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Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw

By Rebecca Wilson
Archived 30 May 2015 - Posted: 6 Apr 2015
Sisters in Arms
Hill End-based artist Rebecca Wilson presents her solo exhibition of recent paintings "Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw". The show will be launched on Sunday April 12 2015, at Virgin Walls, a vibrant new art space located on the Great Western Highway at Blackheath, on display for one week only. It is the first stage in a travelling, “pop-up” tour, which will echo the westerly trail followed by the pioneering settlers from Sydney to Blackheath, Bathurst then Orange, culminating in Forbes as part of the biennial Lachlan-Kalari River Arts Festival in October.

Kate Kelly (1863-1898) was the younger sister of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger. With support from campaigners for the abolition of capital punishment, she approached the Governor of Victoria to plead with him to spare Ned’s life. As a folkloric icon, Kate Kelly has appeared as a character in films, novels and was the subject of a song by the pop group the Whitlams.

Kate’s life was filled with tragedy, overtaken by exceptional events. She married William “Bricky” Foster in Forbes when she was pregnant with their first child. An excellent horsewoman, she rode as a decoy for the Kelly gang and was known for delivering supplies and ammunition when the gang was hiding-out. She even once took a bullet, according to “Bricky’s” relatives. She became a celebrity after her infamous brother Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880.

After the Kelly gang’s demise, Kate traveled widely with her older brother Jim, performing on horseback and exhibiting weapons and other Kelly memorabilia, until she moved to Cadow Station near Forbes to escape the limelight. Kate’s life ended abruptly at the age of 36. She was found dead, possibly through suicide, in Forbes Lake about a week after she had been reported missing. Kate’s surviving brother Jim collected her three remaining children (three others had died) and “Ma Kelly” (Ellen) then raised her grandchildren at Eleven Mile Creek.

Artist Rebecca Wilson grew up in Forbes, where Kate Kelly spent the final years of her life and it was Rebecca’s relatives who gave Kate Kelly, then known under the alias Ada Hennessey, her first job as a domestic servant at Cadow Station.

“I see Kate as a strong female figure of skill, adventure, love and spirit,” Ms Wilson said. “At the same time, like all of us, she was flawed, complicated and probably misunderstood.”

Ms Wilson is a descendant of the pioneering couple Pierce and Mary Collits, who founded the famous, heritage-listed Collits Inn at Hartley Vale at the western edge of the Blue Mountains. It is well known that Pierce Collits, who had been transported to Port Jackson from London in 1801 for receiving stolen goods, had many connections with bushrangers in his days running the Inn. It is likely that the Collits’ and their descendants had closer dealings with the Kelly gang than is fully recorded.

As part of a long-term project, Wilson has researched the life and times of Kate Kelly for many years. She has fond memories of her late uncle telling her stories of how lovely Kate was, in tales that had been passed down to him by relatives. The local lore holds that Kate was an extraordinary woman who found herself in extraordinary circumstances. In her ongoing series of paintings, Rebecca Wilson has felt compelled to provide a personal vision of Kate’s life and how it intertwines with her own family history.

Wilson’s portraits are partly based on illustrations and vintage black-and-white photographs of key players in Kate’s life —her mother Ellen, her husband “Bricky”, her sisters Grace, Maggie and the eldest Anne (who died giving birth to a policeman’s baby while her husband was in gaol), her brothers Dan and Jim, fellow gang members Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, and Constable Fitzpatrick, who the artist strongly believes may have been the father of one of Kate’s children. Through ongoing research, Wilson asserts that Kate’s sister Alice, was possibly her daughter instead.

“During my research it became apparent that some local people viewed Kate as a drunk and a no-hoper while others, including my uncle, told me that she was known as a lovely and generous woman. In fact, people were sometimes offended by my desire to tell Kate’s story,”Ms Wilson said. “They see it in black and white, but her life was simply not like that. My research revealed an innocent person born into a family who suffered greatly and who were often the victims of circumstance.”

“She bore the most horrible depths of sadness and trauma. The troubles that unfolded in Kate’s life were mostly through the decisions and actions of men, typical for that era. These men were either in her life directly—her brothers, husband, lovers, various local policemen—or part of the wider political realm.”

Wilson’s larger landscape paintings depict crucial events in the Kelly saga, as well as intimate daily scenes. The broader settings include gold-fields, maps of the town of Glenrowan where Ned Kelly was ambushed, Cadow Station near Forbes superimposed with ancestral faces, and Kate breaking-in colts, or riding a horse through bushland as a decoy for the police. Wilson portrays images with highly charged emotions. We see the dubious joy of Kate’s wedding day to “Bricky”, Kate visiting the Governor to ask for mercy for Ned, the death of her sister Maggie, her body floating in the lake.

The travelling show consists of about 30 paintings, and will be adapted to each venue, and supplemented by archival material. After Blackheath, the exhibition will travel to Bathurst’s Wholefood Kitchen and Gallery in June, the Leichhardt Library in Sydney in July, the TAFE College March St Campus in Orange from 1 September and finally to the Mezzanine Café in Forbes from 21 September– 31 October. The Lachlan-Kalari River Arts Festival is organizing aligned events and exhibitions around Forbes from October 30-31.

A graduate of the National Art School in 1997 and the College of Fine Arts in 2002, Rebecca Wilson has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize at the S.H Ervin Gallery in 2001 and 2007 and the accompanying exhibition tour in 2001-2. Her solo show Australianism, 2007 was held at Mary Place Gallery in Sydney, and she has previously exhibited at various artist-run spaces in Paddington and Surry Hills. Her works are included in the annual group show and open-studio trail at the Jean Bellette Gallery in Hill End. As a guest lecturer she has focused on colour theory & art history at institutions in Thailand and she currently teaches painting & drawing at TAFE Western Institute. An essay by Lis Bastian has been written to accompany

Rebecca Wilson’s touring exhibition. Bastian has held various art industry positions including Public Programs Manager of Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, CEO of Varuna Writer’s House and CEO and Regional Arts Promotions Officer of Arts Outwest, Bathurst.

Rebecca Wilson – Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw

Virgin Walls, 250 Great Western Highway, Blackheath, April 12-19, 2015.

Opening April 12 at 1pm Gallery hours: 11am-4pm daily 

Exhibition Itinerary

Bathurst Wholefood Kitchen & Gallery June 1-28, 2015

49 William St, Macquarie Plaza, Bathurst NSW 2795

Mon-Sat: 7.30am-3pm Telephone: 6332 9327 Kitchen

Opening Sunday June 7, 2-4pm


Leichhardt Library July 1-31, 2015

Piazza Level, Italian Forum, 23 Norton Street, Leichhardt NSW 2040

Mon-Thurs: 9.30am-8pm, Fri: 9.30am-5pm Sat & Sun: 10am-4pm

Telephone: 9367 9266 Email:

Opening Night Thursday July 9, 6-8pm


Orange TAFE College, March St Campus, September 1-18, 2015

Arts & Media, B Block, Ground Floor, March St, Orange NSW 2800


Forbes Mezzanine Café & Gallery, September 21 – October 31, 2015

23 Rankin St, Forbes NSW 2871 Mon-Sat: 8am-4pm Telephone: 6851 4056

River Arts Festival Opening Event

Wiradjuri Welcome to Country, Friday October 30 by Forbes Lake

This article archived 30 May 2015

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