Ian Fairweather commemorates Margaret Olley’s visit to Bribie Island


Ian Fairweather’s cryptically titled painting MO, PB and the ti-tree was first exhibited, though not for sale, at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney in 1965, in an acclaimed exhibition that highlighted works from the ‘Drunken Buddha’ series, as well as other recent paintings.

A beautiful fabric of planes [that] tremble and fluctuate, support or oppose the brilliantly expressive lines. Colours gently sing in rare harmonies and changes and transitions of tone are placed and balanced with the sureness of the mature master.1

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This was one of the most significant years in Fairweather’s career. His retrospective exhibition began its national tour at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in June; the previous month his illustrated translation of ‘The drunken Buddha’, an old Chinese tale, was published by the University of Queensland Press. Later in the year, in a move which somewhat refutes his mythologised status as a recluse, he travelled to Singapore and India.2

Ian Fairweather ‘MO, PB and the ti-tree’ 1965

Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891–1974 / MO, PB and the ti-tree 1965 / Synthetic polymer paint on cardboard on hardboard / 87.7 x 113.3cm / Gift of Miss Pamela Bell 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery / of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/Copyright Agency, 2019

A bridge connecting Bribie Island to the mainland had opened in 1963, making the pilgrimage to Fairweather’s studio/hut faster and easier for his artworld acquaintances, though Fairweather complained of the consequent negative effects on Bribie’s natural habitat. It is within this context that the visit by Margaret Olley (MO) and Pam Bell (PB) might be viewed.

Olley respected Fairweather’s privacy, and only ever visited him with a few other people she felt would be of interest  to the artist. Olley and Bell picnicked with the artist on the island, amid the dappled shadows of surrounding ti-trees, and Fairweather recorded the event with a box brownie camera. The photograph probably served as a source for the painting, even though the artist typically fragments, shifts and regroups the figures.

Margaret Olley & Pam Bell on Bribie Island

Margaret Olley (left) and Pam Bell on Bribie Island c.1955 / Courtesy: Margaret Olley Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive

Despite the camouflage, it is a measure of his regard for the pair that Fairweather chose to commemorate their visit in such an explicit, even playful way — the Olley figure is placed head-bowed as in Fairweather’s famous mother and child compositions. Olley was at this time a very popular figure in the Australian art scene, her portrait had been painted by several Australian modernists, including Margaret Cilento and Russell Drysdale, and William Dobell’s painting of her had won the 1949 Archibald Prize.

William Dobell ‘Margaret Olley’ 1948

William Dobell, Australia 1899–1970 / Margaret Olley 1948 / Oil on hardboard / 148 x 118.5 x 13cm / Purchased 1949 / Collection: Art Gallery New South Wales / © William Dobell/Copyright Agency, 2019

Russell Drysdale ‘Margaret Olley’ 1948

Russell Drysdale, Australia 1912–81 / Margaret Olley 1948 / Oil on canvas / 61.6 x 51.2cm / Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, Inc., New York, NY, USA, made possible with the generous support of Mr and Mrs Benno Schmidt of New York and Esperance, Western Australia, 1987 Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / © Estate of Russell Drysdale

Margaret Cilento ‘Portrait of Margaret Olley’ 1954

Margaret Cilento, Australia 1923–2006 / Portrait of Margaret Olley 1954 / Oil on canvas board / 42 x 33cm / Gift of the Margaret Olley Estate, 2013 / Collection: Tweed Regional Gallery / © Estate of Margaret Olley

MO, PB and the ti-tree has in common with Fairweather’s other works from this period a strongly ideogrammatic style, a slightly more accessible field and a lighter, less dense palette. In the paintings of his maturity his approach to landscape was like that of the Chinese who saw it imbued with humanity. Fairweather’s awe of nature is inseparable from his equally powerful feelings about people.

Edited extract by Lynne Seear, former Deputy Director (Curatorial and Collection Development), QAGOMA. Additional research and supplementary material by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA

1 Wallace Thornton, Fairweather at Macquarie. ‘Sydney Morning Herald’, 12 May 1965.
2 He also travelled to London the following year.

Margaret Olley & Pam Bell

Margaret Olley (left) and Pam Bell, at the ‘Poetry 1947-1989’ book launch 1991 / Courtesy: Trove, National Library Australia

Featured image detail: Ian Fairweather MO, PB and the ti-tree 1965