As game as Ned Kelly

Charles Nettleton: Ned Kelly the day before he was hanged 1880, silver gelatin print. Picture: STATE LIBRARY OF VICTORIA
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IN ADDITION to an intriguing collection of artworks depicting the many faces of Ned Kelly, the current exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery, Imagining Ned, brings together some incredible artefacts from Australian history for visitors to view first hand.

In the first room of the exhibition is of course Ned Kelly’s iconic armour, central to the Kelly mythology that has inspired so many artists.

There are several theories regarding its origins, including that Ned came across the idea while reading RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone (1869), which described the novel’s outlaws as wearing “iron plates on breast and head”.

Made from mouldboard ploughs, mostly donated by supporters, it’s believed that the pieces were likely beaten into shape around a freshly stripped log in a forge. Intended for use at close range, it would have been possible to mount a horse but the individual weight of more than 41 kilogramsper suit would have made this feat challenging for members of the gang.

In a nearby case, one of the few surviving photographs of Ned Kelly is displayed. Taken by Charles Nettleton the day before Ned was hanged, this photograph was requested by Ned, to be provided to his family.

Staring out past the camera, Ned’s expression reveals little of the pain he was suffering from his injuries or his thoughts as he faced the consequences of his actions.

A professional photographer credited with documenting Melbourne’s growth from settlement to city, Charles Nettleton was also the police photographer for 25 years. Two photographs were taken by Nettleton of Ned prior to his execution; this portrait and a full length study, likely taken in the exercise yard of the Melbourne Gaol.

Displayed next to the portrait is the rifle owned by Ned. There are several inscriptions on the rifle, the firstof these is on the right hand side of the butt and reads: NK son of RED.

The conjoined NK is reminiscent of Ned’s brand (used on horses) which was a K reversed and an E conjoined.The second inscription, on the left hand side of the rifle butt, isa cryptogram which reads: Dear / Kate / you are / in my heart. It is now acknowledged thatNed’s sweetheart was Kate Lloyd, daughter of Tom Lloyd, but at the time this would nothave been widely known.

Ned’s own words have been included in the exhibition through the display of the JerilderieLetter. Composed by Ned Kelly and written by Joe Byrne in suitable copperplate, the 56page letter was an attempt to communicate Ned’s own account of events, and expressed hisoutrage and indignation at the injustice of his experiences and of the hardships endured byhis family at the hands of police. Copies were made of the letter by Joe, for the purpose ofhaving it published, however this plan was thwarted. There was talk of the letter beingpresented at the trial of Ned Kelly, however his own (inexperienced) defence lawyerquashed it as it was a police copy. The contents ofthe letter only became public for the first time in 1930.

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