I'm lying in bed and a masked man hovers nearby, clad in armour, brandishing a sawn-off rifle. And then it comes to me: Ned Kelly was the ultimate hipster. He had the beard. He had the country hideaway. He definitely had the anti-establishment attitude, and he was into designing his own clothes, which are still distinctly his own, even 135 years later.
It's only fitting, then, that Ned is celebrated in Melbourne's hipster digs, The Cullen hotel, in edgy, inner-city Prahran. He's in the lifts, he's in the corridors, he's on my bedroom wall, watching over my bed, a metal can on his head, Winchester repeater aimed high behind me.
The Cullen celebrates the work of Archibald prize winner Adam Cullen, who died in 2014, aged 46. "Cullen was ... interested in representing other bad boys, criminals and bushrangers," says Tansy Curtin, senior curator at the Bendigo Art Gallery.
Staying on the hipster theme, I ponder: what would Ned drink? Probably home-brewed rum, so the guy was obviously a locavore, eating and drinking from within 100 kilometres of his home. Following suit, I raid the off-licence just behind the hotel for a pinot grigio from the King Valley, prime Kelly country, and score handmade pizza from the famed ovens of Ladro, nearby.
And this guy was into fashion, sporting hand-crafted clothing. "Ned was a dandy," says art curator Andrew Gaynor, who leads me through the wealth of Kelly-inspired art at The Cullen. "Beneath his armour at the Siege of Glenrowan, he wore a silk waistcoat, pin-striped trousers and a green, silk cummerbund. The gang cut a really good figure, and Ned had plenty of sympathisers to his cause for a new, free state."
Hero or cop killer? Choose your fairytale, which is now overlaid with decades of research, turning up crooked judges, botched investigations and plenty of gloves-off England versus Ireland racism. "There's so much we didn't know until recently," says Kellyphile and guide Airi Repetti, at the State Library of Victoria. The stately building is home to Kelly's original set of armour, forged from a set of ploughshares.
However, if you went looking for the 44-kilogram suit of armour, you'd find a polite note telling you to go to Bendigo, where it's the hero artefact in a new exhibition that celebrates the Kelly legend, Imagining Ned. The exhibition brings together some of the most memorable images of the man, from the Kelly series by Sidney Nolan and his contemporary, Albert Tucker, to one entire room dedicated to Cullen's huge, rich works of the players in the Kelly saga.
There is an extract of the world's first full-length feature film, the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was banned from being shown in the region, and plenty of stills of slim-hipped Mick Jagger, prancing around the bush in the effete 1970 film, Ned Kelly, which probably should have been banned altogether.
There are photos of the bushranger's commanding, handsome face in a portrait he had taken just days before he was hanged, sporting a full bushranger's beard and an oiled quiff. And beside it, created just days later, the impossibly sad death mask of Kelly, clean-shaven and vulnerable for eternity.
His head was cut from his body to create several moulds and, a week after his execution, the general public could ogle the death mask in the Bourke Street waxworks museum owned by the maskmaker, Maximillian Kreitmayer, who used it to link criminality and lowered brows in the crack science of phrenology. While his bones were interred in a country town's cemetery in 2013, Ned's skull is missing still, which only adds to the legend.
There's a bound manuscript of Peter Carey's novel, The Secret History of the Kelly Gang; a reward poster offering the fortune of £8000 for the four men at a time when a labourer's annual wage tipped £50; pictures of the siege printed on chocolate boxes; and Ned's Snider-Enfield 0.577 calibre long rifle.
It's only 135 years, or four generations back, that Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol. As I'm driving back to Melbourne from Bendigo, an angry talkback caller is blasting the radio, comparing executed drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to Ned Kelly. "It's just this stupid Australian habit of turning criminals into heroes!" she fumes.
A week later, my child's ballet teacher mentions that her elderly mother knew the Kelly family. "It seems no one wanted to know them, in the past," I say. "Yes, but we all know what the police did – the rapes, the harassment," she says, matter-of-factly.
Brought up by Irish Catholic nuns, my sympathies can only go the way of the Kelly gang, with its backstory of police harassment, the assault of his sister and the sentence of three years' hard labour for his mother, while carrying a newborn babe. On the other side of the fence, he's a pathological liar, layabout criminal and unremorseful murderer, preferring armed robbery to honest farm labour.
Criminal, anti-hero, cult leader or Australia's answer to Robin Hood? Despite the new exhibition and the museums, the jury is still out.
Such is life.
The writer was a guest of Art Series Hotels.
Images of Ned Kelly feature throughout The Cullen hotel. Costs from $209 a night for a studio suite, 164 Commercial Road, Prahran, thecullen.com.au. In Bendigo, its sister art hotel, The Schaller Studio, costs from $115 a night for a Workspace Queen, cnr Lucan and Bayne streets, Bendigo. Phone 1800 278 468. artserieshotels.com.au/schaller.
SEE + DO
Imagining Ned shows until June 28. Bendigo Art Gallery (closed Mondays) has free tours at noon Wednesdays and Saturdays, $10 adults. Phone (03) 5434 6088; bendigoartgallery.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Art Series Hotels.