Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley (born 24 June 1923; died 26 July 2011) was a larger than life character who dominated the art scene in Sydney for more than 50 years. Art Gallery of NSW director, Edmund Capon, described her as passionate, committed and yet always retaining a wry sense of the absurd that life inevitably presents to us. She will be remembered, as a particularly Sydney character. She was friends with the artists of her generation and committed to those friendships, but was also a great supporter of younger artists.

She grew up in northern Queensland on a sugar plantation; her parents made significant sacrifices to send her to a private school in Brisbane. French was the subject of choice for well brought up ladies, however she managed to change to art, where we are forever thankful her teacher saw Margaret’s potential and commenced lessons in Brisbane, later moving to East Sydney Technical College in 1943.

During this period, in order to pay the rent she collaborated with Sidney Nolan on stage designs for Shakespeare's Pericles and Jean Cocteau's Orphée, before winning the first Mosman art prize with a picture of the Wallamumbi hills (1947). This achievement was followed a year later by a one-woman show at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney.

Margaret gained a degree of notoriety in 1949 from a portrait painted by William Dobell in which she appeared in a flamboyant silk frock and hat, rather than the beige dress that she actually wore at the sittings.
Margaret Olley by William Dobell (Source: Art Gallery of NSW)

Although the image was dismissed by critics as a caricature, it won the Archibald prize, attracting crowds of viewers to the ArtGallery of New South Wales. She escaped to the UK then settling at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière art school in Paris until her father’s death in 1952, when she returned to Australia.

Her now colourful, fluid style was influenced by Matisse and Bonnard.
Portrait in the Mirror, Margaret Olley, (1948). (Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Her still lifes though attracted little critical approval. Reviews waxed and waned, rarely getting beyond "interesting" and "decorative", while her personal life went from difficult to torrid, and her drinking became something of a scandal. Only right at the end of the decade did she give up alcohol, entirely and for good. Interestingly she is now best know for her still life paintings.
Still Life in Green, Margaret Olley, (1947). (Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

The next two decades of her life were perhaps her most fulfilling. Moving between Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales, she bought and renovated a number of historic properties, including, in 1965, a former hat factory in the Paddington district of Sydney. There she created an atmospheric home and studio, filled with artefacts from her travels to New Guinea, Indonesia and many other countries. As she put it: "I am the original bag lady."

Her continuing professional success in the 1970s was accompanied by personal happiness with the theatre director and gallery manager Sam Hughes, whom she had first met in the 1940s, and for a while they shared her house in Sydney. His death in 1982, together with that of her mother, and a fire at her family home in Brisbane, opened another dark phase of her life.

This did not prevent her from producing some striking late works, including Homage to Manet (1987), in which two contrasting copies of Manet's The Balcony appear behind a characteristic still life, as well as ambitious and evocative paintings of interiors.
Homage to Manet, Margaret Olley, (1987). (Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

In 1990 she founded the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust, which has contributed significantly to the acquisition funds of Australian museums. Six years later she had a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Margaret Olley held over 90 solo exhibitions during her life time. She was appointed an Officer Order of Australia (AO) in 1991, and awarded Life Governor of the AGNSW in 1997. The AGNSW named the Margaret Olley, Twentieth Century European Gallery in her honour in 2001. She was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2006, for both her art and her philanthropy. She was also awarded Honorary Doctorates from Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, Southern Cross University, Lismore and Griffith University, Brisbane.

In the final year of her life, she was once again the subject of a portrait, as we have read in earlier blogs, this time by Ben Quilty. Like its controversial predecessor, this painting also won the Archibald prize.

Fittingly, Margaret is the only person to be the subject of two Archibald winning entries – once at the young age of 26 (William Dobell) and then at the end of her life aged 88 (Ben Quilty), both featured in the hero image today, with the centre portrait by Donald Friend.

Throughout her life there are probably more paintings of her than any other artist in Australia. She was friends with many artists who also painted her portrait - Jeffrey Smart, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend.

Professor Paul Greenfield, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland said:
There will never be another Margaret Olley. Although tiny in physical stature, she was a towering figure in Australian art, philanthropy, and cultural and public life. (Source:

We are fortunate that she was a very astute business woman which enabled her philanthropy and support of young artists. She was instrumental in the purchase of this Cezanne painting now hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW.
(Source: Art Gallery of NSW)

Her home in Paddington became the source of many of her paintings. The rooms, a hotpotch of furniture, vases, flowers – every view a possible still life. She had a cleaner, but was told never to touch anything! Tomorrow we will take a look at her home and how it has been immortalised at the Tweed Gallery in Northern NSW. Here is a little taste of what we have in store:
Chinese screen and yellow room, Margaret Olley, 1996. (Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

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