#NOLAN100 - NO.25

Peter Grimes, 1977

David Lipsey

"From Sidney Nolan’s gargantuan output, and thousands of great paintings, how to choose one? The simplest is to opt for the one I know best, for it is the one that I look at daily on my study wall: Peter Grimes. 

The picture depicts the last scene of Benjamin Britten’s opera. The eponymous fisherman, hated by the locals after two of his apprentices have died as a consequence of his pursuing his overwheening ambition, has taken his boat, in the top left corner of the picture, and scuttled it. He drowns. 

Grimes of course is Britten’s creation. He is socially cut off, as Britten felt he was by his homosexuality.  

At first blush it is hard to see why Nolan should share this sense of isolation. Despite his ferocious work rate, he was a gregarious personality, on fire with his own energy and creativity. And yet there are elements in his biography which meant he was a man who did not belong. He escaped through bloody minded determination from his working class origins – his upbringing by a bookmaker who worked on the trams. He ended up with Sir Kenneth Clarke his great friend and admirer. Until finally settling at The Rodd in Herefordshire, he was an inveterate traveller, greedy for more though this was in tension with a constant relationship with the Australian bush and its people. 

When I look at the picture, I see Nolan and hear Britten."  


David Lipsey is a life peer.  He chairs the Sidney Nolan Trust as well as the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and the All Party Groups on Classical Music and on Statistics.  An economist and past financial regulator, he is a former political editor of The Economist and deputy editor of two national newspapers.  He was an adviser to James Callaghan as prime minister and to Anthony Crosland, the foreign secretary.

Sidney Nolan, Peter Grimes, 1977, Ripolin on board, 91.5x122cm, © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust, private collection

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