Menzies Art Brands



In the summer of 2020, almost eleven years after her death at the age of eighty-eight, Sydneys S.H. Ervin Gallery paid homage to Margaret Olley in an exhibition called Margarets Gift.1 The show comprised sixty-five works of art that Olley had donated to Australian public collections, both during her lifetime and posthumously via the Margaret Olley Art Trust. Together the works presented a captivating portrait in absentia of their donor, revealing Olleys diverse aesthetic interests as well as her innate talent for friendship. The exhibition included the art of Olleys great nineteenth century heroes (Paul Czanne, Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas); her close friends and contemporaries (Margaret Cilento, Russell Drysdale, Justin OBrien, Jeffrey Smart, Barry Humphries); and younger artists she had openly supported (Cressida Campbell, Nicholas Harding, Ben Quilty). The overwhelming impression was of Olleys immense generosity, and of a life well lived.

This largesse was reflected in Olleys approach to still-life, the genre for which she is best known. As illustrated by the present work, Cosmos and Limes c1989, Olley brought an unerring warmth and vitality to her paintings of flowers and fruit. Olleys sprightly arrangement of pale blue cosmos is complemented by an abundance of citrus, displayed in elegant footed bowls. Errant fruit spills onto the table, threatening to escape the bounds of the frame. The composition is unified through Olleys harmonious use of colour, with a palette of emerald green, cadmium yellow and turquoise. As with so many of Olleys paintings, there is an appealing unfussiness to the image. Her vision of still-life was worldly and material, with each object accorded a certain visual heft.

The vibrant real-ness of Olleys paintings owes much to her technique, which is rarely discussed in the relevant literature. The artist explained, I prefer to work direct from models or still life, have an actual thing there [rather] than relying on ones memory, which is a sort of risky thing. You can be more interested in the actual painting of whatever you are doing.2 The notion of working from a photograph was also seemingly anathema to Olley. Instead, the preliminary idea for a composition would be sketched onto a scrap of paper or card (often an empty packet from her beloved cigarettes),3 before being worked out in chalk on a prepared sheet of Masonite. As Olley memorably described the process: I prepare the ground like a coloured bone, then put on the oil and the struggle begins.4



1. Margarets Gift, National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 2020 (accessed May 2021):
2. Margaret Olley, quoted in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, pp.17-19
3. Christine France, quoted in Hawker, M. et al, Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2019, p.187
4. Op cit. Margaret Olley, quoted in Pearce, B., p.19

Catherine Baxendale









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