Born in Lismore, New South Wales on 22 June in 1923, Margaret Olley was an Expressionist painter in oil, watercolour, pen and wash and her subjects were mostly landscape, interiors and still-life.
Margaret Olley was the eldest of three children of Joseph Olley and Grace, nee Temperley. Shortly after Margaret’s birth, the family moved to Tully in north Queensland and then moved south to Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales, before they finally settled in Brisbane, Queensland.
In Brisbane, Margaret was educated at Somerville House and was taught art by Caroline Barker, an enthusiastic teacher who was quick to spot Margaret’s natural ability.
Margaret furthered her study of art for a year at the Brisbane Central Technical College and then studied at East Sydney Technical College under Dorothy Thornhill, Jean Bellette, Lyndon Dadswell, Douglas Dundas, Herbert Badham and Frank Medworth, graduating in 1945 with first class honours.
In 1943 she painted sets for John Kay of the Mercury Theatre Group and in 1947 designed and executed the sets for Sam Hughes’s production of J.E. Flecker’s Hassan. The following year she worked with the artist Sir Sidney Nolan on Hughes’s production of Cocteau’s Orphee and Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Her own style of painting developed in the atmosphere of Sydney’s wartime romanticism and evolved into the impressionistic style of work for which she became known. Her colourful paintings of interiors and still-lifes are especially notable for their use of brilliant, clear tones.
Olley began to exhibit her work in Group exhibitions in 1944 at the Royal Queensland Art Society Exhibitions in Brisbane and the Under Thirties Group in Sydney. By 1945 she was exhibiting with the Contemporary Art Society in Sydney.
In 1948 she held her first solo exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney and at the Morton Galleries in Brisbane, where she again exhibited in 1950; then later in Brisbane at the prestigious Johnstone Gallery.
In 1947 she won the Mosman Art Prize with her painting entitled “New England Landscape”, which was one of the many landscapes that she executed at this time. She and fellow artist Donald Friend were also among the first of many artists to paint in the Hill End area, near Bathurst.
In 1949 Olley and Mitty Lee Brown travelled to London. From here Olley travelled to Paris, where she settled and attended classes at Le Grande Chaumière. It was here that she became interested in the work of French artists such as Matisse and Bonnard, which she saw hanging in the commercial galleries in Paris.
On weekends, she and fellow Australian artists David Strachan and Moya Dyring made painting expeditions, which she continued after moving to a farmhouse at Cassis, near Marseilles. Her many drawings and watercolours of Paris and French coastal villages have a quick vitality and showed an increased awareness of light.
Having learnt the technique from Sir Francis Rose (a fellow excursionist), her first overseas exhibition, in 1952 at the Galerie Paul Morihien, Palais Royal, was of monotypes. The exhibition was favourably reviewed in three Paris journals, all of which commented on her sense of poetry. Olley also sent out bundles of drawings to Australia for exhibition at the Marodian Gallery in Brisbane and for the Macquarie Galleries.
In 1952, with David Strachan, she joined David Rose in Lisbon, Portugal and helped him with a commission for wallpaper designs. Then she worked in London with Jocelyn Rickards and Loudon Sainthill on designs for Michael Benthall’s proposed film, The Tempest.
In 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane and Robert Haines, who was director of the Queensland Art Gallery, commissioned her to paint a mural of the Place de la Concorde in Paris for the opening of the important French Art Today exhibition at the gallery. Other mural commissions followed this for the Grosvenor and Lennon Hotels in Brisbane and in 1955 she painted a scene of early Circular Quay for the NSW Leagues Club in Sydney, one of her best known murals.
In 1954, Olley and fellow artist, Donald Friend travelled to Magnetic Island, before visiting Papua New Guinea. Work from these trips was shown in a solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1955. These works revealed an increased interest in colour and, as Lloyd Rees was to comment, showed a Bonnard-like approach to tropical landscape. The still-lifes heralded her future direction as a still-life painter.
Margaret Olley travelled widely throughout her life, including to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, United Kingdom, United States of America, China and Russia.
A warm personality, Margaret Olley’s capacity for friendship and her individual style of dress endeared her to many artists. She was a popular subject for portraits – by Margaret Cilento, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend, as well as being the sitter for the renowned 1949 Archibald prize-winning portraits by William Dobell in 1949 and Ben Quilty in 2011.
Margaret Olley held many exhibitions during her lifetime including one-woman shows in London and Paris and regular showings in Australia in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle. Since 1948 she held at least one exhibition annually, with the notable 1962 exhibition at Johnston Gallery in Brisbane, with this sell-out show establishing her name on a national scale in Australia.
She held other regular exhibitions at Macquarie and Holdsworth Galleries in Sydney; Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, Greenhill Galleries in Adelaide, Australian Galleries in Melbourne and Sydney, Solander Gallery in Canberra and The Centre Gallery at the Gold Coast.
During her lifetime, Olley was the recipient of several prestigious awards, including: Mosman in 1947; Lismore in 1958; Helena Rubenstein Portrait Prize in 1962; Royal National Agricultural & Industrial Association of Queensland Rural Prize; Finney Centenary Art Prize in Queensland in 1963; Johnsonian Club Art Prize for Portraiture in 1964; Toowoomba Art Society Competition, 1965; Bendigo Art Prize and Redcliffe Art Prize several times.
In 1991 she was awarded an honorary doctorate in Literature from Macquarie University and in the same year was honoured with the Order of Australia (AO). In 1992 she became a life governor of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
During her lifetime Margaret Olley donated many paintings and generous funding to Australia’s public art galleries. In 2006 she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order, for her philanthropy to the arts and mentoring of emerging young artists.
Two retrospective exhibitions of Margaret Olley’s work were held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990 and 1997.
Olley’s work is widely represented in Australian public galleries, including: National Gallery of Australia in Canberra; State Galleries of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania and several regional galleries including Lismore, Maitland, Gold Coast and Wollongong. Her work is also represented in many Australian tertiary and municipal collections plus private collections in Australia and overseas.
Margaret Olley passed away in her Paddington home in Sydney on Tuesday 26 July 2011. A state memorial service for Margaret Olley was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in August 2011.