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Australian art

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McElhone steps



John Olsen

Australia, England, Spain, Portugal

21 Jan 1928 -


John Olsen was born in Newcastle, NSW. He attended night classes at the Julian Ashton Art School in 1946, and at the Datillo Rubbo Art School the following year. In 1950 he enrolled full time at the Julian Ashton School, where he was taught by John Passmore. In the early 1950s he attended classes at East Sydney Technical College under Godfrey Miller and a ten week class with Desiderius Orban in 1953. In 1955 he moved to Melbourne for a short time, returning to Sydney to live in Victoria Street, Potts Point in August 1956. In December that year he participated in the influential Direction 1 exhibition of abstract painting, and soon after departed for Europe, sponsored by businessman Robert Shaw and his wife Annette. Olsen arrived in Paris in 1957 and met up with Earle Backen, whom he had known in Sydney and who was studying at Hayter's Atelier 17 print workshop; Olsen began studies in intaglio printmaking at the workshop shortly after. He returned to Australia in 1960 after three years living and working in Spain. He moved to a flat in Victoria Street, and soon established himself as a central figure in Sydney's art scene. On of our most important contemporary artists, Olsen has produced a distinguished oeuvre of prints, and has worked with many of Australia's best printers and printmakers including Janet Dawson, Tate Adams, George Baldessin, Max Miller, Fred Genis and Neil Leveson.

'McElhone steps' was commissioned by the Art Gallery Society of Victoria, with work by Russell Drysdale, Fred Williams, Albert Tucker and Len French; half the prints in an edition of 50 were pre-sold in 25 folios of five prints each. It was the first lithograph made by John Olsen after he had been shown the process by Robert Grieve in 1955.

"The McElhone Steps is a stairway that joins Woolloomooloo to Kings X where I lived at the time. It was a boisterous place where sailors, soldiers & drunks made their way for the bright lights of the Cross. The print, I think, is primitive, brassy & very intoxicated". (John Olsen, 'My complete graphics 1957-1979', South Melbourne: Australian Galleries and Gryphon Books, 1980, pg. 38)

Hendrik Kolenberg and Anne Ryan, 'Australian prints from the Gallery's collection', AGNSW, 1998




Media category


Materials used

colour lithograph on ivory Arches wove paper




57.3 x 79.3 cm image/sheet

Signature & date

Signed and dated bot.c., pencil "John Olsen 64 ...".


Purchased 1964


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

John Olsen

Artist profile

Works in the collection


Shown in 2 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 3 publications


Peter Emmett, Sydney: metropolis, suburb, harbour, 'Suburb', pg. 71-72, Glebe, 2000, 109-110 (colour illus.).

Hendrik Kolenberg and Anne Ryan, Australian prints from the Gallery's collection, Sydney, 1998, 112 (colour illus.), 113. 93

Stuart Purves and John Olsen (Compilators), My complete graphics: John Olsen 1957-1979, South Melbourne, 1980, 228 (colour illus.), 242 (illus.). 6