The Australian art world was recently robbed of one of its national treasures with the passing of Betty Churcher, an elegant, articulate woman that taught Australians to look at and appreciate art.
Elizabeth Anne Dewar (Betty) Cameron was born in Brisbane in January, 1931, the only daughter and second child to William and Vida Cameron. She spent her childhood years in the Brisbane suburb of Holland Park. She was born with the ability to draw from as far back as she could remember, and draw well.
In 2011 she stated “My friends at school could outrun, out-jump and out-spell me, but they couldn’t out-draw me. Drawing was my way of creating order in a confusing world – I could escape and retreat into a place of my own creation.” Her early schooling was at Buranda State School, a short tram ride from home, then with a small injection of money from her great-grandmother’s estate for her brother Ian’s and her education, meant she could enrol at Somerville House in 1938. It was from this point that her education really began. Her father believed that a girl’s education finished at the age of fifteen, but the head mistress, Miss E. Frances Craig, saw something in Betty and persuaded her father to let her finish her senior schooling. One of her art teachers of that period, Patricia Prentice not only introduced Betty to the practice of painting and drawing, but also art history, ballet and music, and encouraged her to expand her horizons. Betty even went on weekend outdoor painting trips with Pat, learning all she could to fill her thirst for creative knowledge.
A trip with her family to the Queensland National Art Gallery in Gregory Terrace around this time was also a launching pad for her creativity, where she could get up close and personal with the paintings on the wall. After she left school she joined the ‘Younger Artist’s Group’ attached to the Royal Queensland Art Society, and furthered her studies with Caroline Barker and Richard Rodier Rivron. She sailed to England in February, 1952 and studied at the South West Essex Technical College, and later was accepted to the Royal College of Art for further study. She married her husband Roy Churcher, a student studying at the Slade, in 1955 and the couple returned to Brisbane in 1957 and set up classes in the old RQAS Attic Studio in the School of Arts building in Anne Street.
From 1959 to 1966 the Churcher family expanded with four sons, Ben, Paul, Peter and Tim. This, however, left little time for painting, although she did teach part-time at the Central Technical College (now the Qld College of Art) until 1971. When her youngest child started school that year, painter William Robinson encouraged her to take on a lecturer’s position at the Kelvin Grove Teachers College. She taught art and art history, but was also in charge of the college’s gallery until she left in 1978. In 1979 she moved to Melbourne, where she lectured in art history and theory at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), she was later promoted to the dean of art and design. Further promotion in the arts gave Betty a chance of directorship of a state gallery, and from 1987-1990 she was the director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. She then succeeded James Mollison as the next and only woman director of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra from 1990-1997, and with her knowledge and influence she managed to bring some extraordinary overseas exhibitions to Australia, earning her the nickname ‘Betty Blockbuster’. She was an influential supporter of the arts, and over the years chaired the Australian Arts Council and was art critic for the Australian.
Following her retirement and with failing eyesight, she endeavoured to introduce Australians to art at all levels by launching into television, with programmes such as Take 5 and Hidden Treasures, both shown on the ABC. Her services to the arts have been acknowledged with three honorary doctorates from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Curtin University and the Australian National University, where she later became adjunct professor. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990, and later an Officer (AO) in 1996.
She left us with a broader understanding of art, and made us look deeper at the paintings and sculptures in our galleries and museums, to see the beauty and grandeur of each art work. As journalist Kathleen Noonan recently stated, “Betty Churcher, the illuminator, helps us open our eyes (and hearts).”
She is survived by her four sons, her grandchildren Saul, Charlotte, Tory, Reuben, Oliver, Isabel and Lucas. Her husband Roy died in 2014.