About Robert

Using his unique style of drawing, painting and sculpture, Bob is able to capture the very heart and humour of his native North East. His love of the Geordie folk, their way of life and, above all, their sense of humour, has given him inspiration since he left the mining industry in 1968.
Robert has also had the honour of producing works for a number of high profile figures over the years, from Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, David Milliband; former South Shields MP and currently CEO of the International Rescue Committee, Tony Blair; former Prime Minister of the UK, Bill Bryson; American author of humorous books on travel, David Walliams; comedian, actor and author, and Alan Bennett; playwright, actor and author.

1940 -  Born, South Shields into a mining family.

1951 – Attended Westoe Secondary Modern.

1955 – Left school worked as a Painter and decorator.

1957 – Began his mining career at Whitburn Colliery

1968 – Left the mining industry.

1969 – Joined Plessey Telecommunications.

1970 – Worked in London and showed his work at the weekly Sunday Painters Exhibition on Bayswater Road.

1971 – Olley’s first gallery showing, two oil paintings, was in the Bede Gallery for the Jarrow Festival. Later this year he sells his first oil painting “Cumberlands Scrap Yard” from the Novo Gallery, Gosforth.

1972 – Joint exhibition in South Shields Library. Two paintings “Adam and Eve” and “The Westoe Netty” almost result in the exhibition being closed down on the grounds of indecency.

1973 – Began to show his work on the Armstrong Bridge Sunday Exhibition, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1974 – Left Plessey Telecoms. to become full time rtist and Sculptor

1974 to 1977 - Worked on many commissions including graphics for the Tyne Tees regional programme “What Fettle”, BBC Television’s Silver Jubilee Street Party, the University theatre production, “Geordies Court” and a mural depicting personalities of the pop and film world, political figures and royalty. The theme for the painting was a Roman orgy and was commissioned for the Club Tiberius, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1978 - Exhibition. Olley’s first one man exhibition in a major gallery, the Metal Art Precinct was entitled “The Heart and Humour of the North East”.

Opened by Sir Robin Chapman, the exhibition contained more than a hundred works consisting of prints, pen and ink drawings, ceramic, cold cast bronze sculptures and twenty- four oil paintings.The inspiration for this body of work was drawn mainly from his experiences in mining, the industry at the “Heart” of the region’s economy. His flair for observing the every day life and “Humour” that is unique to the people in the North East of England were successfully demonstrated in this exhibition.

Later this year he is commissioned to create a work that will be presented to Lord Louis Mountbatten.

1979 - Olley moves the production of his sculpture to Washington New Town and creating his company Robert Olley Sculpture Castings Ltd.

1980 - Bowcourt Productions sponsored by Washington Development Corp., South Tyneside Council and the National Union of Mineworkers produce a one hour documentary “Robert Olley 1980″ narrated by North East actor James Bolam.

1981 - Commissioned by Northumbria Police to produce a sculpture for presentation to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate the opening of the new police headquarters at Ponteland, Northumberland.

1984 - Designed and manufactured the 17ft high animated clock based on the legend of the Lambton Worm for the new shopping centre, The Galleries, Washington New Town.

1985 - Relocates to South Shields riverside and opens the Gambling Man Gallery.

Assists in the creation and development of Catherine Cookson Country as a tourist attraction and produces six figurines based on characters from the books of Cookson. Commissioned by Newcastle City Council to produce an eight inch high limited edition (100) bronze figurine of a Keelboat man to be presented as gifts to visiting civic dignitaries.

1986 - Commissioned by Newcastle based architect Eric Newsham to design a mural for the gable end of Sallyport Crescent, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1987 - Completes the 12 feet high statue to commemorate a famous son of South Shields, John Simpson Kirkpatrick of the Australian Army Medical Corps, better known in Australia as “The Man with the Donkey, hero of Gallipoli”

1989 - Commissioned by builders Persimmon Homes for the 12ft high sculpture of the old time film actor Stan Laurel. The sculpture is located in Dockwray Square, North Shields where Laurel lived as a young boy. 

1989 - Commissioned by National Union of Mineworkers “Durham Miners” sculptures decorate the gate posts of Redhills the headquarters of the Durham Miners Association.

1990 - Travels to Sydney, Australia where a small replica of the Kirkpatrick sculpture is presented to the Gallipoli Veterans Association.

1992 - The sculpture The Beacon Of Europe was Commissioned by Ferryhill Town Council to celebrate the single market in Europe is unveiled by local MP and future Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

1995 - Exhibition entitled Old, New, Borrowed and Blue was assembled in only seven weeks when an exhibition slot became vacant in the recently refurbished Customs House Arts venue in South Shields and was opened by the town’s M.P. Dr. David Clark.

The fifty- nine works consisted of early paintings never before displayed – Old

Fifteen of his most recent paintings – New

Work previously sold was borrowed from the length and breadth of the U.K. including the first oil painting he sold from a gallery in 1971 - Borrowed

A series of blue oil studies of boats, boat yards and jetties along the banks of the river Tyne - Blue

After the success of the exhibition spent some time in Spain for some inspiration and working on new material.

1996 - Exhibition titled “Robert Olley At Work”

This was the year of Visual Arts, UK.

Olley was sponsored by NEXUS the Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive and was opened by it’s Director General, Mr Mike J. Parker. Olley was artist in residence for the duration of the four-week exhibition in the Customs House South Shields.Included in this body of work were some large nude studies, clear evidence that he was continuing to develop and move away from the earlier subjects that gave him inspiration.

During the exhibition he painted a 16ft x 4ft mural “Famous Faces” featuring North East personalities from the world of sport, TV, music, business and the church, they were painted in caricature form looking out from the carriages of a Metro train. It is now displayed at Monument station, Newcastle.   

2000 -Exhibition titled “This, That and some of the Other” Opened by actor and radio presenter, Mr Mike Elliott.

A body of some fifty oil paintings never before shown, documented everyday street life at the beginning of the new century.

His only reference to coal mining was the powerful “Off the Way”, his first for almost twenty- five years. Observing a young lad manoeuvre shopping trolleys in a super market gave him the inspiration when he compared it to what he was doing at that age, pushing trucks of coal underground

The large oil, “Windows 2000″- a collection of images which artistically dealt with taboo subjects, unlikely topics such as cocaine snorting, fetishism, suicide and drug addiction.”El Tango Apasionado” one four paintings which captured the smouldering passion of the Argentinean dance. Once again his latest work indicated his move away from his early subjects. Tanis Taylor of Metro news “Olley is showing his darker side- bristling with strength and sinew.

2001 - Exhibition entitled Bob Olley. South Tyneside’s French twin town Noisy-le-Sec invited Bob to exhibit in the Centre Gerard-Philipe.

He decided on a cross- section of work, early mining sculptures, drawings and oil paintings along with more recent work.The exhibition was opened by Mm. Claude Roger Secretary General of the Comite De Jumilage De Noisy Le Sec.

Although the exhibition didn’t have a theme it was exceptionally well received by the French and especially by the many parties of school children that attended as part of their project.He was astonished at the amount of interest that the children showed in the mining subjects and spent much of the exhibition answering their questions.

There is now a permanent display of his sculpture that is exhibited around the schools in the area.

2002 - Exhibition entitled “Toil, Sweat, Water and Dust” in the Hutchinson Gallery, Bishop Aukland, County Durham was officially opened by Mr David Guy, President, DMA & NUM, North East Area.

In 2000 Olley had briefly returned to the subject of coal mining with his large oil painting Off the Way this current body of work reflected his rekindled interest for which he produced fifteen large canvasses and sculptures based on his personal experiences in the industry.Durham was the heart of the mining industry for more than a century.He said “Apart from returning to my roots as a miner I am also returning to my family roots, both my great grandfathers Robert Smith, an illiterate pitman was born near here in Coundon and Peter Greenwell lived in Croxdale managing several public houses in the area including the Britannia Inn in the City”

2002 was also the year the book Shafts of Light was published.An account of mining art and pitmen painters in the Great Northern Coalfield for which Olley’s painting Off the Way was used on the front cover. 

2003 - To celebrate 40 years of Town Twinning, South Tyneside’s French twin town Noisy-le-Sec requests Olley to design a mural to commemorate the occasion.

The 4 x 3 metre work depicting the French towns links with South Tyneside, Arganda del Ray (Spain) and Djeol (Mauritania) was unveiled by Madam le Maire, Nicol RIVOIRE. 

Exhibition entitled Olley on Aesop at the Customs House, South Shields.

Following the tragic death of his youngest brother fifteen months earlier Olley experienced a fallow period lacking inspiration, motivation and concentration, something new to the usually industrious artist.In June after completing the mural for Noisy-le-Sec, France, he visited an exhibition of Marc Chagall in Paris and saw his abstract works on the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, his inspiration suddenly returned. “It was like a pilot light igniting a boiler or dam bursting.Fifteen months of artistic energy eager to be turned into a tangible form”

He reflects, “I was ready for a change of subject and medium and style. The subject was the fables of Aesop, the medium, gouache and the style semi abstract. It was like a breath of fresh air”.
The date for an exhibition had been programmed for early December. During July and August he took time out visit Greece, the birthplace of Aesop and researched almost six hundred fables from which he produced many sketches, in the space of twelve weeks he completed the forty works to be exhibited.
“I have never experienced such an intense hunger for my work, it is quite unparalleled”

The exhibition was opened by Member of Parliament for South Shields,  David Miliband and was the most successful of Olley’s to date.

Exhibition “Olley on Aesop” The McGuinness Gallery, Bishop Aukland again the exhibition is a great success, runs over the Christmas period  and is well received by adults and children alike.

2005 - Exhibition “Les Fables d’Aesop et La Fontaine” Centre Gerard-Philipe, Noisy-le-sec, France, opened by Madam le Maire, Nicole RIVOIRE. Olley produced twenty new paintings based on the fables of Jean De La Fontaine the 17th century French poet especially for this exhibition and to compliment twenty of the original Aesop works.

Exhibition “Les Fables d’Aesop et La Fontaine” the exhibition was moved to “Maison du Theatre et la Dance” Epinay sur Seine, France and was opened by Herve CHEVREAU Maire d’ Epinay sur Seine

Both of these French exhibitions are very well attended and proved that Olley’s change of direction is a successful strategy.

Mural, large oil painting and glass screen Commissioned by South Tyneside Healthcare Trust for the newly refurbished Radiography Department of South Tyneside District Hospital. 

2006 - Bas relief mural SALUS CURATIO ET AQUA (Health, care and water) Commissions by South Tyneside Primary Care Trust. Location, Flagg Court Health Centre, South Shields.

2007 - Mural and humorous feature for The Court Inn, Durham City.

Ken Livingstone is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing a guest speaker at the David Miliband Lecture.

2008 - Bas relief memorial panels for Whitburn Colliery. Location, the gateposts on the former colliery site.

Tony Blair is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing a guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

Bronze life size statue of Stan Laurel. Commissioned by Wear Valley District Council. Location Theatre Corner, Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

2009 - Design for Westoe Colliery Banner. Commissioned by South Tyneside Mining Heritage Group.

Patrick Stewart is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2010 - Travels to India where he is inspired for his next exhibition entitled From Mining To Abstract.

Peter Mandelson is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2011 - Bill Bryson is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2012 - Jo Brand is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2013 - David Walliams is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2014 - Joint exhibition in the Discovery Museum for 'Toon Times'.  A historical display of Newcastle United FC memorabilia.

Alan Bennet is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

Group mining art exhibition entitled Shafts of Light at Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Robert was commissioned to design the St. Hilda Colliery Banner, paying tribute to 51 men who lost their lives in a mining accident.

Robert designed the CD cover for Westoe Colliery Brass Band.

2015 - Time Line Mural (10 m long x 2 m high) Location :- Bishop Auckland rail station.

Sting is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.

2016 - Group Exhibition "Pitmen and Prelates" Aukland Castle.

Sam Mendes is presented with a Robert Olley caricature for standing as guest speaker at the Annual David Miliband Lecture.