Steve Hart was a young girl in 1947. Sidney Nolan

Hart was a bushranger with full credentials the following year while camping at Stringybark Creek with three of his friends. A group of four policemen had attempted to arrest Kelly’s brothers and shot one. His merry way of life continued to include bank robberies in Euroa and Jerilderie and evading arrest at every opportunity. Hart began to disguise himself as a female and ride side-saddle in order to avoid detection.

Steve Hart in a studio portrait from 1878. National Archive of Australia Image No. : A1200, L81516

Six decades and 250 kilometers to the southwest, another young renegade of Irish descent also crossed-dressed to avoid arrest. Sidney Nolan, 25 years old, was living in a trio with John Reed and Sunday Reed in Bulleen.

Nolan, who was a deserter of the Citizen Military Forces at the time, took Sunday’s dress and went into the paddocks. John Reed told the police that “it’s just my crazy sister, she loves to take care of the geese.”

Nolan, two years after the Kelly Gang’s history was documented, began a series in 1946 to record the lives of these young men.

Albert Tucker took this photograph of Sidney Nolan taken in the 1940s. Wikimedia Commons

Nolan was experimenting with French Symbolist Poetry and European Modernism in the hothouse atmosphere of the Reeds’ home where writers, painters and intellectuals worked, lived and planned the future for Australian Art after the Second World War.

Nolan studied the paintings of Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cezanne in the Reed’s library. Also, he read the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud as well as Paul Verlaine. Sunday Reed was his muse, his assistant. He began painting the landscapes of the Wimmera, where he’d been stationed during his army service, and recording memories of St Kilda.

Nolan, after his dishonorable discharge in 1946 from the military, was looking for a large subject that would articulate an epic narrative of Australian Life set within its unique terrain. It had to capture the special character of Australians with their humor and independence, their heroism and resilience, as well as their stoicism. He found it all in the story of the Kelly brothers and their friends Joe Byrne, Steve Hart, and others.

The Jerilderie Letter. Wikimedia Commons

Nolan used the Ripolin enamel paint that he preferred and painted on hardboard to create 27 images in the series. The pictures tell the story of the Kelly gang and their ultimate demise at a shooting in the Glenrowan Hotel. Some of the photos are full of humor and light, while others are dark and threatening. He studied historical documents such as J.J. Kenneally’s The inner story of the Kelly gang, published in 1945, and Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter.

Nolan’s research led him to begin to identify with Ned, his friends, and the stories that he was uncovering. His own life story began to intertwine with those he discovered. The first sketch for his painting of Steve Hart, painted in 1945 and now in the Nolan Collection, Canberra, shows a young Steve, with an embryonic mustache, sitting in a floral cotton dress, under a blue, clear sky. Like Nolan, he is standing in a field with his horse, alert and rooted to a paddock full of wildflowers.

Nolan revisited the topic two years later, and the mood was different. Now, it is late afternoon. The sun is setting, and the hills are catching the last sonorous glow.

Sidney Nolan and Steve Hart in a girl’s dress 1947, from the Ned Kelly Series 1946 – 1947 enamel on composition board 90.60 cm x 121.10cm. Sunday Reed Gift 1977 National Gallery of Australia

Hart is now more relaxed in the saddle, and the final rays of light shine on him. He dares us to call out his name and is ready to throw his foot over his horse’s back to speed away toward the hills at the same speed that he displayed when he won the Benalla Handicap.

The landscape is an accomplice to the story of youthful cockiness, courage, and foolish bluster. Hart died at Glenrowan one year later. He was 21 years old, and lived by his maxim: “… A short life, but a happy one.”

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