Betty Churcher was in Geelong to promote her new book Notebooks, giving an entertaining talk at the Geelong Gallery.
In an art world that, even to this day, is still mostly dominated by men, Betty Churcher’s achievements are an inspiration: she was the first woman to become dean of a tertiary school (Phillip Institute of Technology); the first female director of a state gallery (Art Gallery of Western Australia); and the first woman to land the top job as Director of the National Gallery of Australia.
Back in the late nineties when my children were young and I was flat chat running the family household, Betty Churcher’s series about Australian art, Take Five, would come on the TV just before the ABC news. It was a reprieve in my busy day and I would look forward to watching it whenever I got the chance. I found Churcher’s infectious enthusiasm for art, along with her unpretentious chatty style, very engaging. Later I was to enjoy Hidden Treasures, another TV series in which Churcher offered insights into some of the rare and unusual art treasures held by the National Library – again presented in her own inimitable style.
So when I heard Betty Churcher was in Geelong this week to promote her new book Notebooks, I leapt at the opportunity to hear her speak. Published by Miegunyah Press, Notebooks takes us on a personal tour of some of Churcher’s favourite artworks in some of the grand art galleries of England, Europe and America. Part memoir, part travelogue, part historical, the book includes recollections of her trips, sketches she made of her most revered masterpieces, and perceptive discussions about the artworks and their place in the history of art. She draws on her wealth of knowledge to reveal interesting anecdotes and insights as only someone with such privileged experience could do.
Betty Churcher. Photo by Dean Golja, 2008. This photo was a finalist in the 2009 National Portrait Photographic Prize. (Thanks to Dean Golja for allowing me to publish this photo.)
Addressing a small crowd at the Geelong Gallery, Churcher, still sporting her instantly recognisable silver bob, explained how she embarked on a journey to revisit her favourite works of art in order to sketch them and commit them to memory. The impetus for the trip was her failing eyesight. She had been diagnosed with melanoma in 2003, and she lost the sight in her right eye. She thought she would manage with one eye but in a cruel irony for someone who has built her career around the visual arts, she developed wet macular degeneration in her other eye and now has to endure monthly injections straight into the eyeball to keep what little is left of her sight; a process she describes as ‘hideous’ but well worth it.
She says her trip back to London was a Proustian trip, “a remembrance of things past” because many of the works she visited, sketched and wrote about in Notebook, are works that she fell in love with when she first saw them as reproductions as a school girl in the 1940s. With her eye sight deteriorating, she wanted to remember them precisely. She was given afterhours access to the National Gallery of London and without any of the crowds to jostle with and just a security guard for company, she was able to focus on the artworks especially those by Rembrandt with whom she shares a deep empathy and appreciation. Her favourite artwork, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, is the one painting from the whole history of art she would choose to have for herself.
Churcher regaled us with tales about the artworks and her stellar career and was a very entertaining speaker. She showed no sign of the weariness that a rigorous book tour must cause and is remarkably spritely for her eighty years although at one point a coughing fit, caused by emphysema, slowed her down momentarily. She quipped “All the sins of my youth are catching up with me” and quickly regained her composure. Her grit and determination was palpable.
I bought the book and read it in nearly one sitting. Churcher writes in a conversational way, guiding the reader to discover more about the paintings. She uses her sketches to highlight what she sees as special about the artworks. The introduction to the book describes her childhood and her desire to break free from the constraints of her upbringing since her father had decided there would be no schooling beyond the age of fifteen. Fortunately her talent was recognised by the head mistress and she was able to continue her studies by teaching art in the junior school. Eventually she went to art school in London where she won the Drawing Prize and the Travelling Scholarship.
A gifted drawer, one can’t help wondering if Churcher would have pursued a career as an artist rather than an arts administrator if she hadn’t had four children and given up painting – but she is quite clear she didn’t have the intellectual energy and commitment to become an artist. She writes: “Although the lonely life of the studio would certainly have suited my temperament better than what is required of a gallery director, I seriously doubt that I had what it takes to become an artist – to tread that long, long road. The boys following in quick succession certainly gave me the perfect excuse, but I think the real reason I stopped painting was that some essential ingredient was missing.”
My only disappointment with Notebooks is that the book is so small – reproductions of these masterpieces would have benefited from a much larger publication, at least double the page size and although there are detail pictures, it still lacks impact. Nevertheless, Betty Churcher’s deeply held belief that art has the power to transport the viewer to another place and time shines through. Her governing principle of making art relevant and accessible, a philosophy which underscored her TV shows and her leadership at the NGA, is clearly apparent.