Margaret Olley had a big weekend by anyone’s standard, let alone for an 88-year old. On Saturday, Australia’s Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and her husband, Michael, brought around a picnic hamper for a lunch that extended through the afternoon, as others joined the gathering. And all weekend, The Grande Dame of Australian art shuffled about her sprawling Paddington home, putting the finishing touches to what was to have been her first exhibition in four years.
Her house guest and close friend, the Queensland art dealer, Philip Bacon, spent Monday helping Olley prepare more than a dozen works to be photographed this week for the catalogue. And then in the early evening, the two embraced and Bacon left for the airport to return to Brisbane. Margaret Olley pottered some more and then went to bed. She died in her sleep sometime during the night.
It’s hard to imagine a better ending for someone who was easily the best loved figure in Australian art. In a milieu wracked by intense rivalry and bitchiness, no one ever seems to have had a bad word to say about Margaret. She counted most of the country’s foremost artists as close friends and while never a striking beauty, had sat for many of them. Her portrait by William Dobell won the Archibald Prize in 1948 and is considered one of Australia’s most celebrated pictures. And life seemed to come full circle when another portrait of Margaret by Ben Quilty won the Archibald this year.
She was never in the front rank of Australian painters herself but her works – mostly still lifes – are prized nonetheless and especially beyond the confines of the art world. The public loved them and they loved Margaret, who not only painted pictures they could immediately relate to but was accessible and down-to-earth herself. That esteem was burnished by Olley’s extraordinary generosity. She’d made a lot of money out of her works and a string of canny real estate investments. But she was an almost reckless giver, so much so that towards the end, her friends worried about her own financial security. She never married or had children.
Margaret Olley donated works to regional galleries across the country. And she endowed the venerable Art Gallery of New South Wales with a staggering $16-million over the years, according its equally venerable curator, Edmund Capon. She either donated or contributed to the purchase of 140 works in the gallery’s inventory and once wrote a cheque for a million dollars when Capon happened to mention that he’d love to buy a Degas. These are adornments to the national estate by one artist perhaps unrivaled in the history of Australian art.
Grubsheet – as a working television journalist – had the pleasure of visiting Margaret Olley’s Paddington home on two occasions, both of them memorable. Set on two blocks, the main room was a vast studio cum museum cum bric-a-brac collection – a veritable tableau of real life still lifes. You could sense in an instant that within these walls were the subjects of many of Olley’s works. Here and there, vases of flowers in various states of decay, artifacts from Olley’s global travels, the ordinary detritus of a life well lived and paintings in various stages of progress. The combined effect was spellbinding, so much so that Margaret’s close friend, the satirist Barry Humphries, has suggested that the whole room be transported for display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Margaret relished giving visitors a tour of the house and in line with her public reputation, was slightly deshabille, charming and exceedingly generous with her time. But our second visit, in 2006, revealed a more complex side to her personality because we’d come to talk about her private struggle with alcoholism and depression. In her latter years, she made a much less well known but singularly important contribution to public life through her association with the Black Dog Institute’s campaign to destigmatise mental illness and encourage sufferers to get help.
By her own account, Margaret ” took to the bottle” all through the 1950s, swept along by the raffish, libertine ways of her peers in the art world. By 1959, she realised she was an alcoholic and displaying her characteristic strong will, swore off the booze for good. It was almost half a century before the demons returned and in another form. In the sweltering summer of 2001 – when Sydney was ringed by bushfires – Olley was suddenly struck by the most debilitating depression. “A whole lot of people were coming to dinner, I had all this food in the fridge and I suddenly realised, I can’t cope with this and I canceled everything”, she told Grubsheet.
At the age of 78, Margaret Olley had been bitten by the Black Dog, so much so that she contemplated suicide. “i just thought, what’s the use of living. Physically, I was very weak, like a piece of tissue paper. I couldn’t paint and if I did, just fiddled with the works. I think I might have ruined a couple of paintings. I shouldn’t have touched them in that state”, she said. It’s often stated that depression stalks the most gifted and that its highs and lows fuel the creative urge. “People said to me ‘why don’t you be like Goya and paint the terrible nightmare scenes when you get into that state yourself ‘. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was just this darkness and heaviness”, she reflected.
By Margaret’s account, the only thing that stopped her from suicide was her fear of botching the attempt. But with appropriate help and medication, she was finally able to pull through and as it happens, enjoy another decade of productive living – though towards the end, she was dogged by ill health. With a group of celebrity depression sufferers like the Rugby test legend, Topo Rodriguez, Margaret Olley spent many of those years publicising her own struggle with mental illness, encouraging others to seek appropriate help and not succumb to despair. There’s no doubt that, as a result, she’s responsible for saving many lives and improving those of countless thousands. So coupled with her famed generosity, it’s small wonder that the tributes on her passing have been so fulsome.
“When I got the assistance I needed, I felt I had a new lease on life”, she told Grubsheet. Suddenly, the face of the octogenarian lit up with the enthusiasm of a twenty year old. “I can’t tell you, I’ve escaped so many times! I’m like a cat with nine lives! I could fall down and be so grateful! Those nine lives may now be extinguished but for us, the look of delight on Margaret Olley’s face in that instant lingers on in the mind’s eye. A true lady and a true legend.
Postscript: And this is Margaret Olley’s final work – part of a huge triptych of Sydney Harbour that the Sydney Morning Herald’s Steve Meacham describes as a masterpiece. He says the “labour of love” took five years and Olley was desperate to finish it in the closing stages of her life. She told friends that it was a final homage to the city she first fell in love with six decades ago. A public memorial for Margaret Olley will be held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales next month.