Skip to main content

Head study for portrait of Margaret Olley
, 1994

by Jeffrey Smart

pencil on paper (frame: 66 cm x 52 cm, sheet: 39.0 cm x 29.0 cm)

Margaret Olley AC (1923–2011), painter, studied art at East Sydney Technical College and the Grande Chaumière in Paris. She was well known in the Sydney post-war art scene and her portrait was painted by Drysdale and Dobell – Dobell’s painting won the 1948 Archibald Prize. Olley held her first one- person show that year. It was a sellout, and she held at least one solo exhibition annually from then on. In 1991 she reprised her success of forty-three years before, when a show of thirty-five of her intimate, brilliantly-coloured interiors and still lifes sold out again. The Art Gallery of New South Wales held a major retrospective show of her long career in 1996–97. Olley remained one of Sydney’s best-known arts identities to her death, curating an exhibition with Barry Humphries called ‘Favourites’ at the SH Ervin Gallery in 2000, continuing to paint, and posing for numerous portraits by younger artists she encouraged, including Nicholas Harding and Ben Quilty, whose big, rough portrait of her won the Archibald Prize in 2011. In the 1980s she endowed the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust, of which several Australian galleries, including the National Portrait Gallery, have been beneficiaries. In 2014, Tweed River Art Gallery opened a meticulous permanent reconstruction of Olley’s studio and living space, just as it appears in this photograph.

Jeffrey Smart (1921–2013) made this drawing in preparation for the 1995 painting Margaret Olley in the Louvre Museum, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In notes he made about the composition of the painting, which is dominated by a long wooden screen, he wrote ‘How to pull the eye over to the left with a darker tonal figure? What better eye-catcher than Margaret Olley?’

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Bequest of Nick Enright AM 2004
Accession number: 2004.15