in some of the Pompeiian wall paintings, with no preference and no certainty on the part of the taker as to which passage is being penetrated. She would spit and snap like a female dingo, without offering resistance.15
This, then, was Sunday Reed’s punishment — to be characterised as the savage nymph. She was so ambitious for Nolan, though, that one senses she would not have objected too strenuously to her identification with this withering masterpiece.16
And what of the real Eliza Fraser, whoever she might have been? By the time she had returned safe, but probably not all that sound, to England, several versions of the story (including her own) were appearing in the popular press as far away as the United States.17 Nothing could expose what Jim Davidson has called the ‘soft underbelly of imperialism’ as vividly as tall tales about white women held captive in the wilderness.18 Over the past 150 years, there have been many more recountings of the legend, few of which match in even the basic details. Eliza’s cultural interpreters have ranged from filmmakers, to librettists, to feminist historians. Her manifestations in the more contemporary reconstructions of the story cast her as everything from ribald temptress to complex class heroine.19
Too many have claimed a piece of her, to trust any single version of her ‘history’; the accretions of paint, legend, gossip, analysis, film and music are too dense to see through. But if half the stories are true — if she really did give birth to a child ‘born drowned’ in a long boat, up to her waist in sea water, surrounded by terrified and useless men; if, when taken into captivity by the rightfully suspicious and curious local tribes, she was forced to suckle their children with the milk her body doggedly produced for her own lost baby; and if, on her return to ‘civilisation’, she was treated with the prurience and morbid fascination that we have been educated to expect of nineteenth-century audiences — then it seems quite logical that she would be shrill in her demands for a free ride for the rest of her life.20
It is likely that Sidney Nolan changed his mind about her too. In interviews towards the end of his career Nolan made explicit his sense of connection with Eliza Fraser and her arduous, long-deferred journey home.21 He had returned to the Fraser legend for a further two series in the mid- 1950s and early 1960s. The final images, such as Mrs Fraser and convict 1962-64 (used as the cover image for Patrick White’s acclaimed historical adaptation of the subject, A Fringe o f Leaves, first published in 1976), feature an increasing lyricism; the medium and format change and the works become larger in scale. In this group of works, Eliza Fraser and her convict lover are battered and weathered, but they have endured. No longer alien, or separate, they are made of the same stuff as the landscape itself. They almost seem to belong.
Lynne Seear is former Deputy Director (Curatorial and Collection Development), QAGOMA. Edited extract from ‘A wave to memory: Sydney Nolan Mrs Fraser’ from Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998
1 Barrett Reid, ‘Fraser Island, looking west’, In Making Country, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney, 1976, p.106.
2 For the most up-to-date account of the relationship, see Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, ed. Janine Burke, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1995, pp.17ff.
3 Burke (ed.), Dear Sun, p.28.
4 M. E. McGuire discusses the Influence of Walkabout on Sidney Nolan and Australian Modernism In general in his article ‘Whiteman’s Walkabout’, Meanjin, vol.52, no.3, Spring 1993, pp.517-25.
5 Nolan visited Fraser Island on two occasions, in late July 1947 and again in October 1947.
6 Sidney Nolan, in a letter of 30 July 1947, quoted in Jane Clark, Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends. A Retrospective Exhibition 1937-1987 [exhibition catalogue], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p.91.
7 Jane Clark, p.90.
8 Sir Kenneth Clark visited Sydney in 1949, during the time that he held the position of Slade Professor at Oxford University. He sought out Sidney Nolan and bought a painting from him, leaving a deep impression on the young artist. For an account of this visit see Brian Adams, Sidney Nolan. Such Is Life: A Biography, Hutchison Australia, Hawthorn (Vic.), 1987, pp.103-105.
9 Nicholas Rothwell, ‘Nolan: The artist in exile begins his long journey home’, Weekend Australian, 15 July 1989, Library press cuttings, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
10 Clive Turnbull, Introduction, in Paintings by Sidney Nolan [exhibition catalogue], Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 17-28 February 1948, unpag.
11 The painting was exhibited as cat. no. 2, under the title ‘Urang Creek’. See Paintings by Sidney Nolan [exhibition catalogue].
12 Robert Gibbings, John Graham (Convict) 1824 — An Historical Narrative, Faber & Faber, London, 1937, p.81.
13 Jane Clark, p.91.
14 Nolan also used an 1871 photograph of the revolutionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud as a compositional source for his painting of Reid. For a reproduction of the original photograph see Jane Clark, p.38.
15 Sidney Nolan Paradise Garden, ed. Robert Melville, R. Alistair McAlpine, London, 1971, p.7.
16 The final break with Sunday Reed did not come until after Nolan’s marriage to Cynthia Reed (John Reed’s
sister) in 1948. At Christmas 1947, Nolan presented one of the Fraser Island series to Sunday Reed (Lake Wabby) as a Christmas gift.
17 See Kay Schaffer, ‘Eliza Fraser’s trial by media’, Antipodes, vol.5, no.2, December 1991, pp.114-19.
18 Jim Davidson, ‘Beyond the Fatal Shore: The mythologization of Mrs Fraser’, Meanjin, vol.49, no.3, Spring 1990, p.450.
19 For comprehensive overviews of Eliza Fraser’s use as a cultural icon see Kay Schaffer, In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995, and Chris Healy, ‘Eliza Fraser and the impossibility of postcolonial history’, in From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp.160-89.
20 On her return to England (so the legend has it) Eliza Fraser sold her story to passers-by in Hyde Park, and was continually asking for public funds in compensation for her trials.
21 Rothwell, ‘Nolan: The artist in exile begins his long journey home’.
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Featured image detail: Sidney Nolan Mrs Fraser 1966