Betty Churcher releases follow-up book to 2011 memoir Notebooks

You would think that the former director of a major art gallery would have little left to discover in the art world.

But when Betty Churcher embarked on her latest book, she was stunned by how many details in how many paintings, even those she had been looking at regularly her whole life, she had never noticed.

Former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher.
Former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher. Photo: Graham Tidy

Australian Notebooks is the follow-up volume to her successful 2011 memoir Notebooks, in which she toured some of the world's largest galleries and shared sketches of her favourite works.

Churcher, director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997, had long been in the habit of sketching her favourite works, partly as a way of committing them to memory, and partly to remind her of where they were.

When Louise Adler, of Melbourne University Press, suggested she make a book of her sketches, she never thought it would take off, but Notebooks proved so popular she agreed to do another volume, covering the major state and territory galleries of Australia.

The book includes reflections on Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan and John Olsen, as well as masterpieces by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Willem de Kooning, whose Woman V is part of the National Gallery's collection in Canberra.


"[Adler] suggested going around Australian galleries and I said, 'I don't know about that', because the others had been done unself-consciously, let's just say," she said.

"These ones, although they were not unself-conscious, they turned out to be a wonderful revelation for me, because you don't get inside the head of the artist until you've got a pencil in your hand and I made discoveries in pictures that I'd known since I was a schoolgirl."

For example, she said that while she had looked at Arthur Streeton's Fire's On hundreds of time, she had never noticed the "flurry of activity" on the hill as the miner's family race towards the fire.

She said that because she was restricted to just six to eight paintings per gallery, it was difficult to select works to cover and many missed out.

The book doesn't include any works by the landscape painter Elioth Gruner, whose works are now hanging in a major survey exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, even though she knows many by heart.

Australian Notebooks, by Betty Churcher, is published by Melbourne University Press and is due out in April. Betty Churcher will be speaking at a Canberra Times/ ANU literary event at Manning Clark Theatre on April 24 at 6pm.