Vale Elizabeth Ann Dewar ‘Betty’ Churcher AO (1931-2015) you gave so much in your professional career, which included being Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia 1987-1990 and the National Gallery of Australia’s second director 1990 – 1997.
A popular presenter of the arts on television personally many benefited greatly from Brisbane born Betty’s erudition and charming down to earth no nonsense approach in sharing her knowledge, which no doubt came out of her Southern Tablelands of NSW country background.
Betty Blockbuster’ as she became affectionately known, was an inspiration for all who came after, bringing high-profile art exhibitions of European masterpieces to Australian shores, explaining why it was so important to do so as an investment in our country and its people’s future.
Australia has lost a true patriot, a true Australian woman of achievement and influence, one who was not only a passionate promoter of the Arts and one of our most loved cultural commentators, but also an adored and much beloved mother to her four children.
They helped to define what was important personally in her life, which was also spent painting, drawing, teaching and writing about art.
Betty Churcher worked hard at expanding the Australian public’s knowledge, raising their awareness of and association with, great works from world history.
She looked for and found the light in the shadows.
Drawing is a valuable life skill; it helps us to think, invent and communicate connecting generations and communities Her wonderful publication Australia Notebooks one of my favourite books to pick up and read when I am feeling overwhelmed by life, is littered with her charming sketches.
Like many others she was dazzled by the National Gallery of Victoria’s successful purchase of the Venetian artist Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-44.
The work had an ‘intriguing story’ attached which she related so well in ‘Notebooks’ and was in her eyes ‘perhaps the masterpiece of arguably the greatest European painter of the eighteenth century.
Her description of ‘Shearing the Rams, a wonderful work by Australian artist Tom Roberts was a scene I knew well as a child when working in a shearing shed on my Uncle’s property in Scone, northern NSW.
Betty Churcher loved to draw, understanding what an important conduit for both communication and visual expression it is, as well as offering those who cannot draw very special opportunities for cultural engagement.
Her drawings of the details of the great master works she loved accentuate the warmth of her message and enable us to see what drew her closer both in appreciation and understanding of what she was observing.
Just like other educationalists around the world, she knew that developing a relationship with the imagery of the world in which we live from a young age is a vital aspect in forming a life long bond between children and the learning process.
She encouraged this outcome.
Her children benefited from having their mother at home during their formative years, to share their adventures and enjoy their wonderful stories.
After they were finally all in school, well then it was full steam ahead.
As a child Betty Churcher’s favourite painting in the Queensland Art Gallery where her father used to take her often was ‘Evicted’ painted in 1887 by Blandford Fletcher.
She loved it with the simplicity of a child who only knows what it can first see, unless compelled to come closer.
She was especially drawn to examine the shoes that the main characters were wearing, sketching them as at the viewpoint of a seven-year-old child.
Betty Churcher even at a young age knew that they had a larger tale to tell.
Evicted in that respect is perhaps a metaphor for the whole of Betty Churcher’s life
Her wish to keep on learning herself through observation until irrevocably the light finally faded and she knew she would not be able to see her most favourite paintings any more, except in her mind’s eye was integral to the passion for art that defined her life
Vale Betty Churcher, those who worked with you and learned from you and loved and respected you and your achievements will long remember you.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015