A RARE painting by Sgt Sidney Nolan of the legendary John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick and one of the donkeys on which he rescued over 240 wounded men on Gallipoli has been gifted to Australian War Memorial.
The director of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, accepted the painting this morning from Mrs Margaret Favilla, widow of the late ophthalmologist, Vietnam veteran and art collector Dr Ian Favilla.
The mixed media painting, “Simpson and the donkey”, sized 24.8 x 18.7 cm, is signed and inscribed on its reverse, “Maie with love Sidney”. Maie herself served as a VAD nurse in the First World War and later married Richard Casey, who became Governor-General in 1965.
Intended as the cover illustration for Peter Cochrane’s “Simpson and the donkey, The Making of a Myth”, published by Melbourne University Press, the painting has unusually clear provenance, a memorial staffer commented, having been originally presented to Lady Maie Casey by the artist, then placed with the Bridget McDonell Gallery in Melbourne, from which Dr Favilla purchased it in 1992.
Nolan completed this work as part of a large series of paintings on the subject of Gallipoli, most of which depicted soldiers and landscapes. Unusually, the work features Simpson carrying the donkey. Gallipoli was a subject to which Nolan often returned throughout his artistic career, and in 1978 he presented many of the works from his Gallipoli series to the Memorial.
The story, told to countless Australian schoolchildren, has also been immortalised in Peter Collett’s bronze sculpture of “Simpson and donkey”, which stands outside the War Memorial, a connection Dr Nelson was quick to make as he explained the importance of the legend, while assuring Mr Favilla that the painting would be prominently displayed.
Wasting no time, Dr Nelson immediately steered the memorial’s head of art Ryan Johnston towards a nearby display case focusing on Gallipoli artefacts, including the donkey’s headband and Simpson’s medal, to suggest just such a prominent spot.
The painting and the story, he said, were symbolic of the War Memorial’s most valued principle that “a life of value is one spent in service of another human being”.
He told those present at the handover that he had presently known the late Dr Favilla through the Australian Medical Association and that he felt sure he would have been pleased with this gift, from which the wider Australian public could benefit.