Art Essays

Margaret Olley 1923 – 2011: An Appreciation

Published July 25, 2011

“Hurry, hurry, last days!” Margaret Olley would cry when someone tried to involve her in another hopeful project. It usually involved Margaret making a donation of some sort, or simply gracing an event with her presence. At the end she found it easier to write a cheque rather than face a room full of people intent on paying homage.
For many years Margaret’s stamina for social events had been legendary. She went to openings and functions that most of us would sooner avoid – even when her sense of balance was upset by ill health and she had to use a walking frame. At the same time she maintained a painting schedule that put younger artists to shame. Only as her health deteriorated did she begin to slow down. Increasing frailty made her impatient with time wasting.
There was still so much to do that she wanted to focus on things that were meaningful. One of those things was a final exhibition with Philip Bacon, the Brisbane dealer who became her closest friend. The work was all but complete yesterday, and the show will go ahead early in the new year.
Australian art, and Australia as a nation, will be much, much poorer for Margaret’s passing. She would have wanted to be remembered as a painter, but she was so active and generous it is difficult to sum up the scope of her achievements. While her pictures will always have a place on the walls of Australia’s pubic galleries she was instrumental in the acquisition of pieces by numerous local and international artists, from Degas, Cézanne and Morandi, to Cressida Campbell, Nicholas Harding and Ben Quilty.
She was a friend and mentor to these younger artists, and it was entirely fitting that earlier this year she should become the only person to feature in two Archibald Prize-winning portraits, when Ben Quilty followed in the footsteps of William Dobell whose 1948 portrait of the young Margaret Olley is an icon of Australian art.
Margaret made money from her paintings and from shrewd investments in real estate, but she gave it away with extraordinary freedom. Not only did she buy artworks for public collections, she helped anyone who needed help, quietly providing funds for operations and health care.
Her only stipulation was that her donations had to be worthwhile. Having watched the way the Art Gallery of NSW spent the funds left by her old friend, Mervyn Horton, she determined that she would control the purchasing policy of the Margaret Hannah Olley Trust.
She trusted her own judgement over that of the curators, and never hesitated to give an opinion.
Her self-confidence was justified. Margaret had a passionate love of great art, and would travel anywhere in the world to see an exhibition. She had an eye for quality, and a nose for bullshit. She was unfailingly direct in her pronouncements, with no false diplomacy or piety. She extended her scepticism to religion, and would have wanted no hymns or prayers offered in her memory.
Margaret Olley did her good deeds on earth, where they could materially assist the lives of others. She was kind, at a time when Australians are becoming increasingly ungenerous. She was a philanthropist in a society that barely knows the meaning of the word. She was fearless in a fearful world. It is no exaggeration to say that Margaret was loved by thousands, and had a heart big enough to return the feeling.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 2011