Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lismore, Dobell & Margaret Olley

Olley_8813a_cornflower_Pomegranates_2 Back in March 2008 in Margaret Olley's New England connection I recorded a fact that I had not known, that Australian artist Margaret Olley was born in New England.

The painting, Cornflowers with Pomegranates 1991, is a pretty typical Olley work showing her mastery of colour.

Her recent death marks the end of an era. I have not yet seen a full obituary, but details of her life are covered in the ABC report Artist Margaret Olley dead (and here).

One thing that I had forgotten was that another painter with New England connections, William Dobell, had painted a portrait of Margaret Olley in 1948 that became something of a cause célèbre because of its style. The painting seems very mild now, but it did attract controversy then.

On a purely New England note, I see from the Lismore  Northern Star that her death may create difficulties for Lismore's attempts to create a Margaret Olley gallery. Lismore, Margaret Olley's birthplace, has been struggling to raise funds. Another problem is that a number of places can claim an Olley connection, making time important.


I really love the comments and feedback I get! Anon wrote:

Margaret Olley also had connections to Newcastle.

She bought many properties on the The Hill and in Maitland and lived there for quite a few years in the 1960s.

She donated a painting a year to the Newcastle Regional Art gallery. Sadly they probably don't have enough space to display them.

She should be remembered as great New England artist.

So now we have three New England connections!

  • She was born here at Lismore
  • She starred in the famous portrait by William Dobell, another New England artist
  • And she lived in the Hunter for a period and also donated paintings to the Newcastle Art gallery.

olley01 I am very happy to follow Anon's approach and claim her as a great New England artist, even if we have to share parts of her with others!

Postscript 2

In a comment, Greg kindly pointed me to this 2007 ABC interview between Peter Thompson and Margaret Olley. This shows quite clearly her affection for Newcastle.

I thought it worthwhile quoting a few bits in full.

On childhood:

MARGARET OLLEY: My earliest recollections of living in Tully, in north Queensland, were the sounds of the rain on Mt Tyson. You could hear the roar as it approached. It louder and louder. My mother would have time to run out and take the washing off the line.

My mother Grace has been a nurse and my father, Joseph, he was a farmer. I eventually was old enough to go to school and we had to ride across the Tully River 'cause when the river was swollen, you'd have to swim the horses across with your little feet above the saddle. I can always remember that. I think I must have fallen off a horse a couple of times.

Then I was sent to boarding school at the age of six, in Townsville. It certainly cuts the umbilical cord and makes you independent. Then we went down to live on the Tweed River. I think that's when my childhood really began.

And those days, the Depression was on. There was no money. We were living in the country. You made your own amusement. We rode across the river, picked up by the school bus and went to school in Murwillumbah.

I remember the whole of my school week seemed to gravitate round the art class. And when I left school, my mother would have loved me to become a nurse. Can you imagine! I think I would have killed a patient. But she said "Send her to art school."

On the Dobell controversy:

The painter William Dobell said he'd like to do a portrait of me. I was about to go up to Brisbane for holidays before I left for overseas. He did a few little drawings, one quick one, then he did a very detailed drawing. I never saw the painting until I came down from Brisbane with news that it had won the Archibald Prize.

VOICEOVER: Dobell. In the '40s, he rides the crest of fame on controversy. His portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith is dubbed a caricature and grotesque. But he retains the Archibald Prize and in 1948, does it again with his portrait of young Brisbane artist, Margaret Olley. The critics again protest.

MARGARET OLLEY: And of course the publicity surrounding that award was horrendous. I've always been a shy person so I was not really prepared. There were photographers hounding me and the press were hounding me and quite frankly, I couldn't cope with it. You couldn't get away from it. I found it very difficult, when I came back, to even approach the painting. I really wanted to take another look at it but I kept thinking there must be somebody watching me, or a camera would come out, and I'd have to quietly go round the corner and take a peep at it.

PETER THOMPSON: You were emerging as an artist at this same time.

MARGARET OLLEY: I was, and it used to irritate me when people would say "The sitter of the Dobell prize." I used to say "And I also paint." I'd have to add very curtly "And I also paint."

On Newcastle:

Then I became interested in Newcastle. Of course, I love Newcastle. It's so masculine. The topography, it's just what a painter needs. I bought my first house in Newcastle and then a few others. Not that I made a lot of money there - I didn't. I just made enough to give me the freedom to paint. People used to say "Where do you live?" I used to say "I don't know, I live in a basket" because I always seemed to be on my way from Sydney and Newcastle to Brisbane. I had clothes and paintbrushes in every place. You just take a few things in the basket from one place to another........

Tonight I'm off to the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery. It's their talk on philanthropy, which I'm a great believer in. I'm going with Christine France and of course Christine France will be doing most of the talking. I haven't thought yet what I'm going to say but as I love Newcastle so much I hope it'll come out alright.

CHRISTINE FRANCE: Now I'm going to hand you over to one of Australia's greatest living benefactors and artists, Dr Margaret Olley, rate payer of Newcastle.

MARGARET OLLEY (at the lecture) : The marvellous thing is, I miss all that smog and that sort of humming in the night that used to be part of Newcastle. It was like the heartbeat of Newcastle. Lucy Swanton that ran one of the very few art galleries, she gave very generously. I used to think she was mad. I never, ever thought that I might be doing a similar sort of thing and get the same sort of favour.

She was a remarkable woman.


Greg said...

Margaret Olley was a remarkable woman.

William Dobell was born and grew up in Cooks Hill (Newcastle) and spent his later years at his holiday cottage at Wangi Wangi on the western shores of Lake Macquarie.

They will both be remembered icons of Australian art.

Jim Belshaw said...

They will, Greg. It's nice to have the New england connection with both, too.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Olley also had connections to Newcastle.

She bought many properties on the The Hill and in Maitland and lived there for quite a few years in the 1960s.

She donated a painting a year to the Newcastle Regional Art gallery. Sadly they probably don't have enough space to display them.

She should be remembered as great New England artist.

Greg said...

Here is a link to an interview that Peter Thompson did with Margaret Olley.

She did have a strong connection with Newcastle. She loved the city. She bought her first house there, made many sketches there and was a great supporter of Newcastle art.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you very much for the link, Greg. I will bring it up in the main post. It does indeed show the strength of her connection with Newcastle.