Margaret Olley: The subject is garden flowers


Margaret Olley, towards the end of her life, became one of the most affectionately regarded of Australian artists. Her still life and interior paintings attracted wide appreciation by the public. Although she produced landscapes and townscapes in the early part of her career, interiors and flower studies effectively dominated her production.

Olley’s flower paintings in the 1960s are distinguished by the exuberant mixed bunches she gathered from friends and neighbours including annuals, bulbs, shrubs and climbing lily appropriate to the season as exemplified in Susan with flowers 1962. The flowers depicted focus on intense red hippeastrums with branches of red-flowered poinsettia and hibiscus and sprays of pink watsonias, oleanders and vinca.


Susan with flowers

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Susan with flowers 1962 / Oil on canvas / 127.4 x 102.3cm / Gift of Finney Isles and Co. Ltd. 1964 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Olley was perfectly democratic in the flowers she depicted in her works, which included the so-called Japanese sunflower, Tithonia diversifolia,  a common weed in Brisbane’s vacant lots which originally hails from Mexico. In the 1980s she painted the yellow flowered Crotolaria retusa, although an attractive garden plant its seed germinate far too readily.

Of course she did buy flowers: violets were sourced from Mt Tamborine in the Gold Coast hinterland, one of the major flower-growing areas outside Brisbane. Another painting of an Aboriginal girl, Daphne and still life 1964 depicts the subject with a massed display of ranunculus which would have stripped a large suburban garden. Ranunculuses were, in fact, to remain a favoured springtime subject for Olley.

The wonderful blue of Queensland tropical waterlilies which would have been a rare commodity in any Brisbane garden was the subject of one of her works in 1962.

DELVE DEEPER: Wildflowers

RELATED: Margaret Olley

Daphne and still life

Margaret Olley / Daphne and still life 1964 / Oil on board / 75 x 101cm / George Daughtrey Bequest Fund, 1964 / Collection: QUT Art Museum, Brisbane / © Margaret Olley Art Trust

Water lilies

Margaret Olley / Water lilies 1962 / Oil on board / 88.4 x 113.5cm / Private collection / © Estate of Margaret Olley
Installation view ‘Margaret Olley: A Generous Life’ featuring Water lilies 1962

When Olley settled permanently in Sydney her subjects were principally the flowers she purchased from florists and markets. Olley’s favourite garden flowers were amongst the most modest, such as the annuals — cornflowers, marigolds, poppies and wallflowers — which appeared in her exhibitions from the early 1960s.

Cornflowers appear in the titles of over 100 of her paintings and marigolds in over 80 in its small flowered (French) and large flowered (African) forms; some paintings combine both flowers. Apparently Ben Quilty, Olley’s protégé and friend, would regularly bring her bouquets of cornflowers but unlike Kevin’s cornflowers 1993, I have not been able to discover a work so linked by the title.

RELATED: Ben Quilty and Margaret Olley

Installation view ‘Margaret Olley: A Generous Life’ / Above right: Margaret Olley’s Marigolds and limes c.1975 / Oil on board / 76 x 122cm / Private collection / © Margaret Olley Art Trust
Margaret Olley / Cornflowers and figs 1990 / Oil on board / 67.5 x 90cm / Private collection / © Estate of Margaret Olley
Installation views ‘Margaret Olley: A Generous Life’ / Above right: Margaret Olley’s Kevin’s cornflowers 1993 / Oil on board / 76 x 61cm / Private collection / © Margaret Olley Art Trust

Carnations never appear in her works as they had dropped out of favour, although in the 1980s sweet william (a relative of the carnation) became a regular subject. Surprisingly the rose, the ‘queen of flowers’, appears in only a handful of works: as briar roses in 1966, spent and drooping in Last of the roses 1979, and a bunch of bright yellow roses in colourful contrast to bright blue Persian pottery in 1985.

Edited extract: Cooke, Glenn R., ‘Margaret Olley: the subject is flowers’ in Australian Garden History, Melbourne, July 2019, pps 5-9

Art and social historian Glenn R Cooke was a curator at the Queensland Art Gallery for 32 years. He is a frequent contributor to Australia Garden History and is producing the Olley Project, an illustrated database of Olley’s oeuvre. The project is sponsored by the Margaret Olley Art Trust.

Margaret Olley / Calendulas 1964 / Oil on board / 90 x 114cm / Private collection / © Margaret Olley Art Trust

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‘A Generous Life’ was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 15 June – 13 October 2019 and 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.

Feature image detail: Margaret Olley Daphne and still life 1964
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