Susan with flowers: A contemplative work by Margaret Olley


In her studio underneath ‘Farndon’, her family home in Brisbane’s Hill End (now West End), Margaret Olley completed a series of paintings of Indigenous women and men. Susan with flowers 1962 is a major work from this group, and was awarded the 1963 Finney’s Centenary Art Prize, judged by the Queensland Art Gallery’s then director Laurie Thomas.

In these works, Olley’s subjects are a vehicle for the study of light and the form of the figure, often set against groupings of flowers and fruits, and these contemplative works certainly show a sensitivity and feeling for the individuals depicted.

The years 1962-65 are central to an understanding of Olley’s career as she established a national profile and was awarded nine prizes for her paintings during this period, three were for flower and figure studies.

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
Critic and artist Sir Herbert Read and Margaret Olley looking at Olley’s Susan with flowers 1962, winner of the Finney’s Centenary Art Prize / Courtesy: QAGOMA Research Library

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Susan with flowers is the largest work and the only painting in the series in which the model is depicted standing. The considerable publicity given to Olley’s award for this painting reflected the stature of the distinguished presenter, Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), English art historian and literary critic.

Olley’s painting is, in the words of the then Brisbane art critic, Dr Gertrude Langer, …a decoratively controlled realism and post impressionist colour handled with a flair for bright harmonies.1 It is an astonishing combination of red poinsettias, hippeastrums and hibiscus, and pink watsonias, gerberas and oleanders against a bright blue ground. These colours, together with royal blue and aqua-green, also appear in the model’s dress. The dark pitcher which contains these flowers is set on a red cloth patterned with yellow.

The flowers in the still life of Susan with Flowers could be gathered in virtually any of Brisbane’s sub-tropical gardens. The assemblage of hippeastrums, oleander, poinsettia, watsonias and plumbago is symptomatic of the disorder and lushness of the well-established garden that surrounded Olley’s home, Farndon. In fact such casual assemblages of flowers and foliage were often gathered by Olley in her walks through the suburb for use in her paintings.

Delve into more works by Margaret Olley

Banana cutters 1963 was Olley’s entry in the 1963 Royal National and Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland Exhibition of Art, in Brisbane, and won First Prize. The male figures are depicted with an innate dignity which is enhanced by Olley’s choice of harmonious hues. Banana cutters was painted in Olley’s studio under the family home, and the bananas depicted were cut from the garden.2

The complex social, historical and aesthetic values makes the painting from this period some of Olley’s most intriguing works from her Brisbane years.

Banana cutters

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Banana cutters 1963 / Oil on board / 95 x 121cm / Purchased 2014 with funds from Drs Philip and Lenna Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Olley Art Trust
Margaret Olley’s prizewinning painting Banana cutters 1963 being examined by judge James Wieneke / Image courtesy: News Ltd/Newspix

Edited extracts from ‘Margaret Olley’s generous life in art’, Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, QAGOMA, 2019 by Michael Hawker, Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA; and ‘Margaret Olley and the social context of Susan with flowers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp.99-110 by Glenn R. Cooke, former Research Curator, Queensland Heritage, QAGOMA.

1 Langer, Gertrude. ‘Queensland lacks in top painters’. The Courier-Mail [Brisbane], 22 May 1963.
2 Meg Stewart, Margaret Olley: Far from a Still Life, rev. and updated edn, Vintage, Sydney, 2012, p.368.

Margaret Olley painting at ‘Farndon’ 1966 / Photograph: Bob Millar / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland / Reproduced with the permission of Bauer Media Pty Limited

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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Featured image detail: Susan with flowers 1962
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