Ned Kelly: The Rebel and Nolan’s Muse

Ned Kelly one day before the execution. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On the 11th of November 1880, Ned Kelly, an Australian bushranger, was hanged in Melbourne. At the time of his death he was only 25 and already a legend. By some perceived as a criminal and villain, by others as a rebel or even an Australian equivalent of Robin Hood, Kelly was anstill is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Australia.

He was sentenced to death for the murder of three policemen, numerous bank robberies and the murder of his estranged gang member, Aaron Sherritt. The list of his crimes was much longer, but he denied some of them and claimed to be the victim of false accusations. Always on a run with his fellow gang members, Kelly was  captured eventually after the Glenrowan shootout on the 27th of June 1880. Prior to this event, the Kelly gang had equipped themselves in characteristic iron armour that repelled bullets; yet, it did not protect their legs. This turned out to be fatal in consequences, as Kelly was “shot in the left foot, left leg, right hand, left arm and twice in the region of the groin” (The Argus, 29 June 1880). His fellow gang members did not survive the shootout.

“Ah, well, I suppose it has come to this” (The Argus, 12 November 1880), were Kelly’s last words, with the rope already around his neck. But the words Kelly is best remembered for are included in his famous Jerilderie Letter, written to the police to clarify and justify various incidents leading him to becoming an outlaw. The letter made of him an illiterate (he dictated the letter to his friend) literary phenomenon. The language in the letter has got an unavoidable roughness to it, yet it is colourful and full of metaphors, testifying Kelly’s eloquence and intelligence.

”The Jeriderie letter was written in Ned’s voice: idiosyncratic, vibrant, raucous and unequivocally Australian. Kelly described throwing one policeman down into the dust until he was ‘helpless as a big guano [goanna] after leaving a dead bullock or a horse’. … The police generally were described as ‘big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police’.” (Jeremy Stoljar,The Australian Book of Great Trials).

Kelly’s letter became eventually a major inspiration to the Australian artist, Sidney Nolan. Almost 70 years after Kelly’s death, in 1940s, Nolan produced a series of 26 paintings based on the story of Kelly’s turbulent life. Asked about inspirations behind the series Nolan admitted to three: “Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight.” (Kenneth Clark, Sidney Nolan). The mixture of it all produced a mysterious biographical tale. “In Nolan’s paintings Kelly is the source of action in his world; his black presence is overwhelming. … Nolan showed the bushranger “doing something about the world” from the moment when he is seen looking through the window at his sister Kate resisting the advances of Constable Fitzpatrick – the incident that “began the real trouble” – to the moment when he stands defiant in the dock as he is sentenced to death.” (Andrew Sayers, Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Story). Nolan’s paintings depict Kelly as an almost mythical figure, wandering about Australia like a ghostly Don Quixote. Reduced to the essence of his legendary attributes – armour and square helmet, the true Kelly is not really there. In some of the paintings we cannot even see his hands or lurking eyes.  
The thing that really remained of Kelly is the outer shell – the legend of a folk hero beautifully integrated within the Australian landscapes.
  However, in 1962 Nolan produced a painting in which he unveiled the man behind the armour. In Kelly and His Armour, the untamed rebel stands naked and vulnerable beside his cut-out disguise; behind him a broken tree – a symbol of a broken man and a broken life, that was taken away from him much too early.

Shortly after finishing his series of Kelly paintings, Nolan commented on the attitudes of people in north-east Australia, where Kelly’s story was still arousing outrage; he said: “Their energies are fine, but they need clarification. Kelly was not half rebel, half criminal, he was a rebel reformer. That is why he got into the language – he did something about the world.” (Sayers)

(Fragments of the  Jerilderie letter)

Dear Sir,

I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future. In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft; a hawker named Mr. Gould got his wagon bogged between Greta and my mothers house on the Eleven Mile Creek. The ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places, so Mr. Gould had to abandon his wagon for fear of losing his horses in the spewy ground. He was stopping at my mother’s awaiting finer or drier weather. Mr. McCormack and his wife, hawkers also, were camped in Greta. The mosquitoes were very bad which they generally are with a wet spring to help them. Mr. Johns had a horse called Ruta Cruta, which although a gelding was as clever as Old Wombat or any other stallion at running horses away and taking them on his beat which was from Greta Swamp to the Seven Mile Creek, consequently he enticed McCormack’s horse away from Greta. Mr. Gould was up early feeding his horses, heard a bell and seen McCormack’s horse, for he knew the horse well. He sent his boy to take him back to Greta. When McCormacks got the horse they came straight out to Gould and accused him of working the horse. This was false, and Gould was amazed at the idea. I could not help laughing to hear Mrs. McCormack accusing him of using the horse after him being so kind as to send his boy to take him from the Ruta Cruta and take him back to them. I pleaded Gould’s innocence and Mrs. McCormack turned on me and accused me of bringing the horse from Greta to Gould’s wagon to pull him out of the bog. I did not say much to the woman as my mother was present, but the same day when me and my uncle was cutting calves, Gould wrapped up a note and a pair of the calves’ testicles and gave them to me to give them to Mrs. McCormack. I did not see her and gave the parcel to a boy to give to her when she would come. Instead of giving it to her he gave it to her husband. Consequently McCormack said he would summons me. I told him neither me nor Gould used their horse. …

If any man was mean enough to steal their property, the poor would rise out to a man and find them if they were on the face of the earth. It will always pay a rich man to be liberal with the poor and make as little enemies as he can, as he shall find if the poor is on his side, he shall lose nothing by it. If they depend on the Police they shall be drove to destruction, as they cannot and will not protect them. If duffing and bushranging were abolished, the Police would have to cadge for their living. I speak from experience, as I have sold horses and cattle innumerable, and yet eight head of the culls is all ever was found. I never was interfered with whilst I kept up this successful trade. I give fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out, and give 10 pounds out of every hundred towards the widow and orphan fund and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice, neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales. I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning, but I am a widow’s son outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed. Edward Kelly.