Sir Sidney Nolan

Camel and Figure

1966

Medium
Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 1210 x 1219 mm
frame: 1231 x 1231 x 37 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Lord McAlpine of West Green 1983
Reference
T03559

Display caption

'Camel and Figure' is one of many paintings by Nolan inspired by the story of the explorers Burke and Wills. In 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills set out from Melbourne, aiming to cross Australia from south to north. This involved traversing the vast inhospitable desert of inland Australia. The expedition was doomed from the start. Both were inexperienced, travelling at the wrong time of year, overloaded with wrong provisions, and with quarrelsome subordinates. Burke and Wills both perished. This painting depicts Burke with one of the 27 camels which formed the cavalcade. According to legend, stripping is the last act of a man dying in the desert. Burke's nakedness thus signals disaster.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T03559 Camel and Figure 1966

Oil on hardboard 47 5/8 × 48 (1210 × 1219)
Inscribed ‘nolan/1966’ b.r. and ‘20 Sept/1966/nolan’ on reverse
Presented by Lord McAlpine 1983
Prov: Lord McAlpine (purchased from the artist)
Exh: Sidney Nolan: Retrospective Exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, September–October 1967 (143); National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, November–December 1967 (143); Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth, January–February 1968 (143); Sidney Nolan: Retrospective Exhibition, Arts Centre, New Metropole, Folkestone, February–April 1970 (50); Sidney Nolan: Gemälde und Druckgraphik, Kunsthalle, Darmstadt, May–June 1971 (38, repr. in col.); Sidney Nolan, Marlborough Galerie, Zürich, October–November 1973 (9, repr. in col.); Sidney Nolan, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, January–March 1976 (56, repr.in col.)
Repr: Art and Australia, v, no.2, 1967, p.464; Elwyn Lynn, Sidney Nolan: Myths and Imagery, London-Melbourne, 1967, pl.68 in col.

This is one of a considerable number of paintings which Nolan made from 1948 onwards inspired by the exploits of the ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills. Robert O'Hara Burke, a police inspector with neither scientific training nor experience of the bush, was appointed leader of an expedition (also including William John Wills, an English surgeon) which set out from Melbourne in August 1860 to make the crossing of Australia from south to north. After setting up a base camp at Cooper's Creek, roughly the half-way point, Burke pushed on with three companions and managed to reach a swamp close to the Gulf of Carpentaria. However on the way back one of the party died, and by the time the others staggered into Cooper's Creek in April 1861 the base party had just left. When a rescue party arrived five months later, they found that Burke and Wills were dead and there was only one survivor.

Nolan says that he thought of the figure in this picture as Burke, who was the more manic of the two. The whitish, iridescent area in the distance, to the right, is a salt lake: actually Lake Frome, north of Adelaide. The explorers would not have seen this, as it was off their route, so its inclusion is an example of artistic licence.

The expedition included a number of camels, most of which had been specially imported from India. Burke is shown naked, an omen of disaster. In mid-Australia, stripping off clothes is legendarily the last crazed, automatic act of a man dying for lack of water in a wasteland.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986