Margaret Olley returns to Brisbane


Margarey Olley was deeply grateful when in 1962 poet and art critic Pam Bell invited her to visit Aroo station at Boonah, west of Ipswich, Brisbane as it provided her with new subject matter for a number of regional landscapes and homestead portraits.

Boonah landscape 1962 was inspired by the view of Roadvale and the distant McPherson Ranges which Olley took in as she travelled along the road to Aroo. There is an intense relationship created between the colours of the hot sun and red volcanic earth with the cooler tones of the grass in the foreground and fields either side of road that sweeps towards the distant mountains.

Olley’s portrait of Bell won the 1962 Helena Rubinstein portrait prize (disbanded 2011) of £300 for an Australian artist. The oil on canvas was later destroyed in the fire at her family home, Farndon, at 15 Morry Street, Hill End (now West End) in 1980.

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Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Boonah landscape 1962 / Oil on board / 72.5 x 88cm / Gift of the Margaret Olley Art Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Olley Art Trust
Margaret Olley / Pam Bell 1962 / Oil on canvas / Destroyed in the fire at Farndon in 1980

Getting away from Brisbane

Olley was born in Lismore, New South Wales, in 1923, the eldest of three children. Her parents moved to Tully, north Queensland, and then Tygalgah, near Murwillumbah, north-east New South Wales, while she was a child, before moving to Brisbane when she was 12, where her journey to becoming an artist began. She attended Somerville House for girls as a boarder from 1937 to 1940.

She attended art school at the Brisbane Central Technical College in 1941 before moving to Sydney in 1943 to enrol in a diploma of art at East Sydney Technical College (later the National Art School). Throughout the 1940s, Olley experimented with a wide range of subject matter for her works, including landscapes, figures and still lifes.

(Left) Margaret Olley, 23 January 1949 / Image courtesy: News Ltd/Newspix (Right) Margaret Olley and her mother Grace at Farndon, 1966 / Photograph: Bob Millar / Image courtesy: State Library of Queensland / Reproduced with the permission of Bauer Media Pty Limited

Before returning to Brisbane

Olley set sail for Europe with friend Mitty Lee-Brown in January 1949. Fellow artist Anne Wienholt had generously provided funds for Olley to travel abroad and study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris 1950 resulted from her in time in the French capital, as the academy was situated close to the Luxembourg Gardens. Olley honed her drawing skills by producing a considerable volume of richly detailed pen, ink and wash sketches of buildings observed on her extensive travels.

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris 1950 / Watercolour, gouache, pen and ink on paperboard / 57 x 67.5cm / Purchased 1950 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Olley Art Trust

The return to Brisbane

Back in Brisbane from 1953, Olley had to change trams at South Brisbane to reach her home in Hill End. South Brisbane 1966 and Victoria Bridge II 1966 are the subjects of some of her ink and watercolour studies, and one can imagine her sketching these while waiting for a tram.

The streets and gardens of the Brisbane of Olley’s youth had changed little in her absence — the city was still the same large country town on the banks of the meandering Brisbane River. The refuge of Farndon would play a pivotal role in Olley’s life, tying her to Brisbane for many years. Farndon was destroyed by fire in 1980, precipitating Olley’s move back to Sydney. 

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / South Brisbane 1966 / Ink and watercolour on paper / 38.5 x 49cm / Gift of the Margaret Olley Art Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2012 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Olley Art Trust
Margaret Olley / Victoria Bridge II 1966 / Pen and watercolour on paper / 38.5 x 49cm / Collection: Moreton Bay Regional Council / © Estate of Margaret Olley
Looking toward South Brisbane from the entrance to Victoria Bridge, North Quay 1960 / Courtesy: Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd.; Brisbane John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

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Feature image detail: Boonah landscape 1962

‘A Generous Life’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 15 June – 13 October 2019 examined the legacy and influence of much-loved Australian artist Margaret Olley, who spent a formative part of her career in Brisbane. A charismatic character, whose life was immersed in art, she exerted a lasting impact on many artists as a mentor, friend and muse.

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