An Australian National Treasure

Margaret Olley

Margaret Hannah Olley died on July 26, 2011. She had a career spanning more than six decades and was a prolific and much-loved artist, a free-spirited feminist ahead of her time. Margaret Olley held over 90 solo exhibitions and was a popular subject for portraiture. Her portrait appeared twice in the Archibald Prize competition. William Dobell painted her in 1948 and Ben Quilty in 2011. Both paintings won the coveted award. Other eminent artists to commit her personality to canvas were Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Jeffrey Smart and Judy Cassab.

Margaret Olley was born in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia on 24 June 1923. She grew up on sugar-cane farms and moved around quite a bit with her family.

Margaret OlleyCredit: Wikimedia

Margaret developed an early sense of adventure and independence. Her talent for painting and drawing drew notice in 1937 (one source says 1935) when she attended Somerville House boarding school for girls in Brisbane. At one stage, Olley told the principal her mother had written to say she could drop French in preference for another art lesson. She was given permission for the extra art lesson although her mother knew nothing about the request. Many years later, Olley would return to the school to open an art centre which bore her name. The school owns a number of her works.

She focussed on art from an early age. Her parents were prevailed on to send Olley to art school where she started in 1941. The following year she moved to Sydney enrolling at East Sydney Technical College. She said of this time 'my life began, I was like a flower suddenly pollinated'.

Her boarding school friend and fellow artist, Margaret Cilento was also a student. They shared a flat at McMahons Point and to pay the rent, Olley painted theatre sets. In 1945, Olley graduated with A-class honours.


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Olley was quick to become involved in Sydney's post-war, bohemian art community. Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and William Dobell were her friends. She received the inaugural Mosman Art Prize in 1947. Olley had her first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1948, the same year as Dobell's prize-winning portrait of her. The award was not without its controversy because of Olley's large figure and flamboyant attire. Olley was hounded by the press. This was distressing to the shy young artist. She was also upset that the reporters showed no regard for her own endeavours.

In 1949, Olley went to Europe, studying in France at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and visiting Spain, Brittany, London, Lisbon and Venice. In 1953, her father died and she returned to Brisbane to live with her mother. Olley travelled regularly until well in her 70s. She visited Europe again, also the USA, Papua New Guinea, India, Cambodia and Turkey.

In the 1950s, Olley went through a difficult period. There were failed love affairs and an abortion. She had also taken to drinking to cover her shyness at artistic gatherings. One of her closest companions was gay artist, Donald Friend. She was soon dependent on alcohol. Her old friend, Margaret Cilento, persuaded her to enter a clinic and she attended Alcoholics Anonymous. She had her last drink in 1959. This marked a turning point, and she began painting with more confidence. Her work became popular with collectors. She bought property, making some shrewd investments which gave her a comfortable income.

In 1965, she bought a Paddington property where she stayed until her death. The combined terrace house and former hat factory overflowed with a bowery of treasures, trinkets, flowers and intriguing bric-a-brac. Many of her treasured items for overseas trips became subjects in her still lifes. The house also overflowed with bohemians, intellectuals and fellow artists and was the scene of stimulating dinner parties.

From the early seventies Olley shared her home with art dealer and theatre director Sam Hughes who Olley called the 'love of her life'. Hughes would come and go but they shared a great companionship. Olley had never wanted to be married, saying she didn't want to be controlled or owned. Then, in 1980, the Brisbane family home burnt down, destroying much of Olley's work and her private collection. Her mother died soon after, followed by Hughes in 1982. This was an unhappy period for Olley.

In 1991, Olley was made a Member of the Order of Australia 'for service as an artist and to the promotion of art'. In 1997 she was declared an Australian National Treasure. In 2000, Olley was awarded an honorary degree in visual arts by the University of Sydney.

In 2001, after the death of several friends, Olley sought the help of the Black Dog Institute to help her through a period of intense depression to the point where she contemplated suicide.

In 2005, her biography appeared Far from a Still Life by Meg Stewart. Olley was surprisingly candid about her personal life.

In 2006, the Companion of the Order, Australia's highest civilian honour was awarded, this time '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's paintings are highly collectible. Her subject matter was her immediate world. She was renowned for her still life. Her works are principally of intimate interiors and vibrant still life, subjects perhaps at odds with her nomadic spirit and happy personality. But her colours are vivacious and striking. She had little time for trends and fashions. Most of her work is based on subjects from her home. Olley brought Australian art not just to Australia but to the rest of the world. She was passionate about art and just as passionate about social and political issues.

Olley was also an extremely liberal philanthropist donating generously to public galleries over the years. She inherited part of the Hughes estate after the death of her friend, Sam Hughes. The Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust was established in 1990. This provided, in particular, purchasing funds for regional galleries. She also provided funds for surgery and healthcare. She donated over $7 million in art to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She contributed to its purchase of Cezanne's Bord De La Marne, and to works by Picasso, Bonnard and many of her own works. She became a life governor of the institution in 1997.

Her largest work was created when she was 84. A triptych representing her favourite room in Paddington was completed for a 2007 exhibition in Brisbane.

At the time of her death, Margaret Olley was preparing for a new exhibition which was scheduled to open in September. She died at her home in Paddington, New South Wales, and Australia is the poorer for her passing.