Sir Sidney Nolan

Armoured Helmet


Not on display

Sir Sidney Nolan 1917–1992
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1219 × 914 mm
frame: 1261 × 956 × 55 mm
Presented by Lord McAlpine of West Green 1983

Display caption

This work, dated 16 November 1956, is one of a small group of paintings of Ned Kelly (see caption for 'Glenrowan') inspired by the doomed Hungarian uprising earlier that month. On 4 November Soviet tanks invaded Budapest. Savage street-fighting ensued and the uprising was crushed within a fortnight. News reports recorded that, during the conflict, the Hungarians tried to stop the tanks by smashing the periscope mirrors in which could be seen the reflections of the drivers' faces. Moved by such accounts Nolan invested the image of the helmeted Ned Kelly with this additional significance. Of these works a contemporary critic observed: 'History ... topicality of reference ... has overtaken Kelly'.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

T03556 Armoured Head 1956

Oil on hardboard 48 × 36 (1219 × 914)
Inscribed ‘N.’ b.r. and ‘HELMET./1956/Nolan’, ‘NOV. 16th 1956’ and ‘NOLAN/NOVEMBER 16th/1956’ on reverse
Presented by Lord McAlpine 1983
Prov: Lord McAlpine (purchased from the artist)
Exh: Sidney Nolan, Whitechapel Art Gallery, June–July 1957 (68, as ‘Mask’); II. Documenta, Kassel, July–October 1959 (Nolan 2, as ‘Helmet’)
Repr: Encounter, VIII, January 1957, facing p.16

The artist says that this picture, dated 16 November 1956, is one of three or four paintings inspired by the Hungarian uprising which took place that month. Soviet tanks entered Budapest early in the morning of 4 November and savage fighting broke out; but large-scale hostilities were over within a fortnight.

This work was reproduced in Encounter a couple of months later with a quotation from a news item: ‘All the people in the street could see of the driver of the tank was his face reflected in the driving mirror’ (apparently the Hungarians tried to immobilize the tanks by smashing the mirrors). This description also inevitably reminded Nolan of Ned Kelly in his helmet, and the image turned into a kind of fusion between the two. Although it is inscribed with the title ‘Helmet’, Nolan would now prefer it to be called ‘Armoured Head’.

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

You might like

In the shop