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Five bells



John Olsen

Australia, England, Spain, Portugal

21 Jan 1928 -


Five bells was my first commission to paint in situ to cover a wall … I didn’t hesitate. I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life. Inside and around this core, I painted images drawn from metaphors and similes in [Kenneth] Slessor’s poem of our harbour city, and from my own emotional and physical involvement with the harbour, and with my young family in Watsons Bay …

I wanted to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea ... The painting says directly what I wanted to say: ‘I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me’.

John Olsen, 1999


From the Gallery Shop

Five Bells John Olsen Magnet

6.5cm wide x 6.5cm high


Five Bells John Olsen Silk Square Scarf

110.0cm wide x 110.0cm high





Media category


Materials used

oil on hardboard


264.5 x 274.0 cm board

Signature & date

Signed and dated l.r.corner, black oil paint "John Olsen '63".


Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 1999

Accession number


Artist information

John Olsen

Artist profile

Works in the collection


Shown in 3 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 30 publications


Debra Aldred, Courier Mail, 'Runaway record', Queensland, 07 Aug 1999, (illus.).

Prue Allen, Look, 'Message from the President of the Art Gallery Society', pg. 6, Melbourne, Oct 1999, 6.

Peter Cochrane, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Olsen felt 'rush of blood' ', Sydney, 05 Aug 1999.

Anabel Dean, The Bulletin with Newsweek, 'Water of life', Sydney, 13 Jul 1999, 116 (illlus.).

Elizabeth Foretscue, Daily telegraph, 'Master strokes', pg. 124, Sydney, 22 Jul 2000, 124. Review of the 'Australian Icons' exhibition.

Benjamin Genocchio, Art and Australia (Vol. 38, No. 3), 'Critic's choice: John Olsen Five Bells', pg. 392-393, Sydney, Mar 2001-May 2001, 392, 393 (colour illus.).

Benjamin Genocchio, The Weekend Australian, 'Harbouring various delights', pg. 23, Sydney, 09 Sep 2000-10 Sep 2000, 23 (colour illus.). Review of 'Australian Icons' exhibition.

Melissa Hayer, Sunday telegraph, 'Sensitive guys at art', Sydney, 11 Jul 1999, 201 (illus.).

Ben Holgate, The Australian, 'A tale of five bells: Olsen's seminal harbour scene comes into view', Sydney, 06 Jul 1999, 5 (illus.).

Terry Ingram., The Australian financial review, 'Randwick prices hint at bolting market', Sydney, 05 Aug 1999.

Terry Ingram, Art and Australia (Vol. 37, No. 2), 'Art market: Sales of the century', pg.270-275, Sydney, Dec 1999-Feb 2000, 275 (colour illus.).

Steve Meacham, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Sparkle and shade', pg. 10-11, Sydney, 28 Jan 2012-29 Jan 2012, 10.

Steve Meacham, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Paintings that find works for the land', pg. 15, Sydney, 13 Oct 2004, 15 (colour illus.).

Barry Pearce, Australian art: in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'Introduction', pg. 10-16, Sydney, 2000, 12 (colour illus.), 16, 301.

Barry Pearce, Look: 1953-2003 celebrating 50 years, 'Presenting our own artists: how the AGS put balance into the Australian collection', pg. 42-44, Sydney, May 2003, 44.

Barry Pearce, The Weekend Australian, 'Time makes its judgment', pg. 2-3, Sydney, 12 Aug 2000-13 Aug 2000, 3 (colour illus.). This colour supplement is a 'Review Special' published for the 'Weekend Australian'. It consists of a four-page, colour wrap-around for the 'Weekend Australian Review'. 'The Australian' was the media sponsor for the AGNSW Exhibition 'Australian Icons', for the Olympic Arts Festival 2000.

Judith White, Look, 'A year of gifts to the Gallery', pg. 16, Melbourne, Dec 1999-Jan 2000, 16 (colour illus.).

John Olsen and Five Bells 1963 - 1999, Canberra, Jul 1999.

John Olsen, ''Salute to five bells' the Sydney Opera House Mural', pg. 111 - 122., Sydney, 1991, 78 (colour illus.), 79, 113, 114. 48

Sydney Harbour Paintings from 1794, Milton, 1979, 86 (colour illus.). 77 This publication refered to this work as "Five bells No. 1".

Not a job for the boys, Sydney, 1973, (illus.).

John Olsen: the You Beaut Country, Melbourne, 2016, 29 (colour illus.).

John Olsen: a recipe for art, 2016, 10 (colour illus.).

Art Gallery of New South Wales: highlights from the collection, Sydney, 2008, 104-105 (colour illus.).

Arts show report, Sydney, Jul 1999, (illus.).

The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 09 Aug 1999.

Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2000, 'Year in review', pg. 8-20, Sydney, 2000, 8, 19 (colour illus.).

Australian artist, 'Australian Icons at the Art Gallery of New South Wales', pg, 4-5, Chatswood, Aug 2000, 5 (colour illus.).

Australian and European Paintings 3rd August 1999: Goodmans- Fine Art Auctioners and Valuers, Double Bay, Aug 1999, cover (colour illus.), colour illus.. no pagination, lot. no. 95

Look, 'Five bells', Melbourne, Nov 1999, 7, 20- 21 (colour illus.).