Margaret Olley


Margaret Hannah Olley AC (24 June 1923 – 26 July 2011) was an Australian painter and was the subject of more than 90 solo exhibitions. She is noted for her colourful still life paintings and intimate interiors.

Not easily swayed by changing fashions and movements of the art world, Olley chose to paint her immediate world, immersing herself in everyday subjects that reflected her interest in the personal and the intimate:

The art of Margaret Olley is the art of deliberate choices. The same could be said of Olley herself, who dispels all theories of Australia’s isolation, repression of women and fashion following. (…) she persists in painting that which is around her; one reason for this is loathing of pretence, of adopting ways of thinking that are not true to the reality of self.

France, C 2002, Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, p.13

Margaret Hannah Olley was born on 24 June 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales. After spending some of her childhood in remote Upper Tully, south of Cairns, Queensland, the family moved to Lower Tully where her sister Elaine and brother Ken were subsequently born.

Exeriences like riding a pony to school helped foster an early sense of adventure and independence in the young artist. However, it was not until she attended Somerville House, a Brisbane girl’s boarding school, in 1935 that her talent for painting and drawing started receiving encouragement.

Olley’s art teacher at Somerville House persuaded Olley’s parents to send Margaret to art school. In 1941, she started at Brisbane Central Technical College. The next year Olley moved to Sydney and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College, where her boarding school friend and fellow artist Margaret Cilento also attended. Olley graduated in 1945 with A-class honours.

Olley then quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene. In the late 1940s, she and Donald Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of New South Wales.

William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley in 1948. This was also the year Olley had her first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries.

In 1949, Olley took her first international trip. She stayed in France and travelled extensively to parts of Spain, Brittany, Venice, Lisbon and London. When her father died in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane where she designed sets for the Twelfth Night Theatre.

Olley travelled through north Queensland with Donald Friend in the early 1950s, and following this trip she went to Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings of this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim.

After the 1955 exhibition, Olley returned her focus to drawing. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, which marked the beginning of a decade of success with collectors:

The colour in her work became more confident, and underpinned by stronger compositional design, although over the years a concern for the flat picture plane would become progressively supplanted by one for the form and weight of objects set within three-dimensional space.

Barry Pearce, in his introduction for the exhibition catalogue Margaret Olley , The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1996.

According to Pearce, senior curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, this shift in Olley’s approach can be seen when comparing works such as Still Life with Artichokes (c1955) and Eucharist Lilies (1963) to her later works of Ranunculus and Fruits I (1973) or Turkish Pots and Lemons (1982).

Over her lifetime, Olley donated more than 130 works of art to the Art Gallery of New South Wales worth more than $7 million.

She was twice the subject of an Archibald Prize winning painting; the first by William Dobell in 1948 and the other by Ben Quilty in 2011. She was also the subject of paintings by many of her artist friends, including Russell Drysdale.

On 10 June 1991, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Olley was made a member of the Order of Australia ‘for service as an artist and to the promotion of art’. On 12 June 2006, she was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honour., the Companion of the Order, ‘for service as one of Australia’s most distinguished artists, for support and philanthropy to the visual and performing arts, and for encouragement of young and emerging artists’.

Olley died at her home in Paddington in July 2011, aged 88. She never married and had no children.

Of the last paintings that Olley did before her death, 27 were exhibited at Sotheby’s Australia in Woollahra in an exhibition entitled The Inner Sanctum of Margaret Olley that opened on 2 March 2012. Olley had put the final touches on the show the day before she died and Philip Bacon, who had exhibited her work for decades, had prepared a catalogue to show her that weekend. The opening night was attended by about 350 people among whom were the Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, who gave an address, in which she said that Olley’s work was often just like the artist, “filled with optimism”. Other attendees at the opening included Penelope Wensley, the Governor of Queensland, Edmund Capon, Ben Quilty and Barry Humphries.

Part of Olley’s Paddington house, well known for its items that the painter collected and used as subject matter for her art, described as “her lifelong installation”, is to be recreated at the Tweed River Art Gallery, an area not far from where the artist was born. The architect of the Tweed’s new Margaret Olley Centre, Bud Brannigan, said that it would be faithful to Olley’s house, “in all of its glory”.

A documentary by Catherine Hunter, Margaret Olley — A Life in Paint follows Olley as she completes her last – and many believe her finest – works, those painted in the 18 months leading up to her death. The critically acclaimed film interprets Olley’s style, passion and artistic evolution through the reflections of her peers, including former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher, curator Barry Pearce and Ben Quilty, whose portrait of Olley won the 2011 Archibald Prize.