Betty Churcher: Notebooks - Art Collector

6 May 2011 | In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes sketching as a way to “digest” a place. Unlike taking a happy-snap, he argues that sketching is something actively helps you to understand it and remember it.

It’s something Betty Churcher, the former director of the National Gallery of Australia, seems to have known intuitively from a young age. She has sketched throughout her life and precociously never understood when other children said they couldn’t draw.

But after studying at art school in London, she returned to Australia with her husband, began a family and stopped painting. (Humbly, she says it wasn’t the birth of her sons that stopped her from becoming a professional artist but rather that she didn’t think she had what it took – as she puts it “some essential ingredient” was missing.)

Instead she ended up in teaching and moved from there to the directorship of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and then the top post at the National Gallery of Australia, where she oversaw a string of blockbusters before stepping down in 1997.

When her eyesight began to deteriorate in 2003 she set off around the world to visit her favourite works of art once last time ¬– Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Courbet and Cezanne among them. And in order to imprint them on her memory she sketched them.

The drawings have now been reproduced in
Notebooks. Churcher is such a well-known personality in the Australian art world that the novel-sized book could easily be read as a visual journal, recording how Churcher, with positivity and courage, faced a momentous change in her life.

But it’s also an informal art history course. Churcher’s sketches, and the notes she’s scribbled in their margins, say much about how these masterpieces have been created. The short essays she’s written to accompany them are also testament to her ability make art accessible to a general audience.

Churcher also echoes de Botton’s observation about sketching when she writes: “With everything I have drawn I can now close my eyes and reconstruct the picture in my mind’s eye, line by line and paint-stroke by paint-stroke.”

Jane O'Sullivan

Notebooks is published by Miegunyah Press (254 pages, paperback)

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