After graduating, Olley quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene, which included artists such as Jean Bellette, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan, Justin O’Brien and David Strachan. In the late 1940s, she and Friend became some of the first artists to spend time painting in the Hill End area of NSW. In 1948 Olley held her first solo exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries. This was also the year William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley dressed in a gown fashioned from parachute silk, with a hat adorned with flowers.
Olley departed on her first international trip in 1949. She stayed in France and travelled extensively to parts of Spain, Brittany, Venice, Lisbon and London. When her father died in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane to live and paint at her mother’s home ‘Farndon’ in Morry St, Hill End, Brisbane. Margaret remained in Brisbane for ten years, painting for exhibitions, designing theatre sets and murals, and opening an antique shop in Stones Corner.
During the mid-1950s, Margaret travelled through north Queensland, to Hill End with Donald Friend, Magnetic Island and Papua New Guinea. She held an exhibition of her paintings from this period in the Macquarie Galleries in 1955 to mixed critical acclaim. In 1959 she gave up alcohol, and her creative output and well being increased as a result. This time marked the beginning of decades of commercial success with galleries and collectors, enabling her to invest in properties in Sydney and Newcastle. This gave her the independence to continue to paint, travel and eventually become a benefactor to artists and public galleries.
In 1962 Margaret purchased and renovated her first home in Paddington St, Paddington, Sydney. In 1964 she purchased a terrace house in Duxford St, Paddington where she set up a flat in an area of the property between the house and the adjoining old Hat Factory buildings as a place for her to stay when visiting Sydney. During the early 1970s these two rooms became the initial base for Margaret and her great love Sam Hughes. Margaret began renovating the Hat Factory before she and Sam moved in during the mid 1970s. They lived here in between overseas travel until Sam passed away in 1982. This year also saw the passing of Margaret’s mother.
Sadly in 1980 the family home Farndon in Brisbane burnt down, resulting in the loss of the family’s possessions and many of Olley’s early works, photographs and objects collected on her travels.
Duxford St became Margaret’s permanent home in 1988. She continued to renovate the rooms at the back of the property, establishing the Hat Factory as her home and studio.
Margaret travelled extensively to Asia, Europe and America visiting friends and viewing special exhibitions by artists she loved, including Matisse, Morandi, Chardin, Bonnard and Balthas. In 1990 Margaret established the Margaret Olley Art Trust to acquire paintings for public collections. The first retrospective of her work was held at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, Sydney in 1990, accompanied by the launch of a monograph written by Christine France. The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) also held another retrospective exhibition, curated by Barry Pearce.
Margaret Olley held over 90 solo exhibitions during her life time. She was appointed an Officer Order of Australia (AO) in 1991, and awarded Life Governor of the AGNSW in 1997. The AGNSW named the Margaret Olley, Twentieth Century European Gallery in her honour in 2001. She was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2006. Margaret was awarded Honorary Doctorates from Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, Southern Cross University, Lismore and Griffith University, Brisbane.
Margaret Olley opened Stage II of the Tweed River Art Gallery in Murwillumbah in 2006. In April 2011 artist Ben Quilty won the 2011 Archibald Prize with his enigmatic portrait of Margaret.
Margaret continued to paint, despite her deteriorating health in her last years, and had completed a new body of work for an exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries when she passed away on 26 July 2011 at her home.
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