Menzies Art Brands



Margaret Olley was a vital and beloved part of the Australian arts community for over sixty years, renowned for her paintings, her vibrant personality and her generous philanthropy. The young artist became a minor celebrity in 1949, when William Dobells (1899-1970) now-famous portrait of her won the Archibald Prize she was overwhelmed by publicity, with the press seeking her out for comments on the controversial likeness, and even publishing photographs of her alongside her likeness.1 Olley was already showing great promise at the time, having recently held her first solo exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, which was opened by Russell Drysdale (1912-1981).2

The subject matter of Double Bay and Wildflowers 1999 is characteristic within Olleys oeuvre, which almost exclusively focussed on still lifes and interiors. She repeatedly turned to the quotidian for inspiration, excavating domestic scenes to uncover the beauty in everyday life. Many of Olleys works were made in her home in Paddington, where she lived from 1964 until her death in 2011, and sometimes at those of nearby friends with different vantages, such as the spectacular view of Sydney Harbour in Double Bay and Wildflowers. This work features a collection of household objects set in front of a window overlooking the water, which suffuses the work with natural light. As a medium, still life lends itself to studying the formal elements of art, and Double Bay and Wildflowers demonstrates a close attention to composition, form and texture. Olley chose not to use the natural border of the window to structure her work symmetrically, but rather positioned the frame slightly off-centre, which engendered a sense of sincerity and unaffectedness. This impression is emphasized by the nature of the items placed on the bench, which are familiar and eminently unpretentious oranges, a water pitcher, native wildflowers in a jug and a small drinking glass. However, these are carefully arranged to produce a harmonious image. They also offered different surfaces for Olley to study, like the metallic sheen of the pitcher, the variegated flesh of the oranges and the water in the glass.

While so much of Olleys art portrayed interiors, intimate scenes capturing the minutae of everyday life, her inspiration was fuelled by travel. She made her first trip to Europe when she was twenty-five, travelling with fellow artist Mitty Lee-Brown (1922-2012). Between 1949 and 1953, Olley studied at the Acadmie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, rented a farm-house in south-east France, and visited Italy, Spain, Portugal and England. This period abroad offered her the indispensable opportunity to see the work of both Old and New Masters, which shaped her practice, especially the still lifes and interiors of Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Shortly after returning to Australia, Olley exclaimed that the impact of seeing original pictures one has only seen in reproduction is indescribable.3 In 1954, she ventured to Papua New Guinea with Donald Friend (1914-1989), and she continued to travel extensively over the next thirty years, including to the United States, Egypt, China and Russia.

Olleys legacy is one of a remarkable artist and philanthropist, with her service to Australian culture recognised by numerous awards; notably, she received an Order of Australia in 1991 and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2006. She was an immensely prolific artist, holding over ninety solo exhibitions during her lifetime. Olleys work is held in national, state and regional galleries in Australia, and her studio has been recreated as a permanent installation at the Tweed Regional Gallery in northern New South Wales.

1. Dobells Portrait and a photo of Margaret Olley, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 1949, p.3
2. Massive forms in Margaret Olley pictures, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 1948, p.5
3. Margaret Olley Now Designs Wallpapers, The Sunday Herald, 1 March 1953, p.28

Dr Kate Robertson, PhD University of Sydney

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