Per­sonal space

At home with the art of Mar­garet Ol­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GRA­HAM ER­BACHER

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

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