• A Portrait of Betty Churcher and the 2015 Archibald Prize
  • Jean Burman
A Portrait of Betty Churcher and the 2015 Archibald Prize

It was a tropical winter night and a huge white marquee had been erected out on the lawn of the adjacent old Courthouse to accommodate the beautiful, the influential, and anyone else who had been lucky enough to secure an invitation to the gala event of the year.

What ensued was a magical night of nights representing the culmination of many years of lobbying on behalf of the arts community, art aficionados, enthusiasts and practicing artists to establish an Art Gallery of their own.

The occasion was the opening of the prestigious Cairns Regional Gallery. The year was 1995.

Earlier in the evening, as the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder crammed into the Gallery space waiting for the ribbon to be cut and the endless speeches to be made, I found myself pressed up against one of the most fascinating paintings I had ever seen.

The speeches wore on as I stood wriggling my toes inside my impossibly high heels, inspecting the cracks in the brand new timber floor [which as one of the founding Patrons, I had apparently been partially responsible for] my eyes finally came to rest at the bottom of this huge painting.

It wasn’t so much the subject matter that had caught my eye;  I was standing far too close for that. It was the leaves I had become oddly transfixed with, how the artist had captured them in flight, and how he had put "air" between them and the ground by the clever placement of shadows. I swear those leaves were alive! I could hear them falling, and I was hooked! 

That was the night I learned about painting shadows.

That was the night I met Betty Churcher.

The painting, of course, was “Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher [one of Betty Churcher’s favourite paintings as a child] and had been borrowed for the event from the Queensland Art Gallery.

Betty Churcher was a charismatic, charming, witty, and down to earth woman. As head of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997, she brought an aliveness and enterprise to the institution. 

Betty was a woman of immense personal power and presence.

Her death, earlier this year, was a sad loss, not only to the art world, but also to the legions of people who enjoyed her many art documentaries and books, through which she shared her passion for the arts and the art world that became the hallmark of her extraordinary life.

At last year’s Sydney Writers Festival Betty Churcher was interviewed by 2011 Archibald Prize winning artist Ben Quilty. It was a strange juxtaposition of interviewer and interviewee and more than once the roles were reversed as Betty lapsed into interviewing Ben to humorous applause.

It was a revealing look at a warm, wonderful, down to earth woman, who had lived life on her own terms, in her own way, with few regrets.

I envied her achievements [in the best kind of way] and noted with interest her observation, that women who had become mothers, rarely achieved the kind of notoriety in the art world that male artists enjoyed.

This is something I had noted as well… and had written about before;  how women artists are left so often in need of a wife... you know… someone to mop up the mess… take care of the details [and the kids]… and let them get on with their work [grin]

The interview poignantly revealed how she had longed to be an artist in her own right, yet despite accruing a formidable legacy of works, she [astonishingly] still did not feel she had achieved that goal!

Odd isn’t it? How hard we are on ourselves… and how even the best of us underestimate our own true worth as artists and women.

From the interview, I learned how Betty Churcher so loved the painting I had been standing beside all those years before at the opening of the Cairns Regional Gallery.  She had been captivated by the leaves as well!

I also learned, that she had attended the same school as I had, albeit a number of years before me. Australia's national treasure Margaret Olley OAM was also a past student. But in all the years I had been at Somerville House [and incidentally a student of the arts] not a mention had been made of either woman. This leads me to suspect that certainly Margaret [at least] might have been a bit of a tearaway in her years there, and for some strange reason, part of me kind of hoped that she had!

Back then the arts might not have been seen as an appropriate choice of profession for a young woman in want of a proper career [grin]

Those were the times I guess, and wow, how they have changed. Although from my perspective, I should have liked to have known that I was following in the footsteps of these wonderful women. Would it have made a difference? Yes. Probably. 

Betty Churcher died earlier this year. Her son the esteemed artist Peter Churcher recently painted her for the very last time, and in my opinion, has captured what could only be described as the 'exquisite essence' of his mother in his very personal portrait entry in this years 2015 Archibald Prize.

To me it is the only contender, the clear winner, and the obvious choice, regardless of whichever controversial decision the trustees of the Gallery of NSW ultimately make for the 2015 Archibald Prize.

What do you think?

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  • Jean Burman

Comments on this post ( 2 )

  • Jul 18, 2015

    Jean – I was captivated by your writing of such a great artist, a great & tireless person, and the fact that Art talent was not appreciated or even acknowledged in years gone by. I really don’t think the situation has changed much. I didn’t realise that she went to Somerville. I could go on writing my thoughts to you but I need to get moving . I have a long drive to a place called Cardwell where maybe – just maybe, we could touch on this subject in a little more depth.

    — Lynne Smith

  • Jul 19, 2015

    Well we did Lynne… and wasn’t it great? Thanks for your comment [and for driving all that way] :)

    — Jean

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