At home with the art of Margaret Olley
After a patchy start to summer in Sydney, the setting now for a short break is Brunswick Heads, on the NSW far north coast, and conditions are sublime. Brunswick Heads, which shares a long arc of beach with Byron Bay, is less glam than its southern neighbour, but more comfortable and a whole lot less crushed.
We enjoy lazing on the white sands; swimming in the clear blue water; turning back the tide of must-read books; dining on local seafood; and siesta-ing, but also sleeping solidly at night.
So how will the pattern of perfection be broken today? With a visit to a fine art gallery. Must we?
Our mission is the Tweed Regional Gallery, incorporating the Margaret Olley Art Centre, 50km north on the outskirts of Murwillumbah. This is where studio spaces from Olley’s home at 48 Duxford Street, Paddington in Sydney (where she lived from 1964 until her death in 2011) have been meticulously recreated.
The rooms are a heady mix of objects that inspired Olley and feature in her memorable still-life paintings. The gallery is more than this, but it’s not the Hermitage, and thank Heaven for that. After an hour or two viewing the art and lunch in the gallery cafe, there’s time for the siesta and an afternoon swim. Now that’s an acceptable beach-holiday art outing.
The first great work on display is nature’s own. In the entrance lobby, a glass wall frames a magnificent view of Mt Warning, named by Captain James Cook in 1770 and looking like Gulliver pegged by the Lilliputians, his nose and chin pointing skywards. In the foreground are northern-rivers vibrant-green paddocks. I don’t know what the status of this land is, but you can only hope it will never be subdivided for a housing estate. How very nimby (not in Margaret’s back yard) of me.
The gallery has a strong permanent collection, the product of a thoughtful acquisitions program through the years, and a varied program of travelling exhibitions. Gallery spaces for these lead down the spine to the Olley centre, which celebrates its second anniversary this week. Floor-to-ceiling slit windows keep visitors in touch with the fabulous setting and the mood of the day.
The centre’s heart is the recreation of two studio spaces from her rambling Paddington property, the old Hat Factory and the Yellow Room. It’s a “coming home” for Olley, who was born in nearby Lismore in 1923 and spent childhood years on farms near Kyogle (a short distance to the west) and on the banks of the Tweed near the Condong Sugar Mill, just kilometres north. She arrived in Sydney in 1943 to pursue art studies at East Sydney Technical College, but returned north throughout her life, often taking painting pals, such as Donald Friend.
Twenty thousand items were catalogued from Paddington and transported here for reassembly. Furniture, rugs, statues, pencils, brushes, paints, baskets, hats, fruit, platters, vases and flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere, dried and fresh. It’s not all inspirational: there are discarded wrappers, kitchen items, including Steelo pads, and, yes, cigarette butts. The authenticity of the recreated scene can be verified in photographs of the studio taken by Greg Weight on the morning Olley died.
On first sight, the interior-design gene in me that favours clean lines wants to cry: “Dust collectors. Declutter, Margaret, de-clutter.” You can understand why visitors would plead “I’ve just eaten, thanks!” if offered a little something from the kitchen. But then a less prosaic eye takes over. This is the creative working space that sparked the imagination of a fine artist — objects of varying sizes, colours, shapes, textures, juxtapositions both planned and unexpected.
To see Olley’s lifelong crazy-love of flowers, check out the delightful hat she is wearing in a portrait by William Dobell that won the Archibald Prize in 1948 (it hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW). She had gathered the bunch and attached it to a trademark old battered hat for the sitting. The Archibald win was significant for Dobell, who had also won the prize in 1943 with a portrait of artist Joshua Smith. Two also-ran painters in that competition took the prize trustees to court in a bid to have the win overturned on the ground the painting was a caricature and not a portrait. The stress of the unedifying case drove Dobell from Sydney to the secluded village of Wangi Wangi, on Lake Macquarie, south of Newcastle.
Like Olley’s, his studio (in situ but without thousands of possessions) is open to the public.
I have one personal anecdote involving Margaret Olley, a generous woman by all accounts. For the last edition of the 20th century, December 31, 1999, The Australian planned a Faces of 100 Years special. In an epic effort, the paper brought together at the one place and time (the State Theatre in Sydney on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November) 100 people, each born in a different year of the century. It was a stellar cast of achievers from sectors such as politics, arts, business, sports and education plus heaps of ordinary Australians.
My job on the day was to help wrangle, to get people on stage for the group photo and out as soon as possible. Remember, there was a centenarian here and restless youngsters. Everyone had been given a strict arrival time, with a slightly later one for the then prime minister John Howard, Mr 1939. Olley arrived on time but was adamant she would not be hurried in before any prime minister and that there was still a cigarette or two to be puffed in the lane next to the theatre. As it happened, Howard was late, his Commonwealth car caught in gridlocked traffic. He jumped from the vehicle and walked briskly down Market Street to the theatre, where I was to usher him in. I spied Olley lighting up one more; my entreaties to her were feeble and ignored. Inside, the tableaux was soon arranged, when shuffling down the aisle came Miss 1923.
This is the spirit of the independent, creative woman I can now visualise in the studio before me, living life very much on her own terms.
The recreated studio spaces of Margaret Olley, top, above left and below; Olley with William Dobell’s prizewinning portrait of her, above; Tweed Regional Gallery with Mount Warning in the background, left