Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley Biography (1923-2011)

Born on 22 June 1923 in Lismore, NSW, eldest of the three children of Joseph Olley and Grace, née Temperley. Shortly after her birth the family moved to Tully in Queensland, then to Murwillumbah (NSW) before finally settling in Brisbane. Margaret was educated at Somerville House. She was taught art by Caroline Barker , an enthusiastic teacher quick to recognise ability.

She spent a year at Brisbane Central Technical College, then studied at East Sydney Tech. 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; in 1947 she designed and executed the sets for Sam Hughes’s production of J.E. Flecker’s Hassan ; in 1948 she worked with Sidney Nolan on Hughes’s production of Cocteau’s Orphée and Shakespeare’s Pericles . She began showing her paintings in group exhibitions in 1944 – at the Royal Queensland Art Society Exhibition 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, Sydney and the Morton Galleries, Brisbane, where she again exhibited in 1950. In 1947 she won the Mosman Art Prize with New England Landscape , one of many landscapes she executed at this time. She and Donald Friend were 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. Olley settled in Paris and attended classes at La Grande Chaumiére. She became interested in the work of artists such as Matisse and Bonnard, seen in commercial galleries. On weekends she and fellow Australians 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 show 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. It was favourably reviewed in three Paris journals, all of which commented on her sense of poetry. Olley sent out bundles of drawings to Australia for exhibition at the Marodian Gallery, Brisbane, and the Macquarie Galleries. In 1952, with Strachan, she joined David Rose in Lisbon 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. Robert Haines, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, commissioned her to paint a mural of the Place de la Concorde for the opening of the important ‘French Art Today’ exhibition at the gallery. It was followed by mural commissions for the Grosvenor and Lennon’s Hotels in Brisbane and, in 1955, for the Leagues Club, Phillip Street, Sydney.

In 1954 Olley and Friend travelled to Magnetic Island, prior to visiting Papua New Guinea. Work from these trips was shown in a solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1955. They 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.

A warm personality, Margaret Olley’s capacity for friendship and her individual style of dress has endeared her to many artists. She has been a popular subject for portraits: by Margaret Cilento , Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend, as well as the renowned 1949 Archibald prize-winning portrait by William Dobell . All state and most regional galleries in Australia hold examples of her work.

Writers: Christine France and Michael Bogle (www.daao.org.au)