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Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror 1948

Margaret Olley

Australia 1923-2011
Although her early subjects included landscapes and portraits, Olley rose to prominence in the 1960s for her paintings of still life and interiors. Born in Lismore in northern NSW, she came to Sydney from Brisbane to study in the early 1940s. Renowned as a benefactor and a supporter of younger artists, she was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991. In her later years, she was the subject of another Archibald Prize winning portrait, by Ben Quilty in 2011.

Portrait in the mirror 1948

Olley is widely recognised as one of Australia’s most significant still-life painters. In this early self-portrait, she surrounds herself with the things that would preoccupy her throughout her career: the fruits, flowers and exotic objects that she collected about her in her home and studio. Her tribute to past great masters of art, seen in the postcard reproductions, would also become a frequent feature of her work.

This painting marked an important time for Olley at the start of her career. She held her first solo exhibition, from which the Art Gallery of NSW and National Gallery of Victoria both purchased works. The next year she attracted attention as the subject of an Archibald Prize winning portrait by William Dobell then left for Europe to explore the international art scene.

People and places

Olley’s home and studio in Duxford Street, Paddington are almost as famous as the artist. She bought the terrace house and its adjoining former hat factory in 1964. With richly coloured walls, it’s been likened to an Aladdin’s cave, jampacked with thousands of objects, many of which featured as subjects in her artworks. It appeared chaotic but actually was arranged by the artist like a still life.

Following her death on 26 July 2011, the myriad contents of the place are being recorded, and parts of her studio, kitchen and garden will be recreated at the Tweed River Art Gallery on the New South Wales north coast – a region where Olley spent her childhood years.