Margaret Olley by Christine France

This self‑portrait by Margaret Olley was made for her very first exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in 1948. In the same year William Dobell painted his Archibald Prize-winning portrait of the young artist, who was only 25 years old at the time.

In Dobell’s portrait, Olley is not dressed in the plain beige frock she had worn to the sitting but in the regal costume donned some months earlier to a party. By comparison, Olley presents herself within the more modest setting of her McMahons Point flat, her head floating uncertainly above a crowded dressing table.

The resulting work is perhaps her most revealing self‑portrait. She appears slightly apprehensive as she looks out between the collection of objects placed in front of the mirror. In addition to swathes of fruit and flowers, there are shells she collected on painting excursions, and postcards of European art purchased at Carl Plate’s Notanda Gallery in Sydney. The mask‑like face, which echoes her own, is one of the cuttlefish carvings that she and fellow artist Anne Wienholt worked on while staying at a cousin’s beach shack at Era on the New South Wales south coast.

In looking at this painting, the viewer’s eye travels back and forth between the still‑life objects and the reflected image of the artist, making it impossible to separate the subject from her work. Of flowers, which she almost always included in her paintings, she remarked, ‘I can feel for flowers as I can feel for people, painting flowers is almost like painting a portrait’.(1)

Olley spent most of her early life in Queensland before travelling to Sydney in 1942, to study art at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School). Prior to her first exhibition most of her work centred around landscape, but it was still life, interiors and portraits for which she became best known.

When living in Brisbane in the 1960s Olley won the 1962 Helena Rubenstein portrait prize with a painting of her friend Pam Bell. This was followed by six more prizes for portraits of Aboriginal women, who she drew into the tradition of western art by posing them among large vases of flowers. Whether consciously or not, her gesture arguably reflects the assimilation policies of the time.

Throughout her life, Olley was renowned for her generosity and patronage of the arts. In 1990 she established the Margaret Olley Art Trust, which contributed significantly to the acquisition of paintings for national, state and regional galleries. On her death, her complete Sydney studio, brimming with flowers, books and other accoutrements of her art and life, was transferred to the Tweed Regional Gallery, where it is housed intact.

(1) Suzanne Chapple, ‘The woman in the yellow hat’, The Australian, 10 November 1964.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: France, Christine. "Margaret Olley" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 286–287.

CHRISTINE FRANCE is an art historian and curator, and author of Margaret Olley (2002).

Margaret Olley appears in