During her years as a young woman in her spiritual home of Sydney, ‘Oll’ or ‘Olley’ as she was known to her friends, began what would become a 40-year-long friendship with fellow artist Donald Friend, leading to her discovery of the historic gold mining town where he lived.
Olley spent much of 1948 visiting Friend in his tiny cottage on the corner of a little lane and the main road leading into the town, completing painting expeditions around the area which she described as “like walking on history”.
“In those days you could feel the presence of ghosts at Hill End,” she once wrote.
“You felt you were in the shadow of all those thousands of people who had lived there when Hill End was a thriving big town and the Holtermann nugget, the biggest nugget ever mined, came to light nearby.”
Her adventures with Friend carved Olley’s name in history as one of the colony of visiting creatives who moulded Hill End into a hub of artistic talent, including Russel Drysdale, Jean Bellette, Paul Haefliger, David Strachan and Jeffrey Smart.
A second wave of artists - John Olsen, John Firth-Smith, Brett Whitely and others - then followed, as did a host of contemporary artists who spent time at Haefliger’s Cottage in the 1990s.
Always an improviser, Olley learnt to deal with Hill End’s cold winters by strapping a hot water bottle onto her stomach before going out to collect tiles from the town’s old buildings which the pair used to mosaic the oven in Murray Cottage – now the base studio of the Hill End Artists in Residence (HEAIR) program.
“Donald Friend did a watercolour of that oven – it’s really lovely to know that it’s still standing there now,” said Bathurst Regional Art Gallery curator and program coordinator Sarah Gurich.
“She was a great supporter of arts in Australia and a great mentor to younger artists and through her work she will continue to be.”
As for the rest of her Hill End artworks, “some were exhibited, others were probably never finished or painted over in some drunken moment” according to Olley.
The most iconic, however, including Hill End Ruins and Back Buildings Hill End, became the focus of Paintings of Hill End - a 1996 NSW Art Gallery exhibition curated by HEAIR program creator Gavin Wilson, who described Olley as a woman with a “spirited sense of independence”.
“She had a gift, she loathed humbug and she responded to true talent,” he said.
“She wanted the public who appreciated art to see the very best of what was available.
“Degas, Cezanne, Morandi – these are all incredible works that wouldn’t have arrived in Australia if she hadn’t of had the generosity of spirit to make it happen.”
As the only artist to be painted for two Archibald Prize-winning works in 1948 (William Dobell) and 2011 (Ben Quilty), Olley once told Wilson that she was “bookended”.
“She had Bill at one end and Ben at the other and she loved the idea of that,” Mr Wilson said.
“It was fitting to see her recognised in her final year – I think she must have somehow known her time was close.”
Mr Wilson said Olley was fortunate enough to pass away “in the place that she loved the most”.
“She died in her house, in her studio and in her sleep, surrounded by her paintings,” he said.
“What a way for her to go.
Source: Mudgee Guardian 29 Jul 2011