Sunday, 31 July 2011


“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” - Henry Ward Beecher

The Australian painter Margaret Olley died last Tuesday, 26th July 2011. She is noted for her colourful still life paintings and intimate interiors.  She was a traditional painter, oblivious to changing fashions and movements of the art world. Olley chose to paint her surroundings, immersing herself in everyday subjects that reflected her interest in the personal and the intimate. Her love for painting is explicitly shown in every one of her works and her own personality and inner beauty is exemplified by her choice of subject and the way she depicted it.

Margaret Hannah Olley was born on 24th June 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales. After spending some of her childhood in remote Upper Tully, south of Cairns, Queensland, her family moved to Lower Tully where her sister Elaine and brother Ken were subsequently born. Living in a small country town, gave her rich experiences, like riding a pony to school. This helped o give her a sense of adventure and independence, which the young artist was able to use in the future. It was not until she attended Somerville House, a Brisbane girl’s boarding school, in 1935, that her talent for painting and drawing started receiving encouragement.  Olley’s art teacher at Somerville House persuaded Olley’s parents to send Margaret to art school.

In 1941, she started at Brisbane Central Technical College. The next year Olley moved to Sydney and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College, where her boarding school friend and fellow artist Margaret Cilento also attended. Olley graduated in 1945 with A-class honours. After graduating, Olley quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene. In the late 1940s, she and Donald Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of New South Wales.

William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley in 1948. This was also the year Olley had her first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries.  In 1949, Olley took her first international trip. She stayed in France and travelled extensively to parts of Spain, Brittany, Venice, Lisbon and London. When her father died in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane where she designed sets for the Twelfth Night Theatre. 

Olley travelled through north Queensland with Donald Friend in the early 1950s, and following this trip she went to Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings of this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim.  After the 1955 exhibition, Olley returned her focus to drawing. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, which marked the beginning of a decade of success with collectors. The colour in her work became more confident, and underpinned by stronger compositional design, although over the years a concern for the flat picture plane would become progressively supplanted by one for the form and weight of objects set within three-dimensional space.

Olley is also known for her friendships with important Australian artists including William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart. Olley is regarded as a generous benefactor having donated many works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Olley’s generosity to the gallery was celebrated in its “Great Gifts, Great Patrons” exhibition in 1994. She donated works of Donald Friend, Arthur Boyd, Walter Sickert, Edgar Degas, Duncan Grant and Matthew Smith for this exhibition.

Margaret Olley held honorary doctorates from Macquarie, Sydney, Queensland and Newcastle universities. In 1991, Olley was made a Member of the Order of Australia for service as an artist and for the promotion of art. In 2006, she was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order, for service as one of Australia’s most distinguished artists, for philanthropy to the arts and for encouragement of young and emerging artists.

The painting above is titled “Pears and Clivias” and exemplifies Olley’s style admirably. Joyous colour, naturalistic style, a detailed canvas laden as though it were a Victorian drawing room. Exuberant colour and shapes fill the eyes with richness and above all it is a satisfying, highly decorative painting that refreshes and calms the viewer. Olley, who preferred to be known as a painter rather than an artist, saw beauty in humble items, reflecting this in her still life works such as this, of fruit bowls and flowers. NSW Art Gallery director Edmund Capon said of Olley: “We often talked about colour and what was her favourite colour. Her answer was swift and straightforward: ‘Green’, she would say ‘it’s the colour of rebirth’.”

Vale, Margaret Olley!


  1. I think the viewer can see that she travelled extensively all over western Europe, particularly the Mediterranean. There is something wonderful about her fruits and flowers, especially those in front of an open window with the landscape outside.

    Ave Margaret.

  2. What a beautiful painting! I didnt know this artist Nic!!! Sounds like she had a rich life...

  3. I hadn't heard of this painter. The painting is gorgeous! I shall go off and investigate more of her works.
    thanks for the introduction, Nicholas.

  4. Margaret Olley's last wish to be realised: