William DOBELL, not titled (Study for 'Portrait of Margaret Olley') Enlarge 1 /1

William DOBELL

Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 1899 – Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia 1970

  • England, Europe 1929-38

not titled (Study for 'Portrait of Margaret Olley') (1948) Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, graphite; paper drawing in black pencil Support: paper

Primary Insc: signed lower left in black pencil, 'W Dobell'. not dated.
Dimensions: sheet 25.3 h x 20.2 w cm sight 23.8 h x 17.7 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Sir William Dobell Art Foundation 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.105
Image rights: With permission of Sir William Dobell Art Foundation.
  • In the possession of the artist at his death in 1970.
  • Collection of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation.
  • Gift to the Interim Council of the Australian National Gallery, from the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, Sydney, 1976.

Margaret Olley recalls that when Dobell saw her at a party in her extravagant ‘duchess’ gown of parachute silk, he asked to paint her portrait:

I went to his flat the next week. I took a hat with some everlasting daisies on it, thinking, as one artist to another, the shape might appeal to his eye. Dobell did a lot of detailed sketches of me, and when I saw them later, he’d laid me down sideways, even drawn me in the nude with the hat on, though I certainly never posed like that. I didn’t sit in the duchess dress, I wore a plain beige cotton dress, but he obviously remembered the grand dress, because in the finished work, there I am in it.1

In this study, we meet a young woman who is comfortable in the presence of a fellow artist and friend. Although in her early 20s, Olley is portrayed as a matronly Renoiresque figure. She appears slightly crumpled in her button-through dress and seems out of place perched attentively on an elegant lounge chair. She has a child-like innocence and charm. The only hint of flamboyance is her showy hat.

This is quite a different woman to the one in the finished portrait, which won the 1948 Archibald Prize. Olley sits transformed, shoulders straight, breasts high and thrust out confidently in her frothy white dress and showy hat – proud of her growing reputation as an artist and as a feisty individual.

Dobell’s characteristic drawing skills are highly acclaimed. He sketched often, but never to produce finished drawings for exhibition.  Through this study we share in the pleasure of seeing Olley through his perceptive eyes.

Anne McDonald

1Janet Hawley, Encounters with Australian Artists, St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1993, pp.94-96

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002