Margaret Olley: John Pasquarelli
“I have two artist friends from Australia who are coming to the Territory and they will be staying with me in Moresby. Margaret Olley and Douglas Annand are their names and I have told them that they must visit the Sepik River and that you are the man to look after them.” So spoke Geoff Elworthy, an art collector and patron of the arts who had plantation interests in Papua and maintained a fine home in Port Moresby. I had met Elworthy when I was a Member of the House of Assembly 1964-1968 and John Stuntz and I had often been his guests.
Annand’s name didn’t ring a bell but I knew that William Dobell had painted Olley for the Archibald and that colourful study of her in the big hat is easily remembered.
In 1968 Olley and Annand flew into Wewak and then travelled by road out to Pagwi on the Middle Sepik where I met them. I picked them up in my large cedar canoe powered by a Mercury 65HP outboard and took them to my trading base at Ambunti where I had a trade store and crocodile skin buying depot. My half-decent house at Ambunti had tank water on tap, a septic system and was screened against the dreaded mosquitoes. Ever the gentleman, I gave ‘Oll’ as she was known to her friends, my bed and one of her biographies humourously describe her reaction at finding a loaded revolver under her pillow.
The next day, Olley and Annand’s gear was loaded onto one of my trading houseboat double canoes. The houseboats were a basic box mounted on two dugout canoes with built-up freeboards and powered by two Archimedes 12HP twin cylinder horizontally opposed two-stroke outboard motors made by the Swedish Electrolux company. These outboards were also the basic work-horses on the Amazon and African rivers. These canoes were used by me for trading and buying crocodile skins from the Sepik people but a luxury tourist vehicle they were not. Sleeping was on a mat under a mosquito net and the toilet meant baring one’s bum over the stern which was quite daunting for new-chums Olley and Annand.
We travelled down river from Ambunti which meant visiting the Middle Sepik and experiencing its wonderful art: the masks, figures, slit-gongs and the great carved posts of the Haus Tambaran at Kanganaman. Oll was obviously excited as we walked from the Sepik into Kanganaman village and she had her first glimpse of the wonderful structure that had been there long before the arrival of the white man. Haus Tambarans were dominant on the Middle Sepik and the Chambri Lakes but missionaries and war had taken their toll. My greatest achievement as an MP was having the Haus Tambaran at Kanganaman declared National Cultural Property.
Women were forbidden to enter the Haus Tambaran but I was able to organise a dispensation for Oll from its custodians. Oll and Annand were quick to pursue their craft and I stood behind Margaret as she sketched the Haus Tambaran and the resulting watercolour hangs on my wall. All the way down to Angoram, my guests bought artifacts and interacted with the locals with great pleasure and interest. Angoram on the Sepik was the end of the line and it was my main base which served my trading activities at
Amboin, Ambunti and May River.
Oll and Annand had artifacts to pack and I had a business to run but that meeting was to begin a friendship that lasted until Oll’s recent death. At that time Oll was living in West End in Brisbane but disaster struck in 1974 when the house, which had been her mother’s, burnt down taking with it paintings, books, antiques and artifacts. Mrs Olley was in care in Sydney but Oll never told her mother about the fire fearing the shock might kill her. As well as being a great artist, Margaret was a canny businesswoman and real estate was the other pillar of her fortune. She bought well in Newcastle and Paddington and her headquarters became a terrace house in Duxford Street, Paddington. At the rear of the large terrace house was what was once a hat factory but Oll and her local renovators soon had the place fitted out and it became her studio and living quarters. Before it was completed I camped in the hat factory on a few occasions when I was down from PNG.
Oll fought two battles during her life—the grog and the fags—she beat the grog but couldn’t give up smoking. Watching her at 9 am having a mouthful of banana followed by a puff of a cigarette made me rejoice in the fact that I had kicked the dreadful habit. Even so, she lasted until 88 but the emphysema ruined her quality of life.
I met many of Oll’s friends and one of those was the poet Pamela Bell who was the niece of ‘Ceb’ Barnes, the Federal Minister of Territories in the years leading up to PNG’s Independence. Pam Bell was one of those who helped Oll beat the grog and her terrace in Goodhope Street Paddington was close to Duxford Street.
Oll encouraged other artists and when I started painting in 2002, she had kind words for my efforts and I followed her example by painting on masonite, using acrylics whereas Oll used oils. Her generosity in helping the National Gallery with various purchases is well known and it was fitting that her portrait won the recent Archibald.
I am moving from Newstead in Central Victoria to Townsville and I am writing this at Maroochydore, Queensland, driving with my Hilux loaded to the gunwales. I spoke with Oll before I left Newstead to tell her what I was up to and I will never forget her and the unique and great character that she was. Oll’s last show was four years ago but her agent and executor Philip Bacon tells us that there are 20 paintings that were to be exhibited later this year but this last show will be now next year: what an event that will be.