Vale Margaret Olley Painter

In her haven and home Margaret Olley 2006 Photo: Steven Siewert

Vale Margaret Olley A.C. (1923 – 2011) painter. You were the indomitable spirit of the world of art in Australia for many generations. Those who loved and respected you and your achievements will long remember you. Your wonderful works filled with grace, light, zest and style remain as an enduring legacy to your great natural gifts and your incredible ability to descend into the very depths of your spirit and soul to reveal to the rest of us, beauty’s essence.

Margaret Olley in her lifetime received many accolades and awards and she died in her home and haven, where she would have wanted to be.

She had travelled widely in the world to enrich her own experience, to inform her own paintings, and to view the work of the greatest painters she admired in history.

Decidedly not posh or pretentious, nor preciously polite if she knew you, she entirely endeared herself to everyone who came into her circle and aura. She persisted in painting everything and anything around her and remained always true to self.

If you were fortunate to meet her she sized you up in a minute and quick as a flash fiercely sought you out with her quick wit, probing questions and beguiling nature. Trends and fashions were certainly not her bag at all, Margaret Olley knew what she liked, what she wanted, embraced it and went out and made it happen. She had the power of one and the ability to affect many.

Margaret Olley’s inner and mental strength were incredible, certainly after being driven to walking with a frame when out and about in the last decade. We would say generously that she was fiercely independent, refusing all offers of assistance getting in and out of cars. Stubborn would perhaps be more to the point. But it was more than that. Her wonderfully stoic attitude was straight out of the school of philosophy founded by Zeno, who taught that people should submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity. I was able to recognise it because my grandmother and mother had both been to the same school.

A legend and icon of the visual arts world in Australia Margaret Olley was appropriately given the title of National Treasure and honoured a great deal in her own lifetime, especially when in 1997 her work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In recent weeks people in Healesville, Victoria have queued out the door and down the street to view the 2011 Archibald winning portrait of her on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art.

She didn’t give a damn about ‘correctness’ in art or life really. She was to the point often decidedly incorrect, even if only to test your mettle or levels of commitment about something. This endeared her to me a great deal because without people prepared to push us to our edges, our culture and our society would not ever really advance.

Brisbane liked to claim her because she went to school, studied and lived there for a time and also had her own antique shop. The collectors I knew when I lived in Brisbane for a decade and had purchased items from her as a dealer, remained her staunchest allies and greatest fans long after she had moved on. Her great supporter, friend and agent of many years Phillip Bacon in Brisbane also produced many exhibitions of her works, which always sold like ‘hot cakes’. When I was helping out managing an art gallery in Brisbane for a short time in 2005 we had one of her works on commission, and it was the one everyone came to see.

The Olley was painted by many of her artist friends over the years and her portraits by Ben Quilty 2011 and William Dobell 1947 both won the Archibald Prize, the most esteemed prize for art in this country.

When I was five years of age William Dobell was one of the finest artists Australia had ever produced, along with the likes of Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale. Dobell painted his now famous portrait of Margaret at that time, bringing both the lady and her early work also into the spotlight.

His likeness of Margaret was like his portrait of another grand dame of that era poet Dame Mary Gilmore, intriguing. As Dame Mary was a relative of my grandmothers and she was fiercely proud Dobell had painted her, she would often take me to see exhibitions of art by Australia’s finest painters of the time. They made a deep and lasting impression.

Margaret Olley was a painter, not an artist, she would insist. She was born at Lismore in NSW and in her teen years attended Somerville House at Brisbane, a posh school for girls. She also studied art briefly at Brisbane before leaving for Sydney to attend East Sydney Tech, which was the mecca for those going ‘into the arts’ as they used to say, in those days. It is where she revealed, where her life really began.

In 2006 Margaret Olley received Australia’s highest honour ‘for service as one of Australia’s most distinguished artists, for support and philanthropy to the visual and performing arts, and for encouragement of young and emerging artists’. There are many much younger artists out there who came under her influence and they are all sure to miss her good humour, great strength, astute eye, welcome opinions and mastery over the complexities of space and the aesthetic.

Olley in her haven and home Photo: R. Ian Lloyd for National Portrait Gallery

My own encounters with Margaret, although brief were so entirely memorable that I felt compelled to write about them and her, on the occasion of her passing and thank God for her life. Although she would have challenged me about the latter.

Introduced to her by a mutual friend as we were leaving, and she was arriving at a Sotheby’s viewing that included some of her works at Sydney in 2005, she looked me up and down very directly and invited me to visit her at home while I was in town.

To say that I was gob smacked would be an understatement. But I went and also did so on other future visits to Sydney, where we would enjoy a great laugh about the friends, folly and furies of life and its many challenges, as well as about the frustrations attached to growing old. She had created a delightful studio apartment for herself in her terrace at Paddington filled with light, suffused with colour, fine objects, precious textiles, bowls and bowls of flowers for her to paint, as well as many wonderful and much loved antique pieces.

The paintings of them from all different angles and in different groups were scattered all around and piled up ready to be collected for her next exhibition. Taking her flowers was always the thing to do as you were sure they would pop up in a painting soon.

Her studio room was like a great treasure trove, or being in an Aladdin’s cave, the central focus being the lady herself.

Her hair was pinned up with combs while wisps strayed delightfully and framed a face full of character, laugh lines and wrinkles galore. Her perceptive piercing misty eyes still took in everything about you, although whether they missed the cobwebs draped decorously about and on a Ming sculpture of a horse I couldn’t say.

More than likely she simply liked their aesthetic and kept them around because they added to the ambiance and atmosphere, which was for her a very important motivational force.  I remember vividly as she invited me to sit on her ‘fabullus’ sofa that she started taking snaps with her camera and qualified it by saying ‘just in case I decide to paint you’. Would that she had.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, July 2011

Biography of Margaret Olley’s Career

*Page 373 Margaret Olley: Far from a Still Life by Meg Stewart

Margaret Olley was honoured by a Memorial Service held at the Art Gallery of NSW on August 24th, 2011

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