Margaret Olley

Margaret Hannah Olley AC (24 June 1923  26 July 2011) was an Australian painter. She was the subject of more than ninety solo exhibitions.

Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley in August 2009
Margaret Hannah Olley

(1923-06-24)24 June 1923
Died26 July 2011(2011-07-26) (aged 88)
EducationEast Sydney Technical College
Known forPainting
Notable work
Still life with pink fish
AwardsMosman Art Prize (1947)

Early life

Margaret Olley was born in Lismore, New South Wales. She was the eldest of three children of Joseph Olley and Grace (née Temperley). The Olley family moved to Tully in far north Queensland in 1925, with Margaret boarding at St Anne's in Townsville in 1929, before returning to New South Wales in 1931. The family temporarily moved to Brisbane in 1935 with Margaret staying to attend Somerville House in Brisbane during her high school years. She was so focused on art that she dropped one French class in order to take another art lesson with teacher and artist Caroline Barker.[1]

In 1941, Margaret commenced classes at Brisbane Central Technical College and then moved to Sydney in 1943 to enrol in an Art Diploma course at East Sydney Technical College where she graduated with A-class honours in 1945.


Her work concentrated on still life.[2] In 1997 a major retrospective of her work was organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She received the inaugural Mosman Art Prize in 1947.


In November 1965 Olley moved to Newcastle. Whilst living here she painted 23 paintings of the city and waterfront in a series known as the 'Newcastle Watercolours'. [3]


On 13 July 2006 she donated more works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales; her donations included more than 130 works worth $7 million.[4]

Tributes and honours

Olley was twice the subject of an Archibald Prize winning painting; the first by William Dobell in 1948[5] and the other by Ben Quilty in 2011.[6][7] She was also the subject of paintings by many of her artist friends, including Russell Drysdale[8] and Danelle Bergstrom (that portrait being a finalist in the 2003 Archibald Prize).[9]

On 10 June 1991, in the Queen's Birthday Honours list, Olley was made an Officer of the Order of Australia "for service as an artist and to the promotion of art". On 12 June 2006, she was awarded Australia's highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order, "for service as one of Australia's most distinguished artists, for support and philanthropy to the visual and performing arts, and for encouragement of young and emerging artists".

In 2006, Olley was awarded the degree Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa by the University of Newcastle.[10]

Final exhibition

Of the last paintings that Olley did before her death, 27 were exhibited at Sotheby's Australia in Woollahra in an exhibition entitled The Inner Sanctum of Margaret Olley that opened on 2 March 2012. Olley had put the final touches on the show the day before she died and Philip Bacon, who had exhibited her work for decades, had prepared a catalogue to show her that weekend.[11] The opening night was attended by about 350 people among whom were the Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, who gave an address, in which she said that Olley's work was often just like the artist, "filled with optimism".[12] Other attendees at the opening included Penelope Wensley, the Governor of Queensland, Edmund Capon, Ben Quilty and Barry Humphries.[13]


Olley died at her home in Paddington in July 2011, aged 88.[14] She never married and had no children. Her Paddington home sold for over three million dollars in July 2014.[15]


After Olley's death, the Art Gallery of New South Wales used funds donated by its Collection Circle to purchase Nasturtiums, a painting by E. Phillips Fox as a memorial to her.[16]

Her ideas about art were explored in conversations held between 19 October 2009 and 22 September 2010 with author Barry Pearce, whose book based on them was published in the year of her death.[17]

Part of Olley's Paddington house, well known for its items that the painter collected and used as subject matter for her art, described as "her lifelong installation",[18] has been recreated at the Tweed River Art Gallery, an area not far from where the artist was born. The architect of the Tweed's new Margaret Olley Centre, Bud Brannigan, said that it would be faithful to Olley's house, "in all of its glory".[19][20]

There is a comprehensive photographic record of her studio and work, shot on the morning she died, by artist photographer Greg Weight. This suite of prints, has been donated to the Tweed River Art Gallery.

A documentary by Catherine Hunter, Margaret Olley — A Life in Paint follows Olley as she completes her last – and many believe her finest – works, those painted in the 18 months leading up to her death.[21] The critically acclaimed[22] film interprets Olley's style, passion and artistic evolution through the reflections of her peers, including former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher, curator Barry Pearce and Ben Quilty, whose portrait of Olley won the 2011 Archibald Prize.


  1. Cooke, Glenn R. (2007). "Barker, Caroline (1894–1988)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Archived from the original on 11 March 2018. Retrieved 11 March 2018.
  2. Barrett, Rosanne (24 April 2009). "Australian Artist Margaret Olley Talks About Giving Back". Wall Street Journal Asia. Retrieved 14 July 2014.
  3. Stewart, Meg (2005). Margaret Olley Far From a Still Life. Sydney, Australia: Random House Australia. pp. 380–382. ISBN 1740513142.
  4. Kruger, P. 13 July 2006. Margaret Olley donates important collection to Art Gallery of NSW Archived 18 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine, ABC News
  5. Dobell, William (1948). "Margaret Olley". AGNSW collection record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 3 June 2016. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  6. "Archibald Prize". AGNSW prize record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. 2011. Archived from the original on 6 May 2016. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  7. Westwood, Matthew (16 April 2011), "Margaret Olley leaves her hat on for Ben Quilty's win", The Australian, archived from the original on 25 March 2016, retrieved 16 April 2011
  8. Artist Margaret Olley dead Archived 4 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2011
  9. "Archibald Prize Archibald 2003 finalist: Conversation with Margaret Olley by Danelle Bergstrom". Art Gallery of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 20 June 2016. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  10. 2006. Honorary degrees Archived 8 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine, The University of Newcastle, Australia
  11. Taylor, Andrew (12 February 2012), "Final flowering of a dazzling talent", The Sydney Morning Herald, archived from the original on 16 March 2012, retrieved 5 March 2012
  12. Address by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia on the occasion of the Official opening of the Margaret Olley Exhibition Archived 16 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  13. Murphy, Damien (3 March 2012), "Private Sydney: Olley Exhibition opening a friendly occasion", The Sydney Morning Herald, archived from the original on 5 March 2012, retrieved 5 March 2012
  14. Artist Margaret Olley dead Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 26 July 2011.
  15. "48 Duxford Street, Paddington NSW, Australia - Property Sold Prices". Archived from the original on 10 August 2018. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
  16. Fox, E Phillips (c. 1912). "Nasturtiums". AGNSW collection record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 22 March 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  17. Pierce, Barry (2012). Margaret Olley. The Beagle Press.
  18. Meacham, Steve (20 August 2011), "Behold this mess, where the spirit of a treasured artist dwells", The Sydney Morning Herald, archived from the original on 14 July 2013, retrieved 5 March 2012
  19. Meacham, Steve (21 January 2012), "State of the art", The Sydney Morning Herald, archived from the original on 22 November 2013, retrieved 5 March 2012
  20. Morgan, Joyce (25 February 2012), "A spirited house", The Sydney Morning Herald, archived from the original on 22 November 2013, retrieved 5 March 2012
  21. "Margaret Olley: A Life In Paint". ABC TV. 22 July 2012.
  22. "A Life in Paint". The Age. 24 July 2012.
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