There are no white walls in Margaret Olley’s house. The Sydney artist loathed them and would often suggest to curators and gallery directors in her blunt, let’s-not-beat-around-the-bush manner that the stark white walls they were so fond of reflected too much light and detracted from the artwork. It was always the artwork that mattered.
The rooms in Olley’s Paddington terrace, a former hat factory where she died peacefully last July, aged 88, are yellow and a rich salmon. And while the artist is no longer here transforming pieces of masonite with a paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her essence lingers amid the Aladdin’s cave of curios that fill every surface.
Olley, or ‘‘Oll’’ as she was affectionately known by her loyal and diverse network of friends, chose to spend most of her time in the living area at the rear of the house she bought 40 years ago. This was her studio. There are cabinets stacked high with photos, books on Edgar Degas, Pierre Bonnard, Cressida Campbell and Gustave Flaubert, letters and exhibition catalogues, shelves lined with porcelain teapots, objets d’art, Turkish kilims, bowls of plastic fruit and even some prankster bloodshot eyeballs, dusty vases filled with slender branches of dead pomegranates, a delicate bird’s nest cradling three small spotted eggs, hand-carved dolls from Kathmandu, a statue of Ganesh and batik bought in Bali, as well as tribal totems from New Guinea.
Interview by Rosemarie Milsom. Multimedia by Amy Spear.
‘‘It’s not just a great jumble of things,’’ observes art historian Christine France, Olley’s long-time friend and co-executor of her will, as she takes a seat in the lounge room. ‘‘When you sit here you realise how she’s placed things is actually quite structured. Everything was bought for its shape or its texture to paint. She hasn’t collected things because they’re worth a lot of money, she’s bought them to paint, and she’s painted most things in the house. This house represents her. It’s an archaeological dig of her life.’’
Olley was a hoarder who did not waste a thing. She used old stockings to wipe her brushes and she painted in shapeless clothes bought at the local St Vincent de Paul shop. Dead flowers were kept, says France, ‘‘because she felt they were a continuation of life and they also assumed a different structure’’.
In the middle of the cluttered dining room beneath a skylight is a solid eight-seater table where her famous lunches and dinners were held. Nearby is a marble-topped side table cum bar crowded with upturned glasses and half-empty bottles of vodka, campari and scotch (Olley, who had battled alcoholism, stopped drinking in 1959). They have all sat here at some time – colourful artists, authors, musicians, students, art dealers and collectors, gallery directors, filmmakers, the NSW Governor and the Governor-General.
In her tiny kitchen, which is devoid of white goods and sleek appliances, Olley would whip up dinner for eight without fuss. ‘‘She was low-key,’’ France says. ‘‘There was absolutely no pretence about her. She wouldn’t tidy up before guests arrived because ‘you’ll only have to do it when they leave. Just buy another bunch of flowers’.’’ France laughs at the memory. ‘‘She was very practical.’’
Olley would meet someone for the first time and next thing they would be invited to her home for a meal. ‘‘When she was young she met [company director and generous art patron] Howard Hinton and invited him around for dinner and gave him two boiled eggs,’’ France exclaims with mock horror. ‘‘But it wasn’t what you ate, it was to be with people and exchange ideas.’’
Bit by bit, France is sifting through Olley’s eclectic belongings. It is a mammoth task that is expected to take a year. Her personal art collection, which included paintings by Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, was removed the morning after her death, as well as a number of her own works in various stages of completion. Her ashtrays have been emptied but palettes covered in gobs of paint remain – as do her straw hats. The small radio that she had tuned all day to ABC Classic FM is silent.
France is working with the Tweed River Art Gallery and Museum to catalogue every item. The Murwillumbah gallery will recreate the kitchen, dining room, yellow room and lush backyard garden in a purpose-built space due to open in the middle of next year.
The Margaret Olley Art Centre will be funded by a $1million gift from the artist, who grew up on cane farms in northern NSW and Queensland, and is yet another example of her well-documented generosity. ‘‘She really did not spend any money on herself,’’ France says. ‘‘She never owned a car; she wasn’t the sort of person who was going to go out and buy Gucci shoes. Money was for more important things.’’
Those important things were the arts. The passionate philanthropist bought Steinway pianos for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and supported the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but public art galleries benefited the most from her largesse. She donated 130 works to the Art Gallery of NSW worth $7million, including a 1945 lithograph by Picasso of his mistress Francoise Gillot, an iconic work by Cezanne titled Large Bathers and a Degas drawing, After the Bath, which she bought in 1994 for $600,000 and gave to the gallery.
A couple of key people she encountered as a young artist in Sydney inspired her commitment as a benefactor. There was Howard Hinton, who famously lived in a single room in a Cremorne boarding house while buying and donating art work to public galleries (more than 1000 works by Australian artists were given to the former Armidale Teachers’ College and are now housed at the New England Regional Art Museum) and sculptor Anne Weinholt, who funded Olley’s first overseas trip when as a student at East Sydney Technical College she missed out on the Travelling Art Scholarship.
‘‘Anne sent her the money and Olley never forgot that,’’ France says. ‘‘She realised how life-changing and wonderful giving could be.’’
Then there was Dr William Bowmore, who owned one of the more remarkable collections of international art assembled in Australia. Before moving to the Central Coast and converting a former farmhouse into a private museum, Bowmore, who made his fortune in private hospitals and hotels, lived in Church Street on The Hill.
Newcastle Harbour by Margaret Olley. Gift of the Margaret Olley Trust 2005, Newcastle Region Art Gallery collection. For more images, click on the picture above.
Olley, who had taken a liking to Newcastle during regular visits beginning in the 1960s at the invitation of gallery owner Anne Von Bertouch, bought the first of her many Newcastle properties in Church Street. ‘‘It was a time when she couldn’t afford to have the phone put on,’’ France recalls. ‘‘She was busy doing work on a couple of houses she’d bought in Lee Terrace so she’d run down to the corner to the public phone to organise the tradies. The phone happened to be just opposite Bill Bowmore’s house and he asked her in to see a William Blake painting he’d just bought. She couldn’t believe the artwork he had in his house.’’
Bowmore, who died in Queensland in 2008, donated art work to the Newcastle Art Gallery valued at $5million, including sculptures by Auguste Rodin and paintings by Brett Whiteley, William Dobell and Sidney Nolan. He also funded a number of scholarships at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music.
Interestingly, it was Olley’s love of Newcastle and subsequent savvy property investment here that provided her with the financial independence she needed to paint full-time and to fund her donations. ‘‘She just adored Newcastle,’’ France says. ‘‘She enjoyed that it was such a masculine city. She used to get up in the night – the loo was out in the back garden – and hear the industrial machinery. She loved all that, that spirit of work and people doing things. She adored the old buildings and did a lot of drawings and paintings of those. She loved Newcastle right to the end. She’d say, ‘I’d live there but the hills don’t suit an old woman on wheels’.’’
Olley, who supported regional as well as state galleries, donated 46 artworks to the Newcastle Art Gallery and for the first time they will be exhibited together in Leaving a Legacy: Margaret Olley’s Gifts to Newcastle. All but three of the works, which are on loan to the Newcastle Museum, are on display from today and they form an impressive record of Olley’s generosity.
There are works by Australian artists such as Ray Crooke, Nicholas Harding, Cressida Campbell, Robert Barnes, Margaret Cilento, Vicki Glazier and Lawrence Daws. Says France: ‘‘You can can see her reacting to many of the works in terms of her love of Newcastle; they tend to reflect something of the place.’’
‘‘It is very unusual to have an artist with the means within their lifetime to be a generous benefactor,’’ gallery director Ron Ramsey says. ‘‘The exhibition will provide insight into who Margaret was. It will not only show the scale of her generosity towards Newcastle, but also those artists she supported.
‘‘She felt the best way to support artists was to buy their work and one of the last paintings she gave us came after she judged the Mosman Art Prize. She awarded the first prize but she was annoyed with herself; ‘I shouldn’t have given it to that painting, I was fooled by that photo realist stuff’, she told me, ‘so I’ve bought you the one that I think really should have won’.’’
The painting by Craig Waddell is called The Sergeant and is of a rooster coincidentally called ‘‘Ol’’. It is the first time the artwork has been displayed at the gallery and, while not a conventional landscape or portrait, it is clear why it caught Olley’s eye – the bold, exuberant layers of paint. She was passionate about paint and had an eye for those who knew how to manipulate it deftly.
One for the road by Ben Quilty. Gift of the Margaret Olley Trust 2004 Newcastle Region Art Gallery collection. For more images, click on the picture above.
In 2002 as a guest judge for the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, she selected painter Ben Quilty as the recipient of the highly sought-after $25,000 prize. She continued to champion him and bought his striking 2006 Archibald finalist diptych of fellow artist Adam Cullen, titled Cullen – Before And After and depicting him as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character, and donated it to the Newcastle Art Gallery. It features in the Leaving a Legacy exhibition.
Last year, Quilty, 38, won the lucrative Archibald Prize for his portrait of Olley.
‘‘When I first saw the portrait before it had been judged I thought, what a great painting it would be for our collection,’’ Ramsey says. ‘‘I asked a colleague to phone Ben to just see where it might be in terms of ownership, and he came back to us and said if he wins the Archibald he will keep it, if he doesn’t win, then Margaret has first option.
‘‘So I phoned Margaret and I said, ‘That’s a great portrait of you, it would be fantastic for our collection, blah, blah, blah and she said nothing. She wouldn’t divulge the fact that she was the potential owner. Christine France was there and she got on the phone and said, ‘You know Margaret has got first option’. I didn’t let on that I knew. I heard Margaret yell out in the background, ‘Yeah, I got it in front of all of you’.
‘‘She had her idea about what she’d do with it, but she kept it to herself. She was very diplomatic, very loyal. Suffer you fool if you thought she was fragile. She was sharp to the last.’’
Leaving a Legacy: Margaret Olley’s Gifts to Newcastle opens today at Newcastle Art Gallery and continues until April 15. Gallery director Ron Ramsey will discuss the paintings donated by Olley at an Art Gallery Society event on March 7 at 10.30am. Tickets are $15 for non-members and $10 for members. Christine France will discuss Olley’s work as artist and benefactor at a free gallery event on International Women’s Day, March 8, at 2pm.