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Sidney Nolan's personal papers at the National Library of Australia need saving

Among the 184 boxes of Sir Sidney Nolan's private papers held by the National Library of Australia is a phone message scribbled on the back of an envelope .

"Robert Murdoch has bought some of the Kellys", it reads. The Robert scribbled out and replaced by the name Rupert.

The note is just one of the extraordinary items in the collection, which contains personal correspondence, dozens of diaries, financial records, research notes, and a stunning collection of photographs taken by Nolan himself.

It's these photographs that have captured the imagination of Lisa Joseph, an archivist with the NLA, who has been tasked with sorting through the collection.

"The photography pleasantly surprised me," Ms Joseph said.

"I loved seeing the way he looked at things and his composition.

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"There's this whole set from his days in London, taken from a car, using the side mirror to pick up more detail, it's very deliberately been done."

Ms Joseph believes the photographs have never been seen in the public eye.

"There were photos that he took in the late 1940s in Australia which formed the basis of his drought paintings, they have been seen. But as far as we can tell this collection hasn't been."

And nor will they be unless the NLA can raise enough money to preserve and allow public access. To date, close to $100,000 has been raised but donations are still being sought.

"We'd love to be able to rehouse, and describe, and digitise this fabulous collection for everyone to access."

Indeed Ms Joseph believes that Nolan, who died in 1992, always intended to have his papers sent to the NLA.

"I have no way to prove it," she says. "But he met with the then head librarian Harold White in 1969 and White said the library would be very interested in his papers if he ever wanted to give them to Australia."

Among other pieces in the collection include letters from Barry Humphries, Manning and Dymphna Clark, Sir Robert Helpmann and Patrick White. There's a note from Buckingham Palace and personal photographs of Nolan and long time friend Arthur Boyd.

There's also a small sketchbook which includes a Ned Kelly-like figure in a burnt out boat on the Thames, with matching notes in a diary about the day he came across the boat.

It's a fascinating insight into one of Australia's leading artists of the 20th century; while we think we know him through the Ned Kelly series this collection reveals much more.

Let's hope the money gets raised. Perhaps that Robert Murdoch bloke might call again.