Biography of Margaret Olley

Margaret Hannah Olley, AC (24 June 1923 – 26 July 2011)

Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW, 15 April 2011 (photo by Robyn Sweaney)

Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW, 15 April 2011 (Robyn Sweaney)

Margaret Hannah Olley was born on 24 June 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales. Margaret was the eldest of three children of Joseph Olley and Grace (nee Temperley). At the time of her birth they were living on a property of selected land at Horseshoe Creek, near Kyogle. The Olley family were pioneers in the Lismore district, and the Temperley family had lived for a time in Ballina, where they owned the local newspaper The Richmond River Times during the 1880s

In 1925 the Olley family moved to Tully, between Cairns and Townsville in far north Queensland, firstly to a property that Grace’s father had bought. He hoped to capitalise on the profitable sugar cane growing rush. Finding the property very isolated and uncleared of natural rainforest the family acquired another parcel of land closer to the town of Tully to establish a sugarcane farm. It was here that Margaret’s sister and brother were born; Elaine in 1925 and Ken in 1927.

Margaret boarded at St. Anne’s in Townsville in 1929. In c.1931 the Olley family moved back to northern NSW, purchasing a sugar cane farm at Tygalgah, near Murwillumbah. The farm was on the Tweed River, opposite the Condong Sugar Mill. At the time, Margaret’s uncle Tom Temperley was working for the mill as an Inspector of Cane Fields. To attend the local primary school in Murwillumbah, Margaret and her siblings crossed the river in a row boat to meet the bus which took them into town. The family were self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables, raising chickens, making preserves and cakes. Margaret’s favourite subject at school was art and her independent Aunt Mary, who often visited the family, was a great mentor.

In 1935 the farm was sold to Thomas Edwin Grant and the family moved back to Brisbane for a time before returning to Tully. Margaret remained in Brisbane to attend Somerville House, a Brisbane girl's boarding school. It was during her time at secondary school that her talent for painting and drawing was noticed particularly by her art teacher Caroline Barker. Ms Barker persuaded Margaret’s parents to send their daughter to art school to further her studies. In 1941, Margaret commenced classes at Brisbane Central Technical College. In 1943 Olley moved to Sydney and enrolled in an art Diploma course 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, which included artists such as Jean Bellette, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan, Justin O’Brien and David Strachan. In the late 1940s, she and Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of NSW. In 1948 Olley held her first solo exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries. This was also the year William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley dressed in a gown fashioned from parachute silk, with a hat adorned with flowers.

Olley departed on her first international trip in 1949. 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 to live and paint at her mother’s home ‘Farndon’ in Morry St, Hill End, Brisbane. Margaret remained in Brisbane for ten years, painting for exhibitions, designing theatre sets and murals, and opening an antique shop in Stones Corner.

During the mid-1950s, Margaret travelled through north Queensland, to Hill End with Donald Friend, Magnetic Island and Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings from this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, and her creative output and well being increased as a result. This time marked the beginning of decades of commercial success with galleries and collectors, enabling her to invest in properties in Sydney and Newcastle. This gave her the independence to continue to paint, travel and eventually become a benefactor to artists and public galleries.

In 1962 Margaret purchased and renovated her first home in Paddington St, Paddington, Sydney. In 1964 she purchased a terrace house in Duxford St, Paddington where she set up a flat in an area of the property between the house and the adjoining old Hat Factory buildings as a place for her to stay when visiting Sydney. During the early 1970s these two rooms became the initial base for Margaret and her great love Sam Hughes. Margaret began renovating the Hat Factory before she and Sam moved in during the mid 1970s. They lived here in between overseas travel until Sam passed away in 1982. This year also saw the passing of Margaret’s mother.

Sadly in 1980 the family home Farndon in Brisbane burnt down, resulting in the loss of the family’s possessions and many of Olley’s early works, photographs and objects collected on her travels.

Duxford St became Margaret’s permanent home in 1988. She continued to renovate the rooms at the back of the property, establishing the Hat Factory as her home and studio.

Margaret travelled extensively to Asia, Europe and America visiting friends and viewing special exhibitions by artists she loved, including Matisse, Morandi, Chardin, Bonnard and Balthas. In 1990 Margaret established the Margaret Olley Art Trust to acquire paintings for public collections. The first retrospective of her work was held at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, Sydney in 1990, accompanied by the launch of a monograph written by Christine France. The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) also held another retrospective exhibition, curated by Barry Pearce.

Margaret Olley held over 90 solo exhibitions during her life time. She was appointed an Officer Order of Australia (AO) in 1991, and awarded Life Governor of the AGNSW in 1997. The AGNSW named the Margaret Olley, Twentieth Century European Gallery in her honour in 2001. She was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2006. Margaret was awarded Honorary Doctorates from Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, Southern Cross University, Lismore and Griffith University, Brisbane.

Margaret Olley opened Stage II of the Tweed River Art Gallery in Murwillumbah in 2006. In April 2011 artist Ben Quilty won the 2011 Archibald Prize with his enigmatic portrait of Margaret.

Margaret continued to paint, despite her deteriorating health in her last years, and had completed a new body of work for an exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries when she passed away on 26 July 2011 at her home.