Vancouver Arts Centre, Albany WA | 24 March – 4 June

John Curtin Gallery, Bentley, WA | 20 June – 21 August

NEXIS Narrogin Exhibition Space, WA | 9 September – 16 October



the stories

Bella Kelly sold and bartered with her paintings wherever she lived. Those who bought a painting from her did so for various reasons – some genuinely appreciated the talent of this gentle Aboriginal woman while for others it was an act of kindness.  For many, Bella Kelly’s paintings struck a chord as this was the country that they also knew and loved.

The stories of how the paintings were acquired show Bella’s productivity and her determination.  Her paintings were an important source of income to her and her family.  Frequently moving between camps and Reserves, it was not possible for her to build up a collection of paintings.  Once she had finished a few paintings, she was ready to find a customer.

Several of the paintings below were acquired by people who got to know Bella through their work in health and welfare roles.  Their memories of Bella Kelly, that have been passed down over the years, are of a gentle, warm, intelligent woman with a passion for painting her Country.

It was not until the late 1980s that Bella dated any of her paintings.  The dates given to the artworks are generally approximations based on the memories of the owner as to when they, or their parents, acquired the painting/s.  Some of the paintings were bought at auction, and the estimated date of creation is based on its style and medium.

The stories below were told by the owners to the exhibition curator, and most are memories of buying a painting directly from Bella Kelly.



1. Untitled (early view)

c early 1950s, watercolour, 23.8 x 35.8, Collection of Trevor Garland

It is thought that this painting is from the early 1950s because of its style and the way Bella has signed the painting.  On the rear of this painting is a simple pencil portrait of a woman, a rare example of portraiture by Bella Kelly.

2. Untitled (near Cranbrook)

1958, watercolour on paper, 26 x 35.3, Collection of Iris Maude Bonshore OAM

Maude Bonshore (nee Eades) knew Bella for many years.  In 1958 they were camped together, with their families, in Cranbrook.  Bella had a sketchbook and a tin of watercolours and had started to sell her paintings, at shops and at the hotel in Cranbrook.   Sitting around the campfire one day, Bella painted this picture.  She didn’t like the way she had painted the kangaroos and tore it out of the sketchbook and was about to put it on the fire.  Maude asked if she could have it, and Bella gave it to her, and later gave her some money for it.

4. Untitled (Landscape near Narrogin)

c 1960s, watercolour, 27 x 36.5, Private Collection

5. Untitled (tree with peeling bark)

c 1960s, watercolour, 27 x 36.5, Private Collection

The owner’s parents both worked at the Narrogin Hospital during the 1960s, and held Bella Kelly in high regard.  They bought these painting from Bella at this time.

Listen to the owner share her memories of meeting Bella Kelly at the hospital.

6. Untitled (blue mountains)

c 1960, watercolour, 25.6 x 35, Collection of Pam Leamon

This painting was bought in Albany by the owner’s mother, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

7. Landscape (with many small cows)

c 1960s, watercolour and gouache on paper, 27 x 36.5, City of Albany Collection, Gifted by Barry and Gwen Guest

This painting was bought in Narrogin in the 1960s by Barrie and Gwen Guest who lived there from 1963 to 1971.  It was donated to the City of Albany Collection in November 2015 as a result of the publicity about this Bella Kelly Retrospective.

11. Untitled Landscape

1962, watercolour, 25 x 35, Collection of D. Schupp

12. Untitled (landscape with emus and kangaroos)

1962, watercolour, 25 x 35, Collection of James and Mary Wright

In 1962, the owner taught art at the Gnowangerup District High School.  The Native Welfare Officer brought Bella to meet her, thinking that she may be able to give Bella some advice about painting.  The owner explained “Bella brought a number of paintings to show me and I could see immediately that her abilities were far beyond mine.  I informed her of this and said the best advice I could offer was to keep painting”.

16. Untitled (blue hills)

1967, watercolour and gouache, 26 x 35.2, Collection of Stephen Home

This was bought by the owner’s mother in Mt Barker in 1967/68.  Bella Kelly used to walk the streets selling her paintings.

17. Untitled (orange landscape)

1967, watercolour and gouache, 25 x 38, Private Collection

The owner was working at the Shire of Cranbrook.  Bella Kelly used to sell her paintings on the footpath outside the offices.  She would sit in the shade, and arrange her paintings on the ground, with stones weighing down each corner to prevent the paper blowing away.  The owner had admired her paintings, and one day, in 1967, he bought this painting.

Watch the owner talk about buying the small painting and getting to know Bella Kelly.

18. Untitled (landscape with small fire )

c 1960s, watercolour and gouache, 36 x 46, Private Collection

The owner’s father was Herbert Hendon who worked for the Anglican South West Native Mission in the 1960s.  He used to visit the Aboriginal reserves at towns throughout the Great Southern.  He knew Bella Kelly quite well, and used to enjoy watching her paint.  One day, as he watched her paint, Bella asked “would you like this one” and tore out the sheet from the book and gave it to him.   It is unusual as it is the only painting that includes a fire.   It is possible that this painting is unfinished as the tree trunks lack the usual detailing.

20. Untitled (near the road)

c 1960s, gouache on wood, 32.7 x 37.6, Hodgson Collection

This painting belonged to Bert and Shirley Wilson who ran the general store in Cranbrook from about 1960 to the 1970s.  Bella Kelly would sell or barter with her paintings at the store.  This is painted on a wood offcut.

21. Untitled (farm view with cattle and sheep)

c 1960s, watercolour, 27 x 36.3, Private Collection

22. Untitled

c 1960s, watercolour, 36.3 x 27, Private Collection

23. Birds

c 1960s, watercolour, 36.3 x 27, Private Collection

The owner’s parents were Doug and Patricia Roberts.  Doug was the Native Welfare District Officer in Narrogin from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s.  Patricia was a ‘home maker’ for the Native Welfare Department.  This was at the time that Aboriginal families were moving from the Reserve into houses in town.  ‘Home-makers’ would teach the families how to operate the appliances in the house and other home making skills.

24. Untitled (Christmas Trees)

c mid 1960s, watercolour and gouache on paper, 33.5 x 44, Collection of Jean Burges

Mrs Jean Burges bought six paintings from Bella Kelly, while living in Cranbrook between 1959 to 1975.  This painting was probably purchased in the mid 1960s.

25. Untitled (view from east of Cranbrook)

c  late 1960s, watercolour and gouache, 48 x 61, Private Collection

The owner’s farm was near Tambellup.  One day, in the 1960s, when feeding sheep in the paddock, a car pulled up.  Simpson Kelly, who had previously worked on the farm, stepped out of the car.  He asked the farmer and his wife if they would buy two paintings that his mother had painted.  Bella was in the car, with some other people.  The farmer bought two paintings.  Simpson and Bella wanted some money so that they could to go to Gnowangerup to attend a funeral.

27. Untitled (view from near Tambellup)

c 1970, watercolour, 27.3 x 37, Private Collection

28. Untitled (flowering bush)

c 1971, gouache on paper, 29.5 x 50.5, Private Collection

This painting is owned by a teacher at the Tambellup school in the early 1970s.  One day, one of the students, Sherma Smith, approached her with this painting, on a rolled piece of paper and asked her if she would buy it.  Sherma said that her aunty had painted it.  The teacher said that she would like to meet Sherma’s aunty so that she could buy it directly from her. Consequently Bella Kelly came to the teacher’s house, where the painting was purchased.  Following this, Bella Kelly would visit with other paintings and the teacher bought several more.

Listen to the owner tell this story.

29. Land of West Australian

1971, watercolour and gouache, 39.5 x 62, Private Collection

This was bought in Tambellup in 1971.  The owner had already bought a small painting by Bella Kelly.  When asked to buy another small painting, which was black and white, the owner said that he would like a larger black and white painting with animals in it.   Bella came back with this painting, which he bought and had framed in Katanning.  It is unusual to find any inscription or titling of paintings by Bella Kelly, and it is thought that perhaps Bella copied West Australian from the newspaper masthead.

31. Untitled (with grass tree)

c  mid 1970s, watercolour and gouache, 34.5 x 37, Private Collection

The owner’s grandmother lived on St Werburgh’s Road, Mt Barker.  It is thought that she acquired this painting in the mid to late 1970s.  When the owner found it, it was still rolled up, unframed.

32. Untitled (cloudy dawn)

c late 1970s, watercolour and gouache, 47.8 x 60, Collection of C. A. Barnett

When she was in Mt Barker, Bella Kelly sold her paintings in the streets and regularly visited the hospital to try to find a customer.  The owner’s mother was working at the Mt Barker Hospital and bought several paintings.

33. Untitled (View of the Porongorups)

early 1970s, watercolour and gouache, 25.5 x 34.5, Private Collection

Bella and her family were working on the owner’s farm, picking rocks and sticks.  One day Bella brought out a sheaf of papers and asked the owner to look at them.  The owner bought this and another one.  This was the view from the farm where they lived.

34. Untitled (golden sunset)

c 1970s, gouache, 36 x 48.7, Private Collection

The owner bought this painting from the Chinese Restaurant in Mt Barker in the mid 1970s.  There were a number of paintings by Bella Kelly for sale.  He paid $175.

35. Untitled Landscape (summer)

c 1970s, watercolour and gouache, 55.5 x 69, Private Collection

Bella and her family used to stay at the railway reserve in Kendenup when they were working on nearby farms.  Bella used to bring paintings to the general store and try to sell them.  This painting was bought from Bella at the store.

36. Untitled (late summer landscape)

c 1980s, gouache, 36 x 48.5, Collection of Helen Kitching

The owner bought this painting from Bella Kelly at the Baptist Church in Albany in the 1980s.   Bella had brought a few of her paintings into the foyer of the Baptist Church, where her son Geoffrey Narkle was involved.  The owner chose this one, but then noticed that it wasn’t signed.  She went to see Bella where she was living at the Aboriginal Association housing units on Serpentine Road and asked Bella to sign it.

38. View of Eleven Mile Beach, Esperance

c 1970s, acrylic on canvas board, 69 x 98, Private Collection

The family that own this painting bought a number of Bella’s paintings.  One day when she came to sell another similar painting, the owners said that they would like something different, and asked for a painting of the sea.  Bella’s son Simpson drove Bella down to Esperance to visit a relative, Flynn Narkle, and Bella painted this view of the Eleven Mile Beach.  She then took it back to Kendenup where the owner bought it.

39a. Dog Rock

1980, acrylic on canvas board, 54 x 64, Collection of Iris Maude Bonshore OAM

In 1979 Maude Bonshore, who was living in Albany, saw Bella and asked if she would paint a picture of Dog Rock for her.  Bella said she would, and went away and painted it.  Maude paid her $100.

39a. Old Farm, Strawberry Hill

1982, acrylic on canvas board, 49 x 64, Collection of Iris Maude Bonshore OAM, Commissioned by the owner.

Maude Bonshore also asked Bella Kelly to paint a picture of Old Farm, Strawberry Hill, which she did.  Again, Maude paid her $100.

40. Untitled (winter landscape)

c  1982, gouache, 48 x 61.5, Private Collection

This painting was bought from Bella Kelly in Mt Barker in about 1982 – 83.

43. Untitled Landscape

c mid 1980s, pencil, 27.3 x 36, Collection of Helen Laing

This drawing was bought from Bella Kelly in Albany in the mid 1980s.

44. Untitled (view through trees)

c late 1980s, acrylic on canvas board, 49 x 70, Collection of Mt Barker Community College

In 1997, Bella Kelly’s son Geoff Narkle presented several paintings to the Mt Barker Primary School and the Mt Barker High School, which is now the Mt Barker Community College.  This painting is one of the paintings presented at that time.

45. Bluff Knoll

 c 1980s, acrylic on canvas board, 39.2 x 49, Collection of John Morrison

This painting was bought by the owner’s aunt Molly Powell (nee Morrison) who lived in Albany.

46. Untitled (Sleeping Lady)

1988, watercolour and gouache on paper, 36.2 x 49.2, Private Collection

47. Untitled (farmland view)  1988, acrylic on canvas board, 36.5 x 75, Private Collection

The owner’s husband began working at the Southern Aboriginal Corporation, Albany, in 1988.  He bought these two paintings from the Aboriginal Art gallery run by the Southern Aboriginal Corporation.

48. Untitled

1989, acrylic on canvas, 121.5 x 182.5, Private Collection

The owner had bought a number of paintings by Bella Kelly before he got to know her in the 1980s.  He was very encouraging to her and commissioned this painting, the largest that she ever painted

49. Untitled (blue landscape)

c 1980s, acrylic on canvas board, 39.2 x 49, Private Collection

The owner bought this at an auction in Albany and, to his surprise, found a photo of Bella Kelly fixed to the back of the painting.

Uncovering the stories

Vancouver Arts Centre, Albany WA24 March – 4 June

John Curtin Gallery, Bentley, WA20 June – 21 August

NEXIS Narrogin Exhibition Space, WA 9 September – 16 October