Sydneysider: Margaret Olley

‘He did ask me to pose naked, and I thought “will I or won’t I?” and I thought … no.’

What kind of octogenarian Sydneysider says that so casually? Marvellous Margaret Olley. She had just been talking about Ben Quilty, who won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Margaret in 2011.

She passed away in July of 2011, at the age of eighty-eight, which Chinese would say this is a lucky age (despite the evidence) and Anglo-Saxons would consider a ‘ripe old age’ (ripe for what? Creepy).

Lots of people say she could be extremely charming.

But I remember the first time that I saw her was at some showing in the State Theatre of Bill Henson’s work. She seemed super grumpy. Her walking frame had a little bell on it like a bike, and if people got in her way, she scowled at them, looked for her bell and then started ringing it until the obstruction understood and swiftly made way. That night, she basically parted the Red Sea with that scowl and that bell.

But it is evident that she had a great passion for art, so running around with a bell on your walking frame is totally excusable and a chic, albeit practical, accessory.

She found her passion for art at an early age. At boarding school in Brisbane, she did whatever she could to be more involved in art.

‘At one stage, I went to the headmistress at school and said “my mother has written and given me permission to drop French and take an extra art lesson” … I don’t know why she [the headmistress] never asked me to see the letter, because my mother certainly didn’t see that.’

She described her passion for art as an obsession that she was blessed with. Not only is she now known in Sydney and overseas for her colourful still life paintings, but also for her philanthropy, having donated more than one hundred and forty works to the NSW Art Gallery collection – around $7 million. Slightly generous.

She has become a ‘Sydspiration’, if you like (yes, came up with that jewel myself) – one of those individuals that gives hope in what can sometimes seem a culturally bleak city. Lots of her work was here and her success and individuality is inspirational. She celebrated life in this city for what it is and as much as you can anywhere else:

‘The art of Margaret Olley is the art of deliberate choices. The same could be said of Olley herself, who dispels all theories of Australia’s isolation, repression of women and fashion following (…) she persists in painting that which is around her, one reason for this is loathing of pretence, of adopting ways of thinking that are not true to the reality of self,’ wrote Christine France in her biography, ‘Margaret Olley’.

Margaret Olley, painting at home

Her home on Duxford Street in Paddington had a particular reputation amongst artists and intellectuals as a place in which every room was a studio and in which all objects were grouped as if for paintings. It was a place of fusion: ‘My life and paintings are one and the same thing’, was what she used to say (to me, via youtube).

Currently, the Museum of Sydney is showcasing some paintings by Margaret Olley of her house. Just before she died, Ben Quilty had gone to her house and seen that she was painting like a maniac with about forty paintings on the go. And he asked, ‘what’s going on?’

To which she replied, ‘I’m like an old tree setting forth flower as quickly as I can before I die.’

Beautiful paintings, go see them.


Margaret Olley: Home – exhibition at the Museum of Sydney

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