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With the death of Australia’s most beloved painter of still lifes, the art world has lost a national treasure.
The 88-year-old Margaret Olley AC was found dead in her Paddington home on Tuesday morning.
She had been preparing for a solo exhibition – one of more than 90 throughout her illustrious career. She continued her work until the last, joking in a recent interview, “I think now as the mon dieu comes I’ll say ‘just one minute, I’m not ready yet. I’ve still got to do that painting.’”
Born in Lismore on June 24, 1923, Olley discovered her passion for painting at a Brisbane boarding school, going on to study her craft at the East Sydney Technical College. Success came early with her first one-person show at the age of 25. Bohemian years in France followed, including a stint living on a vineyard in Cassis that informed her vibrant use of colour and love of humble, everyday objects, particularly flowers.
She was a great patron of the arts and a champion of the younger generation of Australian painters. She was often spotted in attendance at the opera and habitually listened to ABC Classic FM while she painted.
Her protégé Ben Quilty won the 2011 Archibald Prize with a large-scale portrait in bold, impasto strokes that captured Olley’s warm, colourful personality and a life lived to the fullest. Quilty described her as “compassionate”, “an inspiration” and “a feminist ahead of her time…vigorously passionate about social and political issues, as well as art”. Wearing her iconic straw hat at the prize announcement on April 15, the grande dame of arts in Australia seemed frail but radiated pride for her friend and fellow painter.
In an interview with Margaret Throsby, Olley admitted she felt it was "hard to paint an older person, with warts and all".
Quilty described his revered subject's initial reaction to seeing the portrait, demonstrating her typical humility: "She looked at it and said 'Oh, there's the old bag.'" Initially she had declined to be painted.
Olley’s first appearance in the Archibalds was as the sitter in her friend William Dobell’s winning 1948 portrait.
In 1991, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services as a distinguished artist and philanthropist in her field.
A new gallery named in her honour, the Margaret Olley Arts Centre, was due to be built last year in her hometown of Lismore, but did not receive the state government funding required for development to proceed.
A state memorial service will be held next month at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “It’s the perfect venue as Ms Olley donated over 140 works to the gallery,” said NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell.
"Margaret Olley truly was a state treasure and her loss will be felt right across the arts community and beyond.
"We can only be thankful her artworks and the impact they had on the community will live on forever.”