Carlton, Victoria, Australia 1917 – London, England 1992
Burke at Cooper's Creek 1950 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil and enamel paint on composition board
Sidney Nolan thought about the Burke and Wills expedition as early as 1945, when he began to explore themes of European history in the Australian landscape – and famously hit upon the saga of Ned Kelly for his first sustained narrative series. By 1950 he had made several outback journeys, later writing, ‘I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia and realising how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb willpower.’1 Burke at Cooper’s Creek is one of Nolan’s Burke and Wills paintings from that time – not simple illustrations of the tragic events of 1860–61, but poetic, richly layered imaginings with all the qualities of an Australian legend.
Here the ill-fated expedition leader, Robert O’Hara Burke, astride his horse, surveys an ironically peaceful and plentiful scene. He is alone, though in reality the Victorian Exploring Expedition to cross the continent from south to north was large (initially 19 men) and handsomely equipped. The creek is full and lined with shady trees; soft white clouds billow in the burnished blue enamel sky and birds fly overhead like specimens from a contemporary ornithological textbook. One of the 26 specially imported camels takes a rest in the foreground, thinly brushed in with red-brown ochre oil paint suggestive of both real earth and dreamlike mirage.
Cooper’s Creek, in south-west Queensland, was the expedition’s last depot and safe haven before the final, fatal race north to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back. Nolan has captured both the beauty of the landscape and the poignant sense of displacement of his protagonists – European visitors who completely misunderstood its power.
Jane Clark 2002.
1 Sidney Nolan, letter to Geoffrey Dutton quoted in Geoffrey Dutton, ‘Sidney Nolan’s Burke and Wills Series’, Art and Australia, vol.5, no.2, September 1967, pp.455–59 (p.459).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002