Sir Sidney Nolan

In the Cave


Not on display

Sir Sidney Nolan 1917–1992
Polyvinyl acetate paint on hardboard
Support: 1219 × 1524 mm
frame: 1233 × 1536 × 25 mm
Presented by Lord McAlpine of West Green 1983

Display caption

In 1957 Nolan began using a new medium: polyvinyl acetate. PVA is a synthetic medium which can be used thickly or thinned with water. It was an ideal vehicle for Nolan's painting process. This involves laying down pigment, and then scrubbing, scraping and sponging the paint surface, encouraging the formation of images which are then elaborated. One aspect of the Eliza Fraser story which particularly fascinated Nolan was the bizarre conjunction of a naked white woman and a convict dressed in striped prison uniform. In this painting Mrs Fraser appears as an aboriginal cave drawing while Bracefell emerges from a niche in the rock.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03557 In the Cave 1957

Polyvinyl acetate on hardboard 48 × 60 (1219 × 1524)
Inscribed ‘N.’ b.c. and ‘MRS FRASER/1957’, ‘1957/CAVE/(MRS FRASER/Series)’, ‘No 53’, ‘FOR/BRITISH/COUNCIL’ and ‘2’ on reverse
Presented by Lord McAlpine 1983
Prov: Lord McAlpine (purchased from the artist)
Exh: Sidney Nolan, Whitechapel Art Gallery, June–July 1957 (81, as ‘In the Cave’); Nolan, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, March 1961 (53, repr.)
Repr: Kenneth Clark, Colin MacInnes and Bryan Robertson, Sidney Nolan, 1961, p.150, repr. pl.92

This is one of a series of pictures based on the true story of Mrs Fraser and the convict, Bracefell. Mrs Fraser was a Scotswoman emigrating to Australia in the 1860s who was shipwrecked on an island (now known as Fraser Island) off the coast of Queensland. She lived for several months with the aborigines, who gave her food but stripped off all her clothes, until she was found by an escaped convict who offered to take her across country to a settlement if she would intercede on his behalf.

Nolan first heard of Mrs Fraser when he spent several months on Fraser Island in 1947 and painted his first pictures of her soon afterwards. He then took up the theme again in London in 1957 when preparing work for his retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. What particularly fascinated him was the bizarre conjunction of a naked white woman and a convict in his black-and-white striped convict clothes in a lush tropical rain forest; also that, when the pair finally reached the neighbourhood of the settlement, Mrs Fraser reneged on her promise and told the convict to be off or she would hand him over to the police.

In this picture Mrs Fraser is splayed across the face of a rock like an aboriginal drawing, and Bracefell emerges from a cave in the rock.

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


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