The Legacy and Life of Margaret Olley

August 10, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty with Margaret Olley, after being announced as the winner of the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Margaret Olley. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty with Margaret Olley, after being announced as the winner of the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Margaret Olley. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The recent death of Australian painter and philanthropist Margaret Olley has been met with heartfelt response from both individual and national art societies who paid tribute to the national icon.

Famous for her rich and detailed still lifes, intimate interiors, and occasional landscapes, she is represented in all the major institutions in Australia. Her art works sold as soon as she painted them, and she was extremely popular in private collections.

Olley, however, was not one to follow the trends. Her legacy to art may be separate from the succession of those trends that today we consider the foundation of modern art and is yet more profound than generally acknowledged.

Born in 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, Olley’s involvement with art began as a young girl. She took art lessons in Brisbane and then East Sydney’s technical colleges where she went on to conduct her first solo exhibition at the age of 25.

From there, her artistic reputation steadily grew. She held 60 more solo exhibitions over the following 60 years and established her reputation as a prominent artist both in Australia and overseas.

It was the Archibald award-winning portrait by friend William Dobell in 1948 that first brought her to the attention of the Australian public.

Edmund Capon, director and chief curator of the Art Gallery of NSW, who announced his retirement recently as the public was reeling from Olley’s death, said that the portrait held great significance in Australian art circles.

“Dobell’s portrait of Margaret Olley is deeply enshrined in the history of Australian art just as the sitter herself is,” Capon said in a statement following her death.

Uncomfortable with the unprecedented attention following the portrait, Olley left Australian shores for Europe, returning years later to run an antique shop and pursue her own art quietly in the background.

Not long after, consumed by alcoholism, Olley entered a dark period in her life. It was this experience and what she described as her “lucky escape” that set her on a path of generosity and concern for the welfare of others.

Close friend, actor, and author Barry Humphries, writing in Fairfax Media said, “She had found what so few of us have been able to discover: the antidote to depression is concern for others.”

Mentor and Patron

Margaret Olley's 'Ranunculus and pears,' 2004, oil on hardboard, 76 by 101cm. (Art Gallery of New South Wales)
Margaret Olley's 'Ranunculus and pears,' 2004, oil on hardboard, 76 by 101cm. (Art Gallery of New South Wales)
Olley also turned her considerable artistic talents to help and mentor friends and other young artists.

Wayne Tunnicliffe, head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, noted that she was not frightened to speak her mind to young artists. “It was at her home that she met with her many friends and with the young artists she mentored, often with robust advice,” Tunnicliffe wrote in his wall text for the Margaret Olley tribute exhibition at the gallery.

Commenting on his decision to paint Olley for a second Archibald prize-winning portrait this year, artist and friend Ben Quilty said it had come from her insistence that he “stop painting ugly skulls and paint something beautiful,” according to the Art Gallery of NSW’s website.

Through her later years, Olley also became well known for her generous contributions, both financial and in terms of artworks, to national and, notably, regional galleries.

Those contributions and support for the development of Australia’s arts communities was officially recognized in 1991, when she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. In 2006 she was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honor, the Companion of the Order of Australia.

Spurred by her humble belief that “the wheel of life is receiving and giving and it’s in perfect harmony,” Olley frequently donated many of her art works to both major state and regional galleries.

Another notable contribution was her $1 million (US$1.1 million) donation in 2009 to assist in the Art Gallery of NSW’s acquisition of the $16.2 million (US$17.2 million) purchase of Cezanne’s Bords de la Marne.

Simple Truths

Margaret Olley's 'Chinese screen and yellow room,' 1996, oil on hardboard, 75 x 75cm. Purchased 1996. (Art Gallery of New South Wales)
Margaret Olley's 'Chinese screen and yellow room,' 1996, oil on hardboard, 75 x 75cm. Purchased 1996. (Art Gallery of New South Wales)
Olley was not a revolutionary artist, but rather an artist dedicated to a lifelong practice of presenting simple truths.

Often painting from the refuge of her home, her works were drawn using painting techniques inspired by traditional European artists of the late 19th century. She rarely painted from life, instead choosing still-life objects and interiors that were close at hand, usually taken from her immediate surroundings, such as a jug of flowers and fruit perched on the living room table or mantelpiece.

According to The Australian, “Flowers were everything to her. ‘To me they are like living people. I love their vibrancy and colour, but I am not a botanical artist,’ she said. As part of the art scene, she said, ‘I never see myself fitting in anywhere. My masterpiece, I hope is still to come.’”

What distinguished Olley from her conceptual contemporaries was that her career was not about setting new trends, but perfecting and expanding on existing ones. She was content with her timeless compositions, unfettered by the changing art forms she encountered throughout her lifetime.

Capon said Margaret was a painter through and through. “There was absolutely no other career for her. … In the grand tradition of the still life, from Vermeer to Morandi … as a painter Margaret found a wealth of beauty, humanity and inspiration in the most humble and prosaic of things—bowls of fruit, flowers and interiors. We often talked about colour and what was her favourite colour—her answer was swift … ‘green’ she would say, ‘it’s the colour of re-birth,’” he said in a statement.

Olley was “a patron and one of the great characters of the Australian art world,” Tunnicliffe wrote in his wall text for the gallery’s tribute. She “will live on through her paintings, her important gifts, and the many people who experienced her extraordinary presence.”

Summing up her greatest attributes, art critic of 30 years and author John McDonald wrote on his blog: “Margaret Olley did her good deeds on earth, where they could materially assist the lives of others.

“She was kind, at a time when Australians are becoming increasingly ungenerous. She was a philanthropist in a society that barely knows the meaning of the word. She was fearless in a fearful world. It is no exaggeration to say that Margaret was loved by thousands, and had a heart big enough to return the feeling.”

A tribute exhibition featuring Margaret Olley’s artworks will be on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until Aug 21. For more details please visit Art Gallery