Margaret Olley’s studio is reborn
Visitors can sample Margaret Olley’s chaotic Sydney workspace, which has been packed up and moved to a gallery in northern NSW, writes Joyce Morgan
IMAGINE the brief: erect a new building, install cracked, peeling window frames and attach ceiling cornices seasoned by years of tobacco smoke, then completely fill the pristine space with an Aladdin’s cave of art and ephemera, from armless mannequins to a bowl of plastic eyeballs, that have settled under a patina of dust.
The project is the antidote to Grand Designs, in which architectural wrecks are transformed into gleaming dream homes. Re-creating artist Margaret Olley’s Sydney home is no task for the faint-hearted.
Part of her terrace in Paddington in Sydney’s inner city, where she lived, painted and died, has been transplanted to the rolling hills of Murwillumbah in northern NSW. The Margaret Olley Art Centre will open on March 15 as a purpose-built extension to the Tweed Regional Gallery.
It is believed to be the first time an artist’s home-studio has been re-created in Australia. It is a terrifying honour, admits gallery director Susi Muddiman.
“I have been a nightmare to the builders,’’ she says. “It’s a bizarre scenario for them. They are trying to make original door frames and window frames that are falling apart fit. They want to do a good building job, they don’t want it to look like it’s falling down.”
Three rooms, the ramshackle former Hat Factory tacked on to the rear of Olley’s terrace, the little Yellow Room — the subject of many paintings — and kitchen have been re-created inside the gallery.
“In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started to get that spooky feeling when you walk in. It’s so real,’’ Muddiman says.
As the interiors have taken shape, Muddiman has realised how the mind plays Alice-in
Wonderland tricks. “The first day I walked into the [reconstructed] Yellow Room, my immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, the ceiling is way too low, it’s not right at all.’ I had this mild panic,’’ she says. “Then I realised that I was so used to [Olley’s] paintings of the Yellow Room.”
In these, the Yellow Room appeared bigger and wider. Call it artistic licence — or the enchantment with which Olley imbued her world.
Architect Bud Brannigan has taken a theatrical approach to the re-creation while attempting to make the spaces look authentic.
“It’s almost a stage-set approach,’’ he says. “What you want is for someone to say, ‘Ah, now I can understand where she lived and how she worked and how she painted.’ ’’
Creating the physical space is just one aspect of the $4 million project. As with a painting, it’s what is inside the frame that will lodge in visitors’ minds. In Olley’s house the marvellous and the mundane rubbed shoulders. Egyptian scarabs nestled with dried pomegranates, an original Picasso with Kama Sutra placemats, spice racks with paint palates, turps bottles with wellused ashtrays.
The Paddington house was so overflowing that when project curator Sally Watterson began documenting, sorting and packing the cornucopia of wonders ahead of its removal to the gallery, her first job was to clear a tiny space in which to work. As she sat day after day in the Hat Factory — with her laptop balanced on her knee and a hacking cough from the dust — she noticed a little vase in the shape of a wheat sheaf perched behind a chair.
“I’d been looking at a vase on a daily basis. Then I realised where I had seen it,’’ she says. The vase was in Olley’s 1955 work Still Life
with Kettle, now in the Art Gallery of NSW. Watterson discovered more trinkets that had appeared in Olley’s paintings, often from decades ago, in other parts of the house. This prompted Watterson to suggest that ephemera from elsewhere in the house that had appeared in Olley’s paintings should be acquired by the Tweed gallery.
As such curios continued to be uncovered, Watterson noticed, as Muddiman had with the Yellow Room, that their scale in reality was different from their artistic rendering.
“They were actually a lot smaller than they appeared in a lot of images. They had a lot less power in physical reality,” says Watterson.
Olley was a great entertainer who welcomed a stream of visitors. Yet all houses contain sec-
IN OLLEY’S HOUSE THE MARVELLOUS AND THE MUNDANE RUBBED SHOULDERS
rets, private items not intended for public consumption. How to strike a balance between preserving Olley’s house but not exposing intimate details never meant for posterity or public display?
“Personal documents were in other parts of the house,’’ says Watterson. “So there was not a lot of moral decision-making to be made. If there was anytime I wasn’t sure — for example medication or a script for medicine — I was lucky enough to have the two executors who knew Margaret well and I would say: ‘ What do you think?’ ”
More than 70,000 items have been catalogued, packed in 160 boxes and sent in seven trucks to the Tweed gallery. Very little was thrown out — no matter how unusual or unappealing it was.
“There was a lot of debate about cigarette ash,’’ says Olley’s friend and co-executor Christine France.
Was any taken? “I think so,’’ she says. “We did throw out some chocolates and dead rats. But we took one rat in a plastic bag.”
The house France knew intimately yielded items not even she was aware of, including a large sofa buried under piles of books and papers. More significant were the unfinished paintings, sketches and studies that emerged.
“Margaret might have started something 15 years ago and she’d get stuck and she’d put it aside. Then she’d walk past it for a couple of years and she’d go, ‘ah, I can see what’s wrong with it now’ and start work on it again,’’ says France.
“So there were a lot of things that hadn’t seen the light of day. They were stacked one in front of the other so you only ever saw the one that was at the front.”
Many of these will go to the centre, says Philip Bacon, Olley’s dealer, friend and co-executor. The exact number is still being determined. Olley collected works by her fellow artists, including Cressida Campbell, Nicholas Harding and Euan Macleod, and these have been given to the Tweed gallery.
And what would Olley make of the re-creation? “She’d be thrilled,’’ says Bacon.
She was aware of the plan, which Bacon discussed briefly over lunch the day before she died in 2011, when her friend Quentin Bryce — the Governor-General, who will open the centre as one of her last official engagements — arrived with a picnic lunch. Olley gave the idea the nod and swiftly changed the tricky subject.
“She said: ‘I think that’s a lovely idea. Now does anyone want more quiche?’ ” says Bacon.
Olley’s house was the centre of her life and art, he says. She tried living in a grander house nearby, but returned to her terrace.
“She loved the light and being able to move from room to room depending on the season,’’ says Bacon. “She made it into a wonderland.”
Re-creating her wonderland has meant being part-voyeur and part-detective, Muddiman says. “You’re prying on someone’s life and at the same time there’s a fascination. It continues to paint a portrait of her and everything she had around her.”
The Margaret Olley Art Centre at Tweed Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah, NSW, will open on March 15.
From far left, views of Margaret Olley’s home, transplanted to Murwillumbah; Susi Muddiman inside the Margaret Olley Art Centre, top right; Olley with a copy of Cezanne’s Bords de la Marne, a painting the Art Gallery of NSW bought in 2008