Artist Biography

Margaret Olley  1923 – 1996

Margaret Olley was one of Australia’s most significant still-life and interior painters. Born in Lismore in 1923, Olley studied art at the Brisbane Technical College then at East Sydney Technical College (later the National Art School).

Many of her paintings feature arrangements of fruits and flowers, set amid the pottery, art and exotica of her travels. In 1948, Olley held her first solo exhibition at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries, from which the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of NSW both purchased works.

Olley left for Europe in 1949. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Her first European exhibition, at the Galerie Paul Morihien in 1952, was of monotypes, including expressive images of landscapes and rural life such as Nazaré 1952. Returning to Brisbane in 1953, Olley was commissioned to produce a number of murals, including the Place de la Concorde for the opening of the French Art Today exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Olley travelled extensively during the 50s and 60s to north Queensland’s Magnetic Island, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bali painting landscapes and still lifes in brilliant colours; and later in the 70s and 80s to America, Crete, Egypt, China, Russia, Italy, France and England where her still-life arrangements such as Homage to Manet 1987 reflected her experience.

She continued painting at her Paddington home into the early 2000s.  She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1996. Olley died later that year.

Olley held her first solo exhibition in 1948 and has held at least one exhibition annually. She is known for her colourful interiors and still life paintings. She is also widely known for being the subject of the famous William Dobell portrait which won the Archibald Prize in 1948.

Olley’s close friend, the Australian entertainer Barry Humphries once wrote:

“A visit to Margaret Olley is certainly an unforgettable experience. Her house is a series of studios, filled burgeoning with furniture, textiles and objects that she incorporates into her ravishing nature mortes. In each room, and in various stages of completion, stands a painting, propped sometimes against a chair, or flung with seeming carelessness upon a sofa – there is no sign of so formal an accoutrement as an easel.

A simple table, covered with gourds and tangerines and upon which might also rest a Turkish pot, a jar of flannel flowers or a dish of desiccated raspberries, stands against a black and gilded Chinese screen. In the foreground, Miss Olley’s painting of this subject is casually appended. It is not difficult to image that she was once (in 1959) the proprietrix of an antique store.”

Margaret Olley is a legend in the art world – both as an artist and a generous philanthropist. Her paintings are highly sought after by public and private collectors both in Australia and all around the world.

In 1991 Margaret Olley was awarded the Australian Office of the Order of Australia (AO) and in 2006 she was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List.

In 2007, Margaret Olley was appointed a Fellow of the National Art School. She was only the third Fellow to be appointed, joining Peter Rushforth and John Coburn.

Margaret Olley sadly passed away on 26th July 2011 in her home in Paddington, Sydney.

Reference: Margaret Olley, a Biography Christine France (1990); Margaret Olley Barry Pearce (1996); Margaret Olley Recent Paintings (1997).’Far From A Still Life’ a biography by Meg Stewart (2005) 

National Gallery of Australia
Art Gallery of New South Wales
National Gallery of Victoria
Queensland Art Gallery
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Art Gallery of South Australia
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
Artbank
Australian National University
University of New South Wales
University of Queensland
University of Sydney
Bendigo Art Gallery
Lismore Regional Art Gallery
Newcastle Region Art Gallery
Toowoomba Art Gallery
Tweed River Art Gallery
Wollongong City Gallery