Home again

A new Margaret Olley Centre is the Tweed's latest attraction, writes Sheriden Rhodes.

'The Tweed is really where my childhood began. Living by the Tweed River, I first experienced the intoxicating smell of grass after rain," said artist Margaret Olley in Meg Stewart's biography of the late painter.

Breathing in the heady aroma of frangipani and lush farmland after a summer storm, it's easy to see why the artist loved the Tweed.

Born in Lismore, Olley's formative years were spent on the family sugar cane farm at Tygalgah, near Murwillumbah.

A beautiful photograph exists of her mother rowing Margaret and her siblings across the broad Tweed River to the bus stop to catch the bus to primary school.

This month, the Tweed Regional Gallery becomes the home of the Margaret Olley Centre, offering yet another reason to explore this lush corner of northern NSW.

The Olley farm was on the banks of Tweed River, opposite the Condong Sugar Mill where Margaret's uncle worked as a cane fields inspector.

The family were self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables, raising chickens, making preserves and cakes.

Not surprisingly, Margaret's favourite subject at Murwillumbah Primary School was art and her independent Aunt Mary, a frequent visitor, was a great mentor.


It's fitting therefore, that the $4 million-plus Margaret Olley Art Centre opens (at the time of writing) on March 16 at the Tweed Regional Gallery with its sweeping views of the Border Ranges, Mount Warning and the mighty Tweed River, which helped carry young Margaret on her way to school.

"It's poignant firstly because it was Margaret's express wish, but given Margaret's connection with the Tweed, it's like bringing her home," says gallery director Susi Muddiman.

The day before she died, Olley - one of the country's Australia's most generous benefactors to public art galleries - agreed to donate $1 million towards a memorial centre at the gallery in Murwillumbah. She considered it one of Australia's leading regional galleries, and opened its first extension in 2006.

When the gallery hosted the 2011 Archibald exhibition tour, it was elbowroom only as 28,000 people flocked to see Ben Quilty's winning portrait of Olley.

Built in 2004, the gallery is an architectural joy with its sleek and modern design. It's home to some of Australia's finest art, with exhibitions such as the Archibald Portrait Prize and the Olive Cotton Photographic Portraiture Prize across its six exhibition spaces.

The Margaret Olley Centre is expected to boost visitor numbers significantly and attract more artists to the region.

Architects were asked to incorporate Olley's chaotic, but beautiful, "working tableaux" into the centre, which includes an exhibition space of Olley's work, library and a replica of her eclectic Hat Factory studio and the Yellow Room that feature in many of her works. Visitors can peer through windows and look at works from her collection and paraphernalia from her Paddington home.

"It's completely unique, there isn't a re-creation of an artist's home studio anywhere in Australia," Muddiman says.

While the exterior of Olley's house is a re-creation, all the fixtures and fittings are original, right down to Olley's numerous palettes, hundreds of books and comical Kama Sutra placemats and bowl of eyeballs.

"It's an ordered treasure box. Everywhere your eye rests, something has been placed with purpose. For Margaret, it was all about the light, so we have re-created that by installing a huge skylight where the light changes moment by moment."

You could easily make a day out of a visit to the gallery, including lunch at the fabulous cafe run by Peter Clarke and Charlie Ebell of Mavis's Kitchen fame. The cafe, recently expanded, has sweeping views over the Tweed Valley. On an overcast afternoon, there's no prettier place to enjoy a glass of organic Tamburlaine Rose.

Historic rural villages and communities beckon on scenic drives through lush green farmland and sugar cane fields with Mount Warning as a commanding backdrop. We make a pit stop at Tropical Fruit World and devour what is surely the world's sweetest pineapple before heading for Tyalgum, whose historic shopfronts have been transformed into quaint cafes, gift stores and galleries.

A highlight of our visit is a stay at Mavis's Kitchens and Cabins. Clarke and Ebell elevated Harley Street Brasserie to award-winning status on the Gold Coast before relocating the gorgeous old Queenslander housing the restaurant to a beautiful 10-hectare property at the base of Mount Warning. Mavis's Kitchen features a slow food-style menu built around fresh, seasonal, local produce, creative and healthy kids' meals and an excellent wine list.

While the Tweed Valley is bereft of beaches its magical waterholes more than make up for it.

After browsing the monthly Uki Farmers Markets, we follow a hand-drawn map to a carefully guarded swimming hole (there are others locals will happily tell you about), having sworn not to reveal its location.

There, under a glorious shady gum tree we take a dip in the cool, clear waters while our five-year-old slides down a slippery rock with an ear-piercing shriek.

The Tweed already has much going for it, but now that it offers a pilgrimage of sorts to Australia's most-loved artist, there's even more reason to go.

The writer was a guest of Destination Tweed.





Murwillumbah is a nine-hour drive north of Sydney on the M1. Virgin Australia, see virginaustralia.com, Jetstar, see jetstar.com, and Rex (via Newcastle), see rex.com.au, fly daily to Ballina Airport from Sydney. Jetstar, Virgin and Qantas, see qantas.com, also fly daily to Coolangatta Airport.


Mavis's Kitchen and Cabins is four self-contained accommodation options set on lush farmland at the base of Mount Warning, with the fabulous Mavis's Kitchen restaurant onsite. From $169 a night for two people including generous breakfast basket, see maviseskitchen.com.au.

Limpinwood Lodge is three luxurious, couples-only chalets in a rainforest setting. From $395 a night, see limpinwoodlodge.com.au.


Tweed Regional Art Gallery is at 2 Mistral Road (cnr Tweed Valley Way), Murwillumbah South; open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm with free admission; phone 02 6670 2790, see artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au.