painter and printmaker, eldest daughter of Sir Raphael and Lady (Phyllis) Cilento, was born on 23 December 1923 in Sydney but brought up in Brisbane. Margaret went to school at Somerville House when Caroline Barker was art mistress there. She also took private lessons from Barker, attended her Brisbane Sketch Club on Saturday mornings and, from the age of thirteen, the life drawing class. Later, Margaret studied with Martyn Roberts. Underhill suggests that much of her knowledge of modern art, however, came from hours spent at the Art Reference Library established in Brisbane by the Carnegie Foundation; she was influenced by Roger Fry’s C é zanne with its poor colour reproductions and was quite shocked when she saw originals in New York.
In 1943 Margaret went to Sydney and attended the National Art School, East Sydney Technical College. She spent 1944 helping camouflage the city of Ipswich (Qld) as part of the war effort, then returned to Sydney to continue her studies, sharing a flat and studio with fellow Queenslander Margaret Olley . Being ineligible for the NSW Travelling Scholarship, she applied for and won the 1949 Wattle League Scholarship for Queensland artists. By then she had exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society, the Under 30 Group, the Half Dozen Group of Artists and in the Herald and 'Australia at War’ exhibitions (1945), winning the latter’s Home Front section with Sunday .
Margaret took the modern overseas route. Her father had been seconded to the United Nations in New York and her friend Anne Wienholt had written in glowing terms about Hayter’s Atelier 17 (temporarily operating from NY) and of Rufino Tamayo’s Workshop; she was determined to study at both. She also studied at The Subjects of the Artist School, hotbed of Abstract Expressionism. Margaret was supposed to travel back to Australia with the rest of the family when her father’s appointment ended in 1949, but to the annoyance of the United Nations (which was paying the family’s passage) she made a detour to London then spent a couple of years in France. She met up with Olley again and both stayed with Mitty Lee Brown at Cassis. Cilento studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, then with Hayter when he re-established his old Paris atelier. But the United Nations could not be defied forever. Margaret was forced to leave for Australia in July 1951 or forfeit her passage.
She settled in Brisbane hoping to continue printmaking but found that only oil painting rated as Art. She taught painting from her studio at Kangaroo Point and at Stuartholme Convent and Clayfield College. She exhibited abstract paintings in solo exhibitions at Brisbane’s Moreton Galleries (1951) and Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries (1952). Underhill firmly believes that Cilento should be acknowledged as introducing Abstract Expressionism to Brisbane; the credit is usually given solely to Jon Molvig, who took over Cilento’s studio after she left for England in 1954. In London she enrolled at the Central School of Art and Goldsmith College and continued painting and etching. In 1961 she illustrated her sister Ruth’s children’s book, Moreton Bay Adventure , and in 1962 Shirley Abicair’s Tales of Tumbarumba .
In 1963 Margaret Cilento married Geoffrey Maslen; they returned to Brisbane in 1965. Only after their children had grown up did she take up art seriously again. From 14 November to 7 December 2001, Adam Galleries of 105 Queen Street, Melbourne, held the solo exhibiton Margaret Cilento In Depth – Works from 1940s to 2001: a retrospective of paintings, drawings and prints .