Woman Reed, Cynthia (Nolan)

Designer and Writer
Alternative Names
  • Nolan (Married Name)

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Violet Cynthia Reed (always known as Cynthia), was born in Tasmania in 1908. She was the youngest child of Henry and Lila (née Dennison) Reed. For much of her childhood her five older siblings were at schools either in England or Geelong, and she had a solitary life in Launceston. After being taught at home by governesses for several years, in 1920 she was sent to board at the Hermitage, the Anglican girls' grammar school in Geelong, where she remained until 1926. She left school at nineteen and worked in a Melbourne art shop before travelling to London. There she immersed herself in as much cultural activity as possible: theatre, music, ballet, art and language.

On her return to Melbourne in the early 1930s she threw herself into the world of modern art that was emerging in the traditionally staid city. She was helped in this by her brother John's relationship with Sunday Baillieu, whom he married in 1932. As John and Sunday Reed established their home Heide, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg, as a vibrant artistic hub, Cynthia Reed pursued her own interest in modern furniture and interior design. She worked with furniture designer Frederick Ward and fabric designer Michael O'Connell in an interior decorating business run from Ward's furniture shop in Collins Street, Melbourne. The team promoted clean, modern and innovative design, featuring Ward's simple wooden furniture and O'Connell's striking printed fabric.

In 1934, she took over the business and opened her own design shop and gallery, Modern Furnishings, around the corner in 367 Little Collins Street-a part of the city that was becoming something of a centre of art and design, with Joshua McLelland also establishing a gallery nearby. Reed sold furniture designed exclusively for her first by Fred Ward, then by controversial painter Sam Atyeo and Mark Bracegirdle. She also exhibited Atyeo's paintings and, in their first public showing, those of Ian Fairweather.

Reed had a keen eye for talented artists and designers and as a result her shop was recognized as the place to go for modern furniture and fabrics. She was a leading arbiter of sophisticated yet bohemian taste and style. But she was restless and unable to settle in Melbourne. In 1935, the Little Collins Street premises were taken over by Edith and Betty MacMillan's Primrose Pottery Shop, previously of 374 Little Collins Street. Though commissioning and selling their work, the Macmillan sisters were leading patrons of, and The Primrose Pottery shop an extremely important commercial outlet for, emerging artists, potters and designers until the mid 1970s.

Reed's career path was less stable. She went first to Sydney, where she studied art and dance, and then to the United States, where she trained as a nurse. At the outbreak of World War II, she was nursing at the American Hospital of Paris, but escaped the German invasion by travelling to New York, where she undertook further nursing training.

Cynthia Reed returned to Melbourne in late 1940, four months pregnant with her daughter, Jinx, who was born in the following May. She stayed at Heide until she fell out with Sunday Reed, after which she moved again to Sydney. Here she wrote her first novel, Lucky Alphonse (published in 1944 by her brother John's publishing house, Reed and Harris), based on her experience as a trainee nurse. This book was followed by a second, Daddy Sowed a Wind, in 1947. The following year, she was visited by the young painter, Sidney Nolan, whom she had first met at Heide in the early 1940s. They married soon after, causing a permanent breach with John and Sunday Reed.

From the time of their marriage, Cynthia's aesthetic discernment and business nous were devoted to advancing Nolan's career. She arranged his exhibitions and promoted them, using her many contacts to ensure his work was seen. The couple travelled, usually for Sidney's work, but from 1953 were permanently based in London. During this time she published a number of books based on their travels, including Outback (1962), One Traveller's Africa (1965), Open Negative: an American memoir (1967), A Sight of China (1969) and Paradise, and Yet (1971). These were adorned with covers and illustrations by Nolan. The books were well received, if not best sellers, but Cynthia saw her main work as supporting and protecting Nolan in his successful quest to become one of Australia's most significant painters.

Cynthia Nolan committed suicide in London in 1976, after many years of ill health caused by tuberculosis.

Additional sources: AustLit entry, 'Nolan, Cynthia': http://www.austlit.edu.au.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/run?ex=ShowAgent&agentId=A%28e4.

Published Resources


  • Nolan, Cynthia, Open Negative: an American memoir, Macmillan, London, England, 1967. Details
  • Topliss, Helen, Modernism and feminism : Australian women artists, 1900-1940, Craftsman House, Roseville, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • White, Patrick, Flaws in the glass : a self-portrait, Jonathan Cape, Sydney, New South Wales, 1981. Details


  • Grant, Jane, 'The Life and Word of Cynthia Reed', PhD thesis, The University of Sydney, 2002. Details

Online Resources

See also