Olley was born in 1923 in NSW. She studied at Brisbane Central Technical College and East Sydney Technical College. She has been awarded AO and Companion of the Order of Australia.
Margaret Olley was born in 1923 in the Lismore District. She enrolled in Brisbane Central Technical College in 1941 and following this, studied at East Sydney Technical College under Dorothy Thornhill, Douglas Dundas, Frank Medworth and Herbert Badham. In 1945 she attended Jean Bellette’s evening life classes where she met David Strachan who became a close friend and important influence on her work. She also met Sam Hughes, former director of the Zwemmer Galleries in London; Hughes was a catalyst and would become the love of Olley’s life. After she graduated, Olley quickly became involved in the post-war Sydney art scene and in 1948 she held her first solo exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries. In the same year William Dobell painted an Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Olley. In 1949 Olley travelled through France, Spain, Venice, Lisbon and London. Following her father’s death in 1953, Olley returned to Brisbane where she remained for ten years, painting, designing theatre sets and murals and she opened an antique shop in Stones Corner. During the mid-1950s Olley travelled with Donald Friend to Northern Queensland and then Magnetic Island and Cairns before continuing to New Guinea and Kwato Island alone. In 1958 she won the Lismore Art Prize with ‘Lilies and Grapes’ however soon after, her heavy drinking began to affect the output of her work. By 1960 Olley given up alcohol, after entering a clinic and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, and her artistic output increased once more.in 1962 Olley’s solo exhibition at Johnstone Gallery sold out and she decided to purchase a house in Paddington, she continues to invest in property in Sydney and Newcastle. In 1971 she moved to Paris to work in the Cite Internationale des Artes, but after visiting Marrakesh, Zagora, Fez and Madrid she returned to Brisbane where she painted in the house of the recently deceased David Strachan. Sam Hughes moved to one of Olley’s houses in Paddington with her in the mid-1970s, and they travelled overseas together and with many other artists in the circle at the time. In November 1980 Olley’s family home in Farndon in Brisbane burnt down destroying many of her early works, photographs and possessions. 1982 saw the death of both Sam Hughes and her mother, Olley dealt with the grief by concentrating on painting and continuing to travel frequently. In 1985 while staying in Crete, Olley became critically ill with Meningitis, an illness which left her balance and mobility compromised for the rest of her life. After the death of close friend Van Hodgkinson, Olley suffered with severe depression; it took two years for her to recover. In 1990 Margaret established the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust to acquire paintings for public collections. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Macquarie University, University of Sydney, Griffith University, Brisbane, the University of Newcastle, the University of Quensland, and Southern Cross University, Lismore. She was made life governor of the art gallery of NSW 1997, awarded AO in 1991 and awarded Companion of the Order of Australia in 2006. In 2011 Ben Quilty wins the Archibald Prize with portrait of Olley. She spent most of this year preparing works for an exhibition for Philip Bacon Galleries, despite her deteriorating health, and she managed to complete it before her death in July 2011 aged eighty-eight. Olley is represented in the National Gallery of Australia and most regional and state galleries.