Good golly Ms Olley, your art ain’t no folly

Australian still life artist, Margaret Hannah Olley, was born in Lismore, New South Wales on 24 June 1923. During her high school years, Olley attended Somerville House in Brisbane. After graduation from art school, Olley became an active member of the Sydney art scene. She received the inaugural Mosman Art Prize in 1947; and had her first solo exhibition the following year. By 1949, Olley left for Europe, where she attended art school in France; and traveled throughout much of western Europe. This was followed by her first European exhibition, in 1952.

Olley returned to Brisbane in 1953, where she designed theatre sets and painted murals. She then traveled to north Queensland and on to Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Bali. Olley’s landscapes from this time are full of bright colours. By the early 1960s, her work had become popular with galleries and collectors.

  • The image above entitled Odette (1962), is an example of Olley’s early 1960s art created during a stage where she floated between Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane. It was whilst in Brisbane, she engaged a number of models from Joyce Wilding’s newly opened One People of Australia League (OPAL) hostel for aboriginal and Torres Strait islander girls, in south Brisbane. Olley’s portraits and nudes of these dispossessed and displaced young indigenous women are amongst her most interesting works.

During her busy career, Olley held more than 90 solo exhibitions. This was recognised on 10 June 1991, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, where Olley was made an Officer of the Order of Australia “for service as an artist and to the promotion of art”. Six years later, in 1997, a major retrospective of Olley’s work was organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Olley was twice the subject of an Archibald Prize winning painting; the first by William Dobell in 1948 and the other by Ben Quilty in 2011. She was also the subject of paintings by many of her artist friends, including Russell Drysdale.

  • In 2006, Olley was awarded the degree Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa by the University of Newcastle.
  • In the same year, on 12 June, Olley was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order, “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”.
  • The following month, on 13 July 2006, Olley donated a further 130 artworks to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, worth AU$7 million.

Olley died at her home in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington, on 26 July 2011, aged 88. Of the last paintings that she did before her death; 27 were exhibited at Sotheby’s Australia, in Woollahra, in an exhibition entitled The Inner Sanctum of Margaret Olley.  Olley had put the final touches for the show, on the day before she died; and Philip Bacon, who had exhibited her work for decades; had prepared a catalogue to show her that weekend.

The opening night was attended by about 350 people, among whom were the Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce; who gave an address, in which she said that Olley’s work was often just like the artist, “filled with optimism“. Other attendees at the opening included Penelope Wensley, the Governor of Queensland, Edmund Capon, Ben Quilty and Barry Humphries.

Here lies the still life of the inner sanctum of Margaret Olley

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Source: McCulloch, Alan. Encyclopedia of Australian Art.
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