Girl in White Dress

I was just coming out of another stretch in hospital here in Cambridge when I got the news that Margaret Olley had breathed her last in her famous little house in Paddington, Sydney. When Margaret was around, you had to put semaphored quotation marks around a cliché like “breathed her last” or she would be on to you. Her principal weapon, as a critic of language or of anything else, was one raised eyebrow. Two raised eyebrows meant that everything you were saying was mere journalism, and therefore well below your usual standard. In that way she reminded me of all the best schoolteachers I had ever had in infants’ school, rolled into one and kitted out in a white dress.

Nobody whose date of birth fell even approximately near Margaret’s would fail to spot the significance of the white dress. I am about ten years younger than Margaret—although the gap is narrowing already, because people stop getting older when they die: the kind of observation that would often draw her into reminiscence—but I count myself as one of her generation, because I know exactly what the white dress was made of. When William Dobell painted his notorious portrait of her in 1948, as a plump young innocent clad in a sheet of samite, mystic, wonderful, there was no white samite or white anything else available except parachute silk left over from the war. Her dress was run up out of that, thereby anchoring a great picture irrevocably to its time, because only a historic convulsion the size of the Second World War can give a penniless girl a dress like that.

The picture generated a storm of abuse for several reasons. Some experts pointed out that it was badly painted, in the kind of pastiche Impressionism that their daughters could do. Others, the smart ones, opined that it was simply painted too well for so frivolous a subject, as if Gainsborough had painted a milkmaid. The hubbub was of an intensity that you can get only in a backwater—it was of Irish standard, without the voice of Yeats being audible on the soundtrack—and it made Margaret more famous than Dobell. The editors were all set to eat her alive. She wouldn’t have a bar of it. In particular she loathed the reporters, who wanted to talk about nothing except her supposed position as the Princess Bride of the art world. What was it like being a little girl from Lismore surrounded by all those randy young male artists? And so on.

So she got on a ship for the first of her encounters with Europe, and one way and another she was encountering Europe throughout her career. Early on, she would paint a whole exhibition at her base in the South of France and ship the results out to Australia when she was done. She liked America too, but the love affair was always with Europe. On this fact turns the fatuous but eternal question of whether she was really an Australian painter or not.

Chopin in Paris must have heard a similar question often, from the lips of variously embittered Polish exiles. “Are you a Polish composer or not?” The answer “yes and no” was the only one to give. Just by the way she painted, Margaret was giving an identical answer right up to the day of her death, and now the generations to come must examine its significance. Despite being the most sophisticated of all Australia’s hostesses—just the names of the most prominent guests at her table would fill the space of this article—she remained the girl from Lismore who had been bowled over by the big city of Sydney, and she never got over her gratitude to East Sydney Technical College for the technique that she took out into the world. (After the war, by the way, some of the people doing the teaching were European refugees—a story that needs telling by the next Robert Hughes, because the first one missed the importance of the topic through being too close to it.)

The young male students all adored her but she never told tales. When we had known each other a long time she finally let slip the news that Russell Drysdale had been her great love, but if I had passed the news on it would have meant instant social death: the open invitation to her table would have been irrevocably withdrawn. She had a rich emotional life that she could have boasted of if she wished, but she wasn’t the boasting type.

Which is not to say that she was always shy and retiring. At the appropriate moment she could speak the unspeakable truth, even in public. Edmund Capon, until recently the curator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and much admired by all for his fruitful combination of fund-raising energy and implacable discretionary powers, ranked high at Margaret’s Paddington court. Gold Stick in Waiting and the Master of the Revels crammed into a single pair of tights, Edmund trusted Margaret’s taste implicitly, as well he might have done, because Margaret, in her quiet way, was one of the most creative and generous collectors that Australia had yet seen. Somehow she would get the money together to buy an important Bonnard and then search her purse for the taxi fare to get it to an Australian gallery and give it away; and it wasn’t always an important gallery either. But it became important after she had done that.

Even Edmund Capon, who by rank was cast as the supreme picker of winners, had to admit that Margaret’s horses always came romping home to a place if not to a win. (Connoisseurship was the only area of life in which she would take a financial gamble, incidentally: like her friend Jeffrey Smart she was very shrewd about money, having figured out, as he had, that a painter’s income is so volatile that it will always need to be invested, preferably in bricks and mortar.) But although she admired Capon, Margaret’s approval of him did not preclude an acid snort of irreverence when she thought he had gone over the top in pursuit of a Modern (as opposed to a merely modern) artist. A few years back, Edmund roped me in to give the keynote speech at a fund-raising dinner in the gallery, the eventual aim being to pile up enough scratch to put a down-payment on a Cy Twombly triptych of ghostly boats, a picture that we had better call “Ghostly Boats” in case it is really called “Post-Abstract Study No. 386 in B flat”. I got through my speech all right and wrapped it up with a mild gale of praise for Twombly’s boldness (God forgive me) in transcending the boundaries of form, and all that palaver.

But Edmund, when his turn came, praised Twombly and his triptych in terms that were never heard by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel below as he toiled in the ceiling. Nothing could interrupt a flow like that except the sound of Margaret snorting. It was as abrupt as a killer whale coming up through thin ice to inhale a penguin and it carried a lot of semantic content, the central meaning obviously being that Edmund was wasting everybody’s money on a dud. Since she was well known for the unquestionable value of the paintings she gave away, here was something for the rest of us to think about. And much against my will, I am obliged to admit that from that time forward I have had a harder time convincing myself that the Ghostly Boats mean more to me every time I see them. I can’t think of any other measure for greatness in a painting, so there’s a poser. 

Which brings us to Margaret’s own paintings. Margaret and my wife Prue always adored each other; and my wife, who suffers from shyness in comparison with, say, Germaine Greer—who in turn suffers from shyness in comparison with, say, Little Richard—expressed her admiration in the most tangible way, through buying a little picture by Margaret at those times when we could afford it. Eventually we bought quite a big one, which sometimes goes absent from our house in Cambridge because it is wanted for a retrospective (it went to Margaret’s big, definitive Art Gallery of New South Wales retrospective in 1997). One of the beautiful sequence of smallish canvases with white bone china as a subject hangs on the wall of my office in London. All in all our Olleys add up to a pretty substantial holding, so I quite see why I would do best to admit that I am aware of the usual stricture: owners should not talk up the value of a painter whose works they own. (I never fully trusted the opinion of Kenneth Clark on anything ever again when I learned that while first helping to establish the European reputation of Sidney Nolan he had a basement full of Nolan’s pictures beneath his feet.)

But it is legitimate, I think, to intervene when there is a question of interpretation; and Margaret has suffered, and will probably go on suffering, from the imputation to her work of slavery to European models, notably the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

In a piece I wrote for one of her picture books I said what I thought then and still think now, now that her wonderful work is all done: that she was never a slave to European art, because she incorporated it. What we see in her pictures are the textures of any great concentration of near-modern European art—think of the big room in the Chicago Art Institute that holds Seurat’s La Grande Jatte—put into new combinations, an interweaving of wavelengths, a jamboree of the qualities. I use the indigenous Australian word because it fits her heritage. Early on, out there in the donga with the boys, in exactly the same sort of painting camp to which Streeton and Tom Roberts and his friends had once retreated but this time with almost nothing except red desert in sight, she had drunk up colour until she could take her sense of it anywhere—even to the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries—and use it as a filter. She saw the created world of the past through Australian eyes. To see what her work is up to, you have to look past the subject and see the vigour. A bowl of fruit, after all, doesn’t belong to Cezanne. Only his light does, and Margaret has (let me leave her in the present tense for just a while, please) a light of her own, which she took on board in New South Wales and took with her everywhere she sailed, even into the world of the abstract, which is what her still lifes really are—abstracts in disguise. Right to the end, she never missed an important exhibition in any of the world’s major cities. Unlike many artists, she was a fan of the art she practised.

But then, she could afford to be a fan, because she never felt outdone by anyone else. She was secure in her gift, which was first of all for the subtle interplay of colours thinly applied. She gives the best sense I know from any painter of the paint’s being only a fly’s foot deep. Compared to her, our mutual friend Jeffrey Smart lays the impasto on with a trowel: a rhetorical excess on my part, because those people who have seen a few paintings by Smart will know that he keeps his surface as flat as a Bronzino. From Olley and Smart, if you hung around either of them or both, you could get a lot of pertinent info about the arts, as well as a generous supply of bitchery. John Olsen bitches less but he wrote the best book of that generation: better than Smart’s autobiography even, if less copious than Donald Friend’s diaries. Friend has become a lot harder for most of us to like since the later volumes of his diary have revealed him to be quite such a paedophile, but you wouldn’t want to be without his writings altogether. Olley, alone of the group, wrote nothing at all. She gave that side of her energy to sitting at her dinner table in her little Paddington house and marshalling the traffic as the egos jumped the lights. I can remember one lunchtime at her table when Leo Schofield—on any list of the world’s great talkers of recent years, he would be up there with Christopher Hitchens—was in full flight and I saw David Malouf’s eyes were shining. It’s the shine that comes into the eyes of any kind of artist when he or she is quietly busy registering a new tone, a new shading, a new rhythm. Olley’s eyes, which gave her a lot of trouble towards the end, had that kind of shine in them. Perhaps they wore themselves out.

Other people are better qualified to say more, because they saw more of her. Except when I opened an exhibition for her in London, I seldom saw her when she was abroad, and on most of my business trips to Sydney I would call on her only once. I asked for no more because I am not the type to form friendships among artists and scholars if the friendship takes time, which I have always felt that I am short of. So really I hardly knew her at all. But she had that enthralling trick of seeming to know you better than you knew yourself. She believed in me as a writer even at those times when I thought the world was falling in around my ears.

There are probably people who could say that she believed in them as a composer, as a bricklayer or as a male nurse. Most of them would be men, because somewhere at the centre of her appeal and receptivity there was a flirt. Her friends seldom dared to attribute a base motive to her but I am convinced that it gave her satisfaction to be able to turn her men into knights in shining armour ready to carry her favour into battle. The favour, of course, would have to be a strip of white parachute silk. But it ought to be painted, as Charles Conder painted his fans; painted with spectral colours, a prism squeezed for its juice; the Margaret Olley look.

How we shall miss her, and more and more as we grow fewer: we old ones, who had the exciting privilege, when we were young, of being constantly discouraged by conventional society. With more approval when she was young, Margaret might have got art out of her system. As things were, she was a rebel to the end. And I just saw an eyebrow go up, to tell me that only a journalist would talk about an artist as a rebel. Sorry, love.

Clive James wrote on James McAuley’s poem “Because” in the April issue. He has a website at

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