Nolan made several portraits of bushrangers and of an unmasked Ned Kelly. 'Colonial head' was painted as Nolan drew towards the end of his major Kelly series of 1946-47. The tie may derive from composite police photographs of the outlaw in which his head was collaged to the bodies of others, for identification purposes.
However, this painting may be as much about Nolan himself as any bushranger. It has a certain psychological intensity relating to the artist's personal situation at this time. The atmosphere at Heide, where he was living with his patrons John and Sunday Reed, had become emotionally claustrophobic and would end in his permanent departure for Sydney only three months later.