Important Australian and International Fine Art
13 September 2016


(1917 – 1992)

ripolin enamel on composition board

60.5 x 91.5 cm

signed, dated and inscribed verso: 1945 / 44 Marl / on loan not for sale/
LEDA + SWAN / No 44 / To Newcastle / Nolan

$65,000 – 85,000
Sold for $67,100 (inc. BP) in Auction 44 - 13 September 2016, Sydney

Lady Nolan, United Kingdom
Agnew’s, London
Private collection, Sydney


Marlborough Gallery, London, cat. SN14 (as ‘Leda (first)’, label attached verso)
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London (label attached verso)
Nolan, Hatton Gallery, University of Durham, United Kingdom, 24 March – 6 May 1961, then touring to: Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Wakefield, United Kingdom, 13 May – 28 November 1961, cat. 29
Nolan ’37 – ’47, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 15 May – 9 June 1962, cat. 30
Nolan’s Nolans: a reputation reassessed, Agnew’s, London, 11 June – 25 July 1997, cat. 26


Nolan, Kings College, University of Durham, United Kingdom, 1961, non-paginated (illus. exhibition catalogue)
MacInnes, C., and Robertson, B., Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961, reprinted 1967, pl. 6 (illus.)
Rosenthal, T. G., Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, p. 146 (illus.)
Osborne, C., ‘Leda and the Swan’, Art and Australia, vol. 5, no. 2, Spring 1967, p. 460 – 461
Underhill, N., Sidney Nolan: A Life, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2015, p. 33

Catalogue text

Sidney Nolan was fascinated by language. A voracious reader from his earliest days, he was ‘deeply interested in the imagery and attitudes of poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine, and read widely in the work of Kierkegaard, Eliot, Faulkner, Auden, Cummings and Lawrence.’1 He was also attracted to myth and Nolan’s sister noted that the family’s copy of the 1932 Pears Cyclopedia had underlining by Nolan on the tales of Icarus and Leda.2 By the time he had become a fixture within John and Sunday Reed’s circle at Heide in the early 1940s, passionate conversations about art, music, literature and life already raged long in to the evening. One recurrent theme concerned Australian landscape painting, that ‘[i]t was the darker aspect of the bush that made it an appropriate repository for mythical beings and events. The quality that Marcus Clarke described as ‘the weird melancholy of the bush’, and which D.H. Lawrence responded to in the 1920s.’3 The editor of Angry Penguins, Max Harris argued in particular that the only way for artists to make a significant modern statement in Australia was to turn to ‘that world which still exists pure as entity … personal myth’.4

The tale of Leda’s seduction by Zeus disguised as a swan had been depicted before by Australian artists such as Norman Lindsay, Arthur Murch and even Arthur Boyd;5 and Leda and Swan, 1945 marks Nolan’s own first attempt.6 The setting is hardly a romanticised European locale, being instead a swampy patch quite likely inspired by the riverbanks at Heide. The figure of Leda is also highly personal in that, as the poet Charles Osbourne observed, she ‘has the face of an Australian woman, the swan toying with her ear is no God.’7 The woman he is alluding to is Elizabeth Paterson, Nolan’s first wife, with whom he was still in a protracted breakup initiated in 1941 by his burgeoning affair with Sunday Reed [Elizabeth’s hairstyle is strikingly similar to Leda’s]. Sunday was ten years older than Nolan and their mutual lust exhilarated the young artist, but also wracked him with guilt over the betrayal of his wife and baby daughter. This would reach its apogee in 1971 when Nolan published Paradise Garden, full of vicious poetry and images, where ‘Sunday Reed is a monstrous muse, frigid yet rapacious, a vessel of vile desires.’8 It is not too extreme to consider Leda and Swan as Nolan’s first attempt to give vision to these tempestuous circumstances through an imagined encounter between ‘innocent’ Leda (Elizabeth) and the ‘voracious’ Swan (Sunday). A comparison of technique and composition also makes possible the idea that this painting was done contemporaneously with Narcissus (by the waterfall) – a self-absorbed self-portrait? – and Rosa Mutabilis, Nolan’s unadulterated love poem to Sunday where his new love emerges from the rose bushes smiling triumphantly, unscathed by the thorns. If so, these three paintings mark an extraordinary sequence for Nolan, one that continues to invite interpretation seven decades after their creation.

1. Lynn, E., Sidney Nolan: Myth and imagery, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1967, p. 8
2. See: Underhill, N., Sidney Nolan: A Life, NewSouth, Sydney, 2015, p. 33
3. Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Penguin, Melbourne, 1981, p. 196
4. Harris, M., 1946, quoted in: Haese, R., ibid., p. 252
5. See: Philipp, F., Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, p. 38
6. Nolan returned to the theme between 1958 and 1961.
7. Osborne, C., ‘Leda and the Swan’, Art and Australia, Sydney, September 1967, p. 460
8. Burke, J. (ed.), Dear Sun: the letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, William Heineman, Melbourne, 1995, p. 29