First published on 27 Jul 2011. Updated on 27 Jul 2011.
The little old woman occupying a cramped terrace house in Paddington casts a long shadow. Margaret Olley – doyenne of still life, renowned portraiture subject, and a tireless benefactor of the arts – is a living, breathing piece of Australian art history.
Born in Lismore in 1923, Olley was raised in Tully, a sugar belt town in far north Queensland with reputedly the wettest climate in Australia. The farm’s outdoor toilet overlooked a creek; the infant Olley cultivated a thirst for the visual gazing out from that thunderbox at bottlebrushes and blue butterflies, lost in reveries of colour and form.
Her itinerant family eventually settled in Brisbane, where Margaret was sent to prestige boarding school Somerville House. There, a sympathetic art teacher advised Olley’s mother to send her talented daughter to Brisbane Central Technical College. Thanks to a combination of wartime stringency and uninspiring teachers, Brisbane Tech disappointed Margaret, but having acquired enough credits to start an advanced diploma course at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), she moved to the big smoke at the age of 19. “It was like heaven on a stick when I came down to Sydney,” Olley told her biographer Meg Stewart. “East Sydney Tech was where my life began.”
Olley thrived in the bohemian milieu of postwar Sydney and graduated with A-class honours. She paid her bills by painting theatre sets and befriended major artists such as William Dobell, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend. In 1948 she spent a significant three weeks at Friend’s cottage in Hill End, rural NSW, where the two worked furiously painting landscapes en plein air. For Olley, a lifelong lover of the company of gay men, it was the start of a friendship so strong that each of them proposed marriage to the other on separate occasions (an arrangement that Olley admitted would have been “absolutely impossible”).
Olley’s debut solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in June that year was a resounding success: she sold paintings to national galleries in NSW and Victoria and attracted effusive reviews. A few weeks later she attended an opening at the same gallery for artist Loudon Sainthill, who urged her to come dressed “as a duchess”; she wore a white dress homemade from parachute silk. On the tram going home, William Dobell asked Olley to sit for him.
Dobell’s portrait, with the round- faced 25-year-old gazing at the viewer from under a leghorn hat, a mischievous smile twitching on her lips, was named winner of the Archibald Prize in January 1949. Olley, about to board a boat for England, was suddenly at the eye of a media storm. By the time she set sail three days later she was a national celebrity.
Olley’s three-year trip to Europe took her to London, Paris, Italy, the south of France and Portugal. Overwhelmed by masterpieces, she put aside the paints and took up her sketchbook. “Great art can intimidate you,” she said. “And I just felt more comfortable drawing.” Those early watercolours, monotypes and brush-and-ink drawings formed the basis of Margaret Olley: Life’s Journey, a recent show of Olley’s landscape sketches at the SH Ervin Gallery.
Throughout her life Olley has explored Europe, Asia, America and Oceania, sketching the whole way. But her artistic reputation is based on interior still lifes – graceful, vibrant arrangements of fruit, flowers, jugs and bowls. She has thus stood outside the movements and clichés of Australian art; as Barry Humphries put it in a verse tribute, “Against the grain, against the trend and fashion/ With works of quiet joy, serene and deep/Miss Olley has pursued her private passion/Distaining piles of rock and pickled sheep.”
In the mid-1950s came her most serious career crisis: a reliance on alcohol was sapping her creativity. Artist Fred Jessup helped her to get sober, and the next decade her career came to full blossom. To date she has had more than 60 exhibitions in Australia and Europe, culminating in a major 1996 retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. The following year Olley was declared an Australian National Treasure.
She never married, despite a number of tangled affairs. “I had no desire to be tied down and spend my entire life with someone out of habit,” she told Stewart. Yet Olley, is arguably the most loved artist in Australia, thanks in no small part to her extraordinary generosity. To the AGNSW alone she has gifted money and art worth more than $7 million, including works by Cézanne and Picasso. “No one is ever the owner of paintings,” she has said. “We’re all just custodians.”
1923 - Born Lismore, 24 June
1940 - Attends Brisbane Central Tech
1942 - Attends East Sydney Tech, now National Art School
1948 - First solo exhibition, Macquarie Galleries
1949 - William Dobell’s portrait of Olley wins Archibald Prize; she departs for Europe three days later
1959 - Gives up alcohol; output skyrockets
1965 - Buys first house in Paddington, Sydney
1996 - Major retrospective, AGNSW
1997 - Declared National Treasure and Life Governor of AGNSW
2002 - Overcomes a bout of depression
2006 - Awarded Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)
2009 - Margaret Olley: Life’s Journey at SH Ervin Gallery
2011 - Dies 26 July (aged 88) at her home in Paddington.
This feature was first published Wed Jun 10, 2009.