Margaret Olley - a treasured original

Margaret Olley once said her love affair with Newcastle began the moment she stepped off a train in 1964 to visit her late friend and gallery owner Anne von Bertouch.

‘‘She loved its industrial heritage – I suppose the robustness – and the harbour,’’ former von Bertouch Galleries manager Gael Davies told H2 Review.

‘‘She loved the sound of industry and she loved the topography of the city.’’

The city that Olley loved dearly soon became the city in which she lived.

Newcastle real estate matriarch Sonia Walkom first met the artist in the early 1970s, when her aesthetic appreciation for Newcastle was growing into an eagerness to invest in property here.

They became firm friends, and Walkom later visited Olley in Sydney.

‘‘She must have been a woman of great foresight,’’ Walkom said this week. ‘‘She bought a lot of places on The Hill and then sold them.

‘‘She had a fabulous eye for real estate and property. She was very much ahead of her time.

‘‘She was smart and intelligent and all of her properties were in a good position.

‘‘In the late 1960s it was very interesting for someone in that era, especially a woman, to have such foresight and invest so well.’’

Walkom said that Olley’s investment portfolio at its largest included eight terrace houses on The Hill, but she declined to comment on how many properties remained in the estate.

Olley also owned the 1887 mansion Venezia on Albert Street, Islington, for seven years in the 1970s and spent a portion of the same decade living in the heritage-listed Pinehurst in East Maitland.

She often painted aspects from one of her Church Street terraces, as well as panoramas from her favourite place, the Obelisk.

‘‘It was my studio,’’ Olley told Weekender in November 2005. ‘‘Very few people came up there; you could have had it to yourself. It was like an eagle’s nest.

‘‘First thing in the morning there was nobody there, and late in the afternoon; I liked that time of the day too.

‘‘I remember there was this metal disc where I’d prop the board and work. Then one day, I heard rumble, rumble, rumble and I couldn’t believe it. Out of this came water! It must have been coming out of the reservoir below. I had to pick up [my work] and run.’’

Olley’s work featured the BHP steelworks, city rooftops, the harbour, the Hunter River and landmarks such as Customs House and Newcastle Post Office.

Davies said when she curated an exhibition of Olley’s Newcastle works there were about 20 paintings and 12 or 14 drawings.

‘‘The house she had in Church Street offered a very good view of the activity of the harbour,’’ Davies said.

‘‘It was a good vantage point to see the city rising up from the harbour, crowned on top by the Cathedral. It reminded her of European cities.’’

Davies said the artwork produced in Olley’s preferred pocket of Newcastle provided an invaluable contribution to the city’s record of its history, because it captured a landscape that had changed.

Chairman of The Lock-Up and founding partner of Suters Architects Brian Suters agreed, saying Olley’s work added to the city’s rich cultural tapestry.

Suters said artists like Olley interpreted the world differently and could see beauty in what others deemed mundane.

‘‘The variety of artists who interpret our city bring a very valuable insight into looking backwards – and how we move forwards,’’ he said.

Walkom and Davies said they would miss their unique and loyal friend greatly.

Davies described Olley as ‘‘a one-off, an original’’.

‘‘She was an artist who kept true to her own vision all through her painting life,’’ Davies said.

‘‘She never went off in tangents or followed trends in the art world. She was a very generous woman who mentored younger artists. Her gift to the [Newcastle Region Art Gallery] collection is an everlasting memorial to her generosity and her good eye for young artists coming through.’’

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