A tribute to Margaret Olley, an Australian art icon
Margaret Olley’s remarkable talent for depicting still life in its full color and vibrancy left an indelible mark on the Australian art world.
Her enthusiasm, generosity, and lust for life influenced people from all walks of life to appreciate her unique genius.
From collecting eclectic items at home to travelling to far-flung corners of the world, she truly lived a radiant existence.
This year, 2023, marks what would have been Olley’s 100th birthday, so let’s pay tribute to this incredible lady by looking at her captivating story.
Step into the world of Margaret Olley
While visiting the Gold Coast in Queensland recently, relatives invited me to join them on a day outing across the New South Wales border to the Margaret Olley Art Centre in Murwillumbah.
The MOAC forms a major part of the Tweed Regional Gallery and is a must-see destination for any art enthusiast. It features work from Olley’s incredible career and gives insight into her life.
This Australian legend was born in Lismore, NSW, on 24 June 1923, and at the tender age of two, she moved with her parents to Tully in tropical North Queensland.
Later, as a 16-year-old art student in Sydney, Olley discovered her passion for painting everyday items like flowers, jars, and ribbons, with vibrant colours.
Items collected while travelling around Australia and to Asia, Europe, and America also often made it into her artworks.
Without question, one of the biggest attractions of the MOAC is seeing inside her home studio, which was painstakingly moved piece by piece all the way from 48 Duxford Street, Paddington, Sydney.
Olley’s recreated home gallery offers an amazing opportunity to explore where she created some of her most iconic pieces of artwork.
Peering into her the rooms—like the Yellow Room and Hat Factory—of her much-loved home studio, I felt transported back in time. I could almost see Olley herself painting nearby.
As I made my way around her home filled with over 20,000 pieces collected throughout her life, I couldn’t help but marvel at how she lived amongst it all and captured the scenes so beautifully on canvas.
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A talented artist and philanthropist extraordinaire
Margaret Olley had a true zest for life. Our gallery tour guide said she loved hosting memorable soirees and attending celebrations and parties.
Music was an important part of her life, particularly Australian Chamber Orchestra concerts, which she attended regularly.
Her also a wicked sense of humour shone through in one of the most unexpected places: table mats with scenes from the Kama Sutra on her dining table!
Despite struggling with depression in the 1970s, Olley found success as a painter through still life works, plus made smart property investments along the way.
The S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney held its first Olley retrospective exhibition in 1990. She became a celebrated Australian artist and enjoyed a long and successful career, holding over 90 solo exhibitions.
Her philanthropic mission was clear—she also wanted to give back, and in 1990, Olley founded an art trust; a mission that would preserve their legacies for generations to come.
She also supported the acquisition of incredible works at renowned art galleries in Australia.
Through her philanthropy, masterpieces by artists such as Giorgio Morandi and Pablo Picasso found their way into The Art Gallery of NSW. Her generosity also funded the acquisition of major artworks at the National Gallery in Canberra.
Olley was honored with many distinguished awards, including the Officer Order of Australia in 1991 and Companion of the Order of Australia in 2006, as well as several honorary doctorates from esteemed universities.
In 2001, the Art Gallery of New South Wales named the Margaret Olley, Twentieth Century European Gallery in her honour. Five years later, she opened Stage II of the Tweed River Art Gallery in Murwillumbah, the MOAC.
Olley also made history as the first person to have had two Archibald Prize-winning portraits created of her—one in 1948 by William Dobell, then again in 2011 by Ben Quilty.
She passed away on 26 July 2011, aged 88, and her Paddington home sold for $3 million in 2014. She never married or had any children.
If you would like more information about this amazing woman, you can read her biography at https://gallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/visit/margaret-olley-art-centre/biography-margaret-olley
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Celebrate Olley’s life and work this year
Margaret Olley left behind a lasting legacy that will continue to benefit generations of Australians into the future.
Her commitment to philanthropy helped shape many lives while her work as an artist continues to inspire new generations as they discover it today—a true testament to her kind spirit.
This year marks what would have been her 100th birthday, so be sure to look out for special events happening this year, including:
The Tweed Regional Gallery Foundation Ltd. and the Friends of Tweed Regional and Margaret Olley Art Centre Inc. are raising funds to acquire paintings by Margaret Olley to gift to the Tweed Regional Gallery collection. If you’d like to make a donation, visit https://gallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/activities-events/margaret-olley-100-years
Dinner, activities, and events
You can also help celebrate the 100th birthday of Australia’s most admired painter of still life and interiors by attending a special dinner at the Tweed Regional Gallery and MOAC on 24 June 2023, or taking part in an exciting program of exhibitions, activities, and events including workshops, tours, talks, and more.
For details, visit https://gallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/activities-events/margaret-olley-100-years
Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre
You can visit the Tweed gallery and MOAC every Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm (except closed on Good Friday; but it’s open Easter Saturday and Sunday). Remember, NSW follows AEDT time, so it’s one hour ahead of QLD during daylight savings.
Entry is free. If you’ve got a larger group, bookings are required for over 10 people. Plus, don’t miss out on the daily guided tours at 11:30 am, where numbers may be limited to six people.
Address: 2 Mistral Road (corner Tweed Valley Way), Murwillumbah South, NSW 2484 Australia
Phone: 02 6670 2790
Margaret Olley: lauded and loved artist, by ABC News
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like Stefano Guseli: The Artist’s Journey
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