Margaret Olley 1923-2011
At the opening night of the last exhibition of Margaret Olley’s works held in 2012 which she had prepared for the day before she died, her friend and former Governor General, Quentin Bryce addressed the gathering saying that her art very often expressed the person she was, ‘filled with optimism’1. Margaret Olley was best known for her still life paintings of ordinary household objects, fruits and flowers.
Quentin Bryce some years later in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald described her long association with Olley in detail. She remembers first seeing works by the artist in 1950s Brisbane, right through to her last days in 2011. ‘For me, it has always been the flowers that are Margaret, that evoke the most tender emotions; heart skipping and breathtaking. Their colour and light, rich sensuality and naturalism. With calm composure, the restraint of quinces lying on a plate. Lush and sensuous, the sheer joyousness of ranunculus jammed in a jar.’2
After graduating from art college, Olley became part of the post-war art community in Sydney, mixing with the likes of William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, and Donald Friend among others. She broadened her experience and influences travelling extensively in Europe in 1949, then returning to Brisbane where she lived for ten years painting, travelling in Queensland and Papua New Guinea, and running an antique shop. ‘This time marked the beginning of decades of commercial success with galleries and collectors, enabling her to invest in properties in Sydney and Newcastle. This gave her the independence to continue to paint, travel and eventually become a benefactor to artists and public galleries.’3
Late in life Olley would be described as a living treasure. Her home in Paddington, a former hat factory that she had bought and renovated in the 1970s, was regularly visited by the famous and influential, not just artist friends such as Jeffery Smart, but people including writer Clive James, comedian Barry Humphries, Governor General at the time Michael Jeffery, conductor Richard Tognetti, all who were happy to sit amongst the extensive clutter of her home (she claimed she never had the time to tidy up) and share a meal and conversation.
Brisbane art dealer Philip Bacon represented Margaret Olley for 40 years and in that time, she became a treasured friend. He described her as a second mother in later years. In 1975 when he first represented her, Olley painted ‘Leaves with Annunciation Print’ to include in an exhibition. ‘She always loved it and she asked me to send it back in 1975 after the exhibition, which I did… I assumed she had sold it at another exhibition in another city. When we cleaned out the house [preparing for a posthumous exhibition in 2014], there it was, still wrapped in the old brown paper that I’d sent it back to her in, still in the original frame, and still with my original sticker on the back which had $1,100 on it…it was like finding an old friend.’4 The work was included for sale again in that 2014 exhibition, but this time at a price of $125,000.
Margaret Olley was a friend and associate to a wide group of artists and influential people of all kinds throughout her life. Stark evidence of her friendships and mentoring role shows in her association with the Archibald Art Prize. Portraits of her have won the Archibald prize twice, firstly at the beginning of her career with the work of William Dobell in 1948 and 63 years later by Ben Quilty in 2011. ‘A charismatic character, whose life was immersed in art, she exerted a lasting impact on many artists as a mentor, friend and muse.’5