Celebrating Sidney Nolan
Marking the centenary of his birth. Photograph: March-April 1970. Photographer unidentified, possibly Benjamin Britten
As part of the celebration marking the centenary of Sidney Nolan the Britten-Pears Foundation are pleased to reproduce this article that Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed wrote as an addendum to Sidney Nolan’s obituary in the Independent in December 1992. It focussed on Nolan’s friendship with Britten.
Nolan first visited Aldeburgh in 1950, when he was introduced to the composer by Sir Kenneth Clark: 'We immediately got off on to a good footing,' recalled Nolan in a public interview at Aldeburgh in June 1990. 'We either had a shared innocence or a shared opposite,' and the two men remained friends until Britten's death in 1976. The first series of paintings to be inspired by Britten's music were the Shakespeare Sonnets, first shown at Aldeburgh in 1964. The studies had been inspired by Britten's consummate setting of Shakespeare's 'When most I wink then do mine eyes best see', the final number in his orchestral song-cycle Nocturne, Op. 60, the hearing of which had, according to Nolan, unlocked something deeply hidden in himself and found expression and release in his paintings. Other Britten- inspired works followed, including Rejoice in the Lamb (a series of Australian flower paintings, exhibited at Aldeburgh in 1968), Winter Words, Children's Crusade - a series of finger-paintings accomplished first as integral illustrations of the facsimile of Britten's manuscript of the work published on the occasion of the composer's 60th birthday in 1973 - and the Donne Sonnets, as well as responses to some of Britten's dramatic music, notably Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.
In 1970, when Britten and Pears were at the Adelaide Festival with the English Opera Group, it was Nolan who showed his native land to his English friends. Britten was as moved by the qualities of Aboriginal culture he saw there as he was by the Australian landscape, and began to discuss the possibility of writing a ballet contrasting European and aboriginal civilisations in which Nolan would collaborate. This remained unfulfilled, as did another project, a musical setting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for television which Nolan was to illustrate.
Nolan's final appearances at Aldeburgh in 1990 and 1991 were connected. In 1990, he generously loaned some of his Children's Crusade paintings which, together with Winter Words, were exhibited for the first time in public at the Britten-Pears Library. The oriental quality of some of the Children's Crusade paintings (Nolan had visited China in 1965) suggested an interest in the Far East and when in the following year the Festival featured a Japanese production of Britten's Curlew River prefaced by its Noh source, Sumidagawa, Nolan agreed to design the obligatory pine tree.
The tree was rapidly sketched, and what emerged was something distinctly Nolanesque that none the less perfectly harmonised with the age-old tradition of Noh. Nolan took a bow with the Japanese cast at the end of the final performance, looking thoroughly happy and at home, like his tree. It was his last appearance at Aldeburgh.
Image: Photograph of Peter Pears in the background with Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia during a break in the only concert tour he made of Australia and New Zealand with Britten, March-April 1970. Photographer unidentified, possibly Benjamin Britten.