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In Search of the Birdsville Track: An Artist in the Outback

In Search of the Birdsville Track: An Artist in the Outback showcased the work of English artist Noelle Sandwith who travelled the Birdsville Track in 1953.

Sandwith with harvester umbrella beside carcass, January 1953
Sandwith with harvester umbrella beside carcass, January 1953
Only one man and a dog! Go to Birdsville, then down the Birdsville Track, if you want something out of the ordinary!' His words kept recurring to me - an invitation to loneliness, utter loneliness ...

Noelle Sandwith, 1953

In the summer of 1952-53 a young English artist, Noelle Sandwith, undertook one of Australia's best-known journeys along the Birdsville Track from Birdsville to Marree. Noelle sketched, photographed and wrote about those she met and the scenes she encountered.

This exhibition featured works from the Museum's collection donated by Noelle Sandwith. Through Noelle's sketches and writings, the exhibition captured the unique environment, the characters and the lifestyles of this quintessentially Australian experience.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the National Museum of Australia Press released In Search of the Birdsville Track featuring a collection of Sandwith's sketches and extracts from her journal. Note that this book is now sold out.

The exhibition was on show at the National Museum of Australia from 23 June to 9 October 2005.

Noelle Sandwith
Noelle Sandwith
Sandwith collection, National Museum of Australia


Noelle Sandwith was born in 1927, the only child of English parents Francis and Frieda, both accomplished authors and photojournalists.

Sandwith studied at various art schools in England during the 1940s. In October 1950, she ventured to Australia at the invitation of her uncle who was working in Sydney. Sandwith found freelance art work until, despite family pressure to return to England, she embarked on her journey down the Birdsville Track.

After her return to England in 1955, Sandwith became a state registered nurse but continued practising as an artist. As well as her Australian sketches, Sandwith completed works in Tonga, British Columbia, Fiji and Samoa.

View a slideshow of images sketched on Noelle Sandwith's journey

The Birdsville Track

The Birdsville Track developed as a droving route for stock travelling between Queensland's Channel Country and South Australian markets. Between 1890 and 1960, as many as 50,000 cattle were moved down this rough stock route.

Initially, drovers relied on good seasons to supply sufficient natural water sources along the route for the cattle. However, without adequate rains the track could become impassable. Between the late 1890s and the 1920s the South Australian government sank bores at intervals of around 50 kilometres along the track, formalising the route and ensuring a regular supply of water for stock.

The proliferation of motor transport after the Second World War changed the track forever. Transporting cattle by truck and, later, by large road trains, meant that by the 1960s droving along the Birdsville Track went into decline. Birdsville, the town that gives the track its name, is now a small town servicing the remaining large properties and an ever-growing number of tourists.

Montie Scobie's 'blitz' wagon outside the Birdsville Hotel
Montie Scobie's 'blitz' wagon outside the Birdsville Hotel
Sandwith collection, National Museum of Australia

Banner image: Station hand, Keera, September 1952, New South Wales

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