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Margaret Olley

The painter Margaret Olley is noted for her colourful still life paintings and intimate interiors.

Not easily swayed by changing fashions and movements of the art world, Olley chose to paint her immediate world, immersing herself in everyday subjects that reflected her interest in the personal and the intimate:

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.
France, C 2002, Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, p.13

Portrait in the Mirror by Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley, Portrait in the mirror, 1948. Gift of the artist 200. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW
Margaret Olley

Olley is also known for her friendships with important Australian artists including William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart.

Olley is regarded as a generous benefactor having donated many works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Olley's generosity to the gallery was celebrated in its Great gifts, great patrons exhibition in 1994. She donated works of Donald Friend, Arthur Boyd, Walter Sickert, Edgar Degas, Duncan Grant and Matthew Smith for this exhibition.

Margaret Olley's early life

Margaret Hannah Olley was born on 24 June 1923 in Lismore, New South Wales. After spending some of her childhood in remote Upper Tully, south of Cairns, Queensland, the family moved to Lower Tully where her sister Elaine and brother Ken were subsequently born.

Margaret Olley photographed by Greg Weight, 1991

Margaret Olley photographed by Greg Weight, 1991. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: an12119221.

Experiences like riding a pony to school helped foster an early sense of adventure and independence in the young artist. However, it was not until she attended Somerville House, a Brisbane girl's boarding school, in 1935 that her talent for painting and drawing started receiving encouragement.

Olley's art teacher at Somerville House persuaded Olley's parents to send Margaret to art school. In 1941, she started at Brisbane Central Technical College. The next year Olley moved to Sydney and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College, where her boarding school friend and fellow artist Margaret Cilento also attended. Olley graduated in 1945 with A-class honours.

Margaret Olley's work

After graduating, Olley quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene. In the late 1940s, she and Donald Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of New South Wales.

William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley in 1948. This was also the year Olley had her first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries.

In 1949, Olley took her first international trip. She stayed in France and travelled extensively to parts of Spain, Brittany, Venice, Lisbon and London. When her father died in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane where she designed sets for the Twelfth Night Theatre.

Olley travelled through north Queensland with Donald Friend in the early 1950s, and following this trip she went to Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings of this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim.

After the 1955 exhibition, Olley returned her focus to drawing. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, which marked the beginning of a decade of success with collectors:

The colour in her work became more confident, and underpinned by stronger compositional design, although over the years a concern for the flat picture plane would become progressively supplanted by one for the form and weight of objects set within three-dimensional space.
Barry Pearce, in his introduction for the exhibition catalogue Margaret Olley , The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1996.

Turkish pots and lemons by Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley, Turkish pots and lemons, 1982. Gift of the artist 2001.
Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW
Margaret Olley

According to Pearce, senior curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, this shift in Olley's approach can be seen when comparing works such as Still Life with Artichokes (c1955) and Eucharist Lilies (1963) to her later works of Ranunculus and Fruits I (1973) or Turkish Pots and Lemons (1982).

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


Margaret Olley has held at least one exhibition per year since 1948 at galleries including:

  • Macquarie and Holdsworth Galleries, Sydney
  • Philip Bacon Gallery, Brisbane
  • Greenhill Galleries, Adelaide
  • Australian Galleries, Melbourne and Sydney
  • Solander Gallery, Canberra
  • Margaret Olley , 1996-1997 Art Gallery of NSW, Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery Museum and Newcastle Regional Art Gallery (included in the catalogue are contributions by Barry Humphries and Jeffrey Smart)

The artist was involved in group exhibitions from 1944 including:

  • Contemporary Art Society, Sydney, 1940s
  • Contemporary Painting and Sculpture , QAG, 1967
  • A Survey of Eighty Painters: Qld Works , 1950-85 , University of Queensland, 1985
  • Justin O'Brien and Friends , S.H. Ervin Gallery, 1987
  • A Changing Relationship: Aboriginal Themes in Australian Art, 1938-88 , S.H. Ervin Gallery, 1988
  • The Self Portrait , David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, 1989


  • Prizes at Mosman, 1947; Lismore, 1958; Redcliffe, 1962, 1963; Helena Rubinstein Portrait Prize, 1962; Finney Centenary Prize, Qld, 1963; Johnsonian Club Prize, 1964; Toowoomba Art Society Competition, 1965; prizes at Bendigo and Redcliffe, 1965; Aberdare Prize for Still Life, 1986
  • Order of Australia, 1991
  • Honourable doctorate Literature, Macquarie University, 1991
  • Life governor, the Art Gallery of NSW, 1992
  • Companion of the Order of Australia, 1996

Where to see works by Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley is represented at the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queensland Art Gallery, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Her work also appears at regional galleries including Lismore, Maitland, Gold Coast, and Wollongong as well as tertiary and municipal collections.

Useful links


Biography and reviews

References used in the preparation of this story

  • France, Christine 2002, Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney
  • McCulloch, Alan (revised and updated by Susan McCulloch) 1994, The Encyclopedia of Australian Art , Allen & Unwin
  • Meacham, Steve, 'Gallery scores a Cezanne hat-trick', Sydney Morning Herald , November 22, 2003
  • Pearce, Barry 1996, exhibition catalogue introduction for Margaret Olley , The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Last updated: 17th August 2011
Creators: Jacki Thomas