Columbines 1962 dates from a critical phase of Margaret Olley’s career, when she first achieved recognition on a national scale. In 1962, Olley was heralded by the Courier-Mail as Australia’s ‘top woman painter’ following a sell-out show at Brisbane’s Johnstone Gallery, which doubled the previous sales record for any Australian female artist.1 From 1962 to 1965, Olley won nine major prizes for painting, with Columbines making a prominent appearance in the Royal Queensland Art Society’s annual exhibition of 1962. Olley’s art drew effusive praise from critics of the day, including J.V. Duhig of The Bulletin who wrote that her paintings were ‘colossal in power, skill and colour.’2
Columbines is a particularly charming example of Olley’s still-life paintings from this period, showing a sprightly arrangement of late spring flowers on a tabletop. Lacecap hydrangeas are paired with the dainty, almost otherworldly flowers of the columbine (Aquilegia) – distinguished by their spurred outer petals and tubular centre. The composition is unified through Olley’s harmonious use of colour, with a delicate palette of cadmium yellow, orange and mauve. The scrunched tablecloth – a compositional device borrowed from Cézanne’s still-lifes of the 1880s and 90s – would become a recurrent motif in the decades to follow. As with so many of Olley’s 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 weight.
The vivid materiality of Olley’s paintings owes much to her technique, which is rarely discussed in the literature dedicated to her art. As Olley explained in a 1963 interview with Hazel de Berg, ‘I prefer to work direct from models or still life, have an actual thing there … [rather] than relying on one’s memory, which is a sort of risky thing. You can be more interested in the actual painting of whatever you are doing.’3 The notion of working from a photograph was also anathema to Olley. Instead, the preliminary idea for a composition would be sketched onto a scrap of paper or card (perhaps an empty packet from her beloved cigarettes),4 before being worked out in chalk on a 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.’5
1. ‘Margaret Olley Top Woman Painter,’ Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 22 October 1962
2. Duhig, J., ‘The Flood Tide,’ The Bulletin, Sydney, vol.84, no.4316, 3 November 1962, p.36
3. Margaret Olley, quoted in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, pp.17-19
4. Christine France, quoted in Hawker, M. et al, Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2019, p.187
5. Op cit. Margaret Olley, quoted in Pearce, B., p.19