Margaret Olley

A Life in Art

7 Sep –
8 Dec 2024

Margaret wanted to be remembered as a painter first and foremost. It’s what she lived for and what she died doing… We will remember best her life-affirming paintings, full as they are of joy and love, celebrating as they do the familiar and the domestic, telling us that simple is better than complicated, that quiet is better than noisy, that what is close at hand is better than that which has to be sought. 

Philip Bacon AO
Olley's friend and art dealer

Margaret Olley: A Life in Art tells the story of Olley’s incredible life and enduring career through her greatest legacy – her art. The exhibition includes artwork from as early as 1938, painted at just 15 years of age, through to 2011, the year of her death. Olley’s incredible career, enormous capacity for friendship and dedication to the art world, have made her one of Australia’s most loved and celebrated artists. Her journey as an artist can be explored and contextualised through the diverse nature of the works in this exhibition, drawn exclusively from the collection at the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre.

As a fledgling artist, Olley established herself as a landscapist. Of the twenty-six works in her first solo exhibition in 1948 at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, only four were still life paintings. Era Landscape c.1947 was included in this early show and it depicts a view from Era, in Royal National Park south of Sydney, where her cousins owned a small hut. The adventurous Olley would catch the train with friends to Era for weekends spent sketching and painting en plein air.

In 1949, amidst the intense media attention around William Dobell’s portrait of Olley winning the Archibald Prize, she travelled to England for her first overseas experience. In Europe, the young artist visited galleries and viewed for the first time, paintings she had only ever seen in reproductions in books – works by the likes of Cezanne, Chardin, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Bonnard and Degas. 

Olley was so overwhelmed by the paintings, she abandoned her own painting almost completely and, instead, drew in pencil, ink and watercolour wash on paper and explored the process of making monotypes. The monotypes in this exhibition capture some of the places she explored in Europe in early 1952 and convey her keen observational skills through drawing. 

Following the unexpected death of her father in November 1952, Olley returned to Australia in 1953. Living again in her family home in Brisbane, Olley began making work such as Agapanthus and tiger lilies c.1958. It’s flat colourful French style makes it an early illustration of a turning point in her work and is a precursor to her later dedication to still life and the colourful, celebratory work she is remembered for today.

I can think of no other painter of the present time who orchestrates his or her themes with such undiluted richness as Margaret Olley. She is a symphonist among flower paintings; a painter who calls upon the full resources of the modern palette to express her joy in the beauty of living things. 

James Gleeson, artist, 1964 

Olley had her first sell-out exhibition at Brisbane’s Johnstone Galleries in 1962 and from this time her exhibitions were dominated by still life paintings. Her commercial success afforded her financial independence and in 1964 she purchased 48 Duxford Street, Paddington – the property that became her famous home studio and is now re-created at the Margaret Olley Art Centre in the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah. 48 Duxford Street became an ecosystem of art and life. The home was filled with furnishings, textiles, vases, jugs, bowls, coffee pots and flowers – all collected as subject matter for painting. 

This exhibition includes interiors and still lifes from Duxford Street as well as photographs by her artist friend Greg Weight, who photographed her home studio in the days following her passing in 2011.

Her house was a living part of her art… She was exactly where she wanted to be, in the midst of her art and her life, and it was here that she produced some of her best work. 

Christine France, friend, curator, historian, biographer

Comprised of over 20,000 objects, the re-creation of Olley’s home studio opened at the Tweed Regional Gallery in 2014. As the home studio provided both site and subject matter for her painting for nearly 50 years, it is a fitting tribute to her life and legacy and gives a rich insight into her approach to still life painting.

Furthering her legacy of supporting early and mid-career artists, the home studio continues to inspire contemporary artists and this exhibition includes responses to the home studio re-creation by artists such as Monica Rohan, John Honeywill, Pam Tippett and others.

Although Olley established herself as a landscape painter and explored figurative works, portraiture and of course interiors, it is her rich, evocative flower paintings that first come to mind when we think of Margaret Olley – Australia’s most celebrated painter of still life. This exhibition celebrates her extraordinary life and her enduring career and her tremendous legacy in Australian art history.

      - Ingrid Hedgcock, Director, Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre 



The re-creation of Margaret Olley’s home studio is on permanent display at the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre and is complemented by a dynamic program of changing exhibitions.

Selected works



Margaret OLLEY
(1923 – 2011)
Cornflowers and red lacquer compote  2010/11 
oil on board
76 x 102 cm
Tweed Regional Gallery collection Gift of the Tweed Regional Gallery Foundation Ltd, 2023
© Margaret Olley Art Trust

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