Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Oppen (1890–1975)

by Rachel Grahame

This article was published:

Margaret Oppen (1890-1975), artist and embroiderer, was born on 8 July 1890 at Newcastle, New South Wales, daughter of William Arnott, baker, and his wife Mary Eleanor, née Dixon. William Arnott was her grandfather. Margaret's parents travelled often between Australia and Britain, and she attended school in both countries. Later, she trained at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School, and in London at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Her woodcut, 'The Backyard', was reproduced in Art in Australia in 1924 and some of her linocuts were exhibited at the Younger Group of Australian Artists' 1925 exhibition in Sydney.

At the register office, Steyning, Sussex, England, on 13 April 1928 Margaret married Hans Oppen (d.1972), a man of independent means. With her husband and two sons, she returned to Sydney in 1935. During World War II she assisted with occupational therapy through the Australian Red Cross Society. Becoming interested in embroidery, she worked with Dora Sweetapple and Ann Rees at the Double Bay studio of the Society of Arts and Crafts. In 1949 she held a joint exhibition with her friend Ethleen Palmer before again travelling to London. She studied at the Royal School of Needlework and joined the Embroiderers' Guild.

Back in Sydney, in 1955 Mrs Oppen established the Redleaf Studio at her Wahroonga home where she painted and taught design. She and a few friends determined to set up a branch of the Embroiderers' Guild. After many requests, a letter to its patron, Queen Mary, eventually produced the necessary acceptance by the London guild. In 1957 Margaret Oppen became foundation president of the New South Wales branch. Beginning as a small group sharing a common interest and meeting regularly at her Wahroonga studio, it flourished and soon needed larger premises in central Sydney. A pattern was set of monthly meetings, lectures, classes and advice.

Oppen's work was usually done in simple stitches, directly onto material, without sketch or pattern. She believed that 'the needle can be as much an art medium as the pencil and as creative as the painter's brush'. With Patricia Langford, she produced a book for designers and embroiderers, Paper Cuts (1964). In 1966 and 1973 she exhibited paintings and embroideries at the guild rooms. A tall, stylish woman with a direct gaze, she could be intimidating on occasions, but was 'cheerful and dauntless', and highly respected by her fellow members. She refused to accept the words 'I can't', and encouraged her pupils to say 'I'll try'. In 1967 she retired as president, but remained active in the guild's work.

Generous in all things large and small, Oppen always provided biscuits for meetings that she attended, and used her considerable personal, social and financial resources unstintingly in the service of the guild, which she endowed with $3000 in 1969. The Embroiderers' Guild N.S.W. was incorporated in 1971. Margaret Oppen was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1973. Survived by her sons, she died on 17 June 1975 at Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated. The E.G.N.S.W. named a prize in her honour. Her self-portrait is held by the guild.

Select Bibliography

  • Grosvenor Galleries, catalogue Oppen-Palmer exhibition 1949
  • G. Cochrane, The Crafts Movement in Australia (Syd, 1992)
  • Art in Australia, Oct 1924
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 4 Oct 1947, 17 Jan 1968
  • Embroiders Guild, New South Wales, Monthly Record, Apr 1966, Sept 1970, Mar, Apr 1973, Aug 1975, July 1987
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Oct 1949, 2 June 1973
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rachel Grahame, 'Oppen, Margaret (1890–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Arnott, Margaret

8 July, 1890
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


17 June, 1975 (aged 84)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.