There is a very familiar echo in the Margaret Olley exhibition at QAGoMA to those of us who grew up in the tropics and sub-tropics of 50 years ago. The curated space reflects the artist’s own childhood in the arsenic green and dusky pink tongue-and-groove walls (VJ’s in the local vernacular for vertical joins), cane chairs and veranda settings.
Born near the small coastal town of Lismore, her family occupied various pastoral leases as far north as Tully. When she was about 10, they moved to Brisbane, where she remained as a boarder at Somerville House. Her teacher, Caroline Baker, encouraged her art and in 1941, Margaret enrolled at Brisbane Central Technical College before moving to Sydney with her boarding school friend, Margaret Cilento, to graduate with a first class Honours art diploma in 1945.
It may have come as no surprise to her parents that she declared she would devote her life to art rather than marriage. It was a fortunate decision for the Arts in Australia as she donated significant pieces to public galleries over her lifetime. In 2008, the Art Gallery of NSW used her donation of $1 million to purchase Paul Cézanne’s Banks of the Marne c.1888. Her friends were a who’s-who of post-war artists including Jean Bellette, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan, Justin O’Brien, and David Strachan.
Margaret travelled extensively, but loved Brisbane. After her father’s death in 1953, she returned from France to settle at “Farndon”, the family home in Hill End, for the next 10 years. Her work was popular and her commercial success funded her philanthropy and the establishment of a studio in Paddington, Sydney. Photographs give some flavour of the exuberant clutter of her studio. Sadly, “Farndon” burned down in 1980, along with a large collection of her early works. However in a curious twist, about 15 years later, one painting returned from apparent oblivion after an embarrassed fireman’s son realised the significance of the sooty, damaged painting (Still Life with Seafood) that had hung in his parent’s home. Reportedly, Margaret was thrilled to get it back and it sat propped by her door until she died.
Margaret documented her own life in self-portraits, where she peers out from mirrors amid the clutter of her life. Young Margaret sits demurely and perhaps a little bemused in her romantic parachute silk dress in William Dobell’s 1948 Archibald Prize winning portrait. In 2011, Margaret again plays the muse, as Ben Quilty wins with an arresting larger-than-life, head portrait – apparently when Ben showed her a photo of the completed piece, she loved it, tearing up and reportedly saying: “There’s the old bag.”
Over her lifetime, she held over 90 solo exhibitions, and was awarded the Officer Order of Australia (AO), and Companion of the Order of Australia (AO). The exhibition runs until the 13th October 2019 and – in the generous spirit of Margaret Olley herself – is free to attend.
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