Margaret Olley moved to Brisbane when she was 12 and was a boarder at Somerville House school for girls in South Brisbane from 1937 to 1940 where they were quick to recognise Olley’s talents and recommended to her mother that she attend art school. Her friend and fellow artist Margaret Cilento also began formal art studies at the same school.
Olley’s journey to becoming an artist began at the Brisbane Central Technical College in 1941 (now Queensland University of Technology). She moved to Sydney in 1943 to enrol in a diploma of art at East Sydney Technical College (later the National Art School), graduating with first-class honours in 1947. In Sydney Olley connected with many Australian art luminaries — such as Russell and Bon Drysdale, Donald Friend and Justin O’Brien — and experimented with a wide range of subject matter for her works, including landscapes, figures and still lifes.
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Margaret Cilento & Margaret Olley
Frequent trips back home to Brisbane also served as inspiration, and she captured many of the city’s buildings in paint. Olley’s well-received first solo exhibition was opened on 30 June 1948 by Russell Drysdale at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, and four months later she held another successful exhibition at Moreton Galleries, Brisbane. Olley’s growing popularity made her an attractive subject for artists, and William Dobell’s portrait of Olley won the Archibald Prize in 1948 (illustrated).
William Dobell ‘Margaret Olley’
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 (illustrated) 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 ‘Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris’
Margaret Olley returns to Brisbane
In 1953 Olley returned from travelling abroad to her family home in Morry Street, Hill End (now West End) after the sudden death of her father. In the first few years after her return, Olley travelled to Sydney from time to time to meet new artists and renew friendships with Donald Friend, David Strachan and Sidney, Cynthia and Jinx Nolan, and these friends visited her in Brisbane. In Brisbane a lively art circle surrounded Brian and Marjorie Johnstone’s Gallery, where Olley met artists Ray Crooke, Jon Molvig and Charles and Barbara Blackman. A supportive environment for Olley and many other progressive artists of the time was similarly encouraged by the appointment of Robert Haines as Director of the then named Queensland National Art Gallery, and by art historian Dr Gertrude Langer’s writing as art critic for the city’s Courier-Mail newspaper.
Margaret Olley at the Johnstone Gallery
Back at the family home in ‘Farndon’, Brisbane no longer seemed quite as stifling. Towards the end of the 1950s Olley opened an antique shop at Stones Corner, an inner southern suburb of the city, and on the way to and home had to change trams. Olley reminisced…
I had to change trams at South Brisbane, which was very run-down in those days, full of depressed-looking hotels, real bloodhouses.
Trams at South Brisbane
South Brisbane 1966 and Victoria Bridge II 1966 (both illustrated) are the subjects of some of her ink and watercolour studies of the area. Not long after, the area would dramatically change.
The Victoria Bridge illustrated in Olley’s studies was replaced in 1969 with the current sleek design, the third permanent crossing erected at this location, a portion of the southern pedestrian arch that Olley references remains.
Victoria Bridge II is drawn from where the Queensland Art Gallery Melbourne Street Plaza is now situated, and the buildings pictured on the left of Melbourne Street in South Brisbane were demolished toward the end of 1966 to make way for the new and third Victoria Bridge, and those on the right from 1978 for the construction of the Cultural Centre’s Performing Arts Complex.
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One can imagine Olley sketching these landmarks in South Brisbane while in transit, knowing of the impending demolition and bridge construction to come just months later. However, what Olley didn’t know was just some years later, the area would be claimed for the future new premises of the Queensland Art Gallery.
Margaret Olley ‘South Brisbane’
Contemporary photography of South Brisbane
Margaret Olley ‘Victoria Bridge II’
Contemporary photography of Victoria Bridge
The Brisbane of Olley’s youth had changed little in her absence since her return in the early 1950s — 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, however the city she knew was changing.
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The Supreme Court building she recorded in George Street, North Quay in 1966 (illustrated), opposite the current Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank, and once proposed as the future site of the Gallery in 1948, was destroyed by arson in 1968, the remains of the building demolished in 1976 for a new Law Courts Complex.
Margaret Olley ‘Law Courts, Brisbane’
Supreme Court building
View to South Brisbane from the Supreme Court building
Olley left Brisbane two years before the Queensland Art Gallery opened in 1982. Her family home ‘Farndon’ was destroyed by fire in 1980, and Olley moved back to Sydney permanently having already purchased a terrace house in Duxford St, Paddington in 1964 to stay when visiting and an adjacent former hat factory which she renovated to use as a studio. 1982 saw the passing of Olley’s mother Grace, finally breaking the ties to Brisbane.
Margaret Olley at ‘Farndon’
Edited curatorial extracts, research and supplementary material compiled by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer based on Michael Hawker’s QAGOMA publication Margaret Olley: A Generous Life.