Menzies Art Brands



Throughout an illustrious career of over ninety solo exhibitions, Margaret Olley never conformed to artistic trends. She showed little regard for contemporary modernism and abstraction, instead persisting with the subject of still-life. Olleys richly textured and colourful compositions were in sharp contrast to the minimalistic art trends of the mid-twentieth century. It is an incredible feat that her paintings were so well received by the public at a time when abstraction was rising and painting as an art form was arguably in decline.1 In a 1967 article art critic Donald Brook wrote of this phenomenon, recognising Olleys inherent talent:

Intrinsic excellence takes time to assert itself against the current of taste and the work of Margaret Olley will not be fairly comparable with that of todays art heroes until both sets have receded somewhat into the historical middle-distance.2

This perspective was gained within the artists own lifetime, as she was formally declared an Australian National Treasure in 1997 and was wholly regarded as one of Australias best living artists until her death in 2011, aged 88. Remarkably, her most confident and mature works came relatively late in life, in her sixties and seventies, two of which are the present Lots 30 and 31.

It is important to note that this commitment to still-life painting was not incidental nor in ignorance to other subjects or movements. On the contrary, Olley travelled extensively and was well-versed in local and international art scenes, with the latest exhibition catalogues from Australia as well as Paris, New York, and London, scattered throughout her home. As curator and writer Christine France, stated, although she is well aware and tolerant of the current trends, Margaret Olley makes no stylistic concessions to fashion in her painting.3 It was instead Olleys choice to paint that which was around her, firmly disagreeing with ways of thinking or creating that were not true to herself.

There was a tendency among critics to interpret Olleys intimate still-lifes and interiors in terms of domesticity rather than as the important work of an expert a struggle familiar to professional women across all industries at the time.4 In a 1989 interview Olley explained that, the subject matter is not important; it is the shape, the placement and the pictorial relationship which concerns me.5 Every object we see in her paintings is not there by chance, nor for its decorative qualities, but has instead been chosen specifically for its painterliness. The endless array of fruit bowls, wooden sculptures, glass lamps, flowers, ceramic jugs, plates, woven baskets, tribal masks, mirrors and Kilims are about the making of art, rather than the making of a home. They have been chosen for their shape and colour and they form a visual essay, as exemplified by the two present paintings.

Olleys home studio in Duxford Street, Paddington, where she lived and worked from 1964 until her death, further demonstrated this point. While paintings produced there are perfectly balanced aesthetic compositions, photographs reveal the reality of a cluttered and chaotic living space that was primarily devoted to the making of art. Olleys home was like Claude Monets garden at Giverny: a set for painting, an ostensible subject through which more subtle things can be suggested.6 So alluring and inspiring was her home studio that other artists, including Justin OBrien and Cressida Campbell, also spent time working there. Barry Humphries, a close friend of Olley, described the creative calamity of her home:               

As the artist conducts her visitor through the rich labyrinth of her magically transformed terrace house, she may extinguish her cigarette here, emphasise ruddy highlight on a painted pomegranate there: for each room seems to have its uncompleted canvas, its wet palette, its sheaf of brushes and of course, its ashtray. On her journey from the kitchen to the telephone she may impart some final touch to a consummate still-life.7

While working in Paddington, Olley would often visit nearby friends houses who had appealing vantage points of Sydney Harbour. In these paintings, including the present work Still-life with Harbour View, the still-life continues to take precedence in the foreground, while the window view overlooking the water provides a picturesque backdrop. Olleys combined paintings of still-life and harbour have always been among her most desirable works. Menzies sold a similar painting Double Bay and Wildflowers 1999 for $85,909 (including buyers premium) in April 2018. Here, the pink tinge to the clouds and shadowy vegetation show evening is falling, with its soft light settling on the fruit in the darkened interior. In the upper right a group of birds fly home, creating a calm end to the day.

Throughout her life Olley returns again and again to certain motifs and subjects, driven by her belief that each piece of art stands alone as an aesthetic encounter. Lots 30 and 31 are each examples of different subjects that Olley painted on several occasions. Dresser in Blue Kitchen c1990 depicts the artists own kitchen dresser, with this exact arrangement of objects and composition repeated in the related works: Blue Kitchen Dresser 1990 and Blue Kitchen Dresser II 1998. The dresser also appears in a wider scene in Blue Kitchen 1989.

The portrait hanging on the wall to the left of the dresser is a reproduction of Francisco de Goyas (1746 1828) Seora Sabasa Garcia circa 1806-1811, which is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a painting Olley most likely saw when travelling to New York and Washington in 1987.8 The tradition of including works of art within paintings is longstanding, and one that Olley engaged in frequently. Most notably with the inclusion of douard Manets Le Balcon 1868-69 in her 1987 painting Homage to Manet 1987, as well as her various Henri Matisse (1869 1954) reproductions in her Yellow Room paintings.

Still-life with Harbour View and Dresser in Blue Kitchen were both purchased by their current owners and have been held in these singular private collections for decades. They now come to market for the first time.


1. Allen, C., Olleys Knack of Improving with Age, The Australian, 20 July 2019
2. Brook, D., Rabbits Out of Old Hats, Canberra Times, Canberra, 18 April 1967, p.13
3. France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.49
4. McGrath, S. Something for Everyone, The Australian, 24 October 1978
5. Olley, M., interviewed 22 March 1989, as quoted in France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.11
6. Allen, C., op. cit.
7. Humphries, B., A Note of Exclamation, as quoted in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, p.8
8. France, C., op. cit., p.78

Asta Cameron






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