Canberra's treasure trove
Former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Betty Churcher, at her home in Wamboin. Photo: Graham Tidy
The word ''treasure'' is practically synonymous with Betty Churcher, and not just because of her television series. The former director of the National Gallery is pretty much a national treasure herself and, like many of them, she resides within the reaches of Canberra.
Thus, she has as much reason to celebrate Canberra's centenary as any. She well remembers the conversation she had with her husband, artist Roy Churcher, more than two decades ago.
''After this is over, we can move anywhere you like.'' That was the promise she made to him upon being appointed director of the gallery in 1990. After years of following her around the country to accommodate her various jobs, it was surely time for Roy to have a say. And, Betty thought, several years in Canberra would surely translate to carte blanche when it came to choosing a more permanent place to settle.
Author of the book Treasures of Canberra, Lucy Quinn. Photo: Jay Cronan
However, 23 years later, here they are. It was, Churcher says, just too hard to leave. It's not only about the hills outside her Wamboin home, or her proximity to the repository of some of the world's greatest artworks. It's everything in between as well.
At almost 82, Churcher still takes delight in introducing people to the many facets of the public collections in Australia's national institutions, and can reel off casual backstories for any given item as though she were talking about her children.
As a celebration of these treasures, she has teamed up with Canberra artist Lucy Quinn to produce a book highlighting 10 of the city's best public collections.
John Webber's painting of Captain James Cook in the National Portrait Gallery.
Quinn, who works as a learning facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery, is passionate about making art accessible, and says she jumped at the chance to work with Churcher.
''One of the fantastic things about Betty is she's really down to earth and she makes things very accessible without dumbing down the content - an incredible and valuable talent, and very important to these institutions,'' she says. ''They're these custodians of these incredible collections, but part of their job is access, making sure people can see them, instead of putting them in a vault and hiding them away. It's actually creating those connections and keeping that relevance to society.''
Due to be published in February, Treasures of Canberra is an eclectic ramble through some of Canberra's most valuable - and often hidden - collections, although the crux of the book is that every item is owned by the people.
Ivor Hele's Battlefield Burial of Three NCOs.
Here, then, are 10 favourites from between the pages.
Betty Churcher's Top Five
The Brancusi Birds at the National Gallery
Inside Churcher's old stamping ground, there's a serene pool of water at the bottom of a ramp containing two striking marble sculptures - the Brancusi birds (pictured).
''Nobody knows it, but they're probably the most valuable thing [in the gallery],'' she says. ''Everybody thinks Blue Poles is the most valuable thing, but the Brancusi birds are, because they're unique.''
Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi spent a decade creating birds, and these graceful twists of marble - birdlike in spirit, rather than in literal form - were his final two, part of a series he called L'oiseau dans l'espace (Bird in Space).
''He's pushing the strength of marble to its utmost, where they come in very narrow, and then this huge weight of marble that goes soaring up,'' Churcher says. ''He was trying to get the feeling of freedom of soaring, as if the heavens were sort of enormous.''
In the 1930s, the black-and-white pair were bought from the artist by an Indian prince, who fancied them for a temple for meditation he had planned for his palace grounds. Brancusi, who had always wanted to combine his sculpture with architecture, jumped at the chance to design the temple, which would have a reflecting pool in the centre flanked by three of his birds - the two marble versions and a third in bronze - and a circular hole in the ceiling.
''Anyway, poor old Brancusi sent his birds off to India, and then he kept writing to the prince to try to explain what he was trying to do with those birds,'' Churcher says. ''Then he went over to India, and the prince was off on a tiger hunt. He'd lost interest in the whole project!'' Brancusi would spend a month or two waiting around the palace for the prince to return before eventually giving up, leaving his birds to be relegated to the dining room. It was from this dining room that the gallery's founding director, James Mollison, would eventually buy the birds in 1973.
Captain James Cook at the National Portrait Gallery
Over at the National Portrait Gallery, a portrait of Captain James Cook has caught Churcher's eye on numerous occasions. It's one of three painted by John Webber, an artist who was on Cook's last voyage.
''He painted several portraits of Captain Cook, but Mrs Cook, when she saw them, said, 'No, I don't like them. Where's my gentle husband? I don't see him there,''' Churcher says.
The rigours of 10 years at sea had not been kind to Cook's face or temper, and it showed. Mrs Cook couldn't have known then that her husband, usually considered a fair and reasonable captain, had been suffering from an unknown tropical parasite by the second half of the third voyage. His behaviour towards his crew became irrational, and his temper was frayed. Webber, having spent three years at seas with Cook, allowed this ill temper to show in his work.
After Mrs Cook's comment following Cook's poignant death at the hands of locals in Hawaii, Webber created this final, posthumous portrait. ''He's brought Cook up close to the front and he's standing; it was convention to have a sea captain standing against a rock,'' Churcher says. ''He doesn't have his telescope in his hand, which is the other convention. His hand is just down like that, painted as if he were a gentleman - an 18th-century gentleman, not a sea captain, and he made his face a little gentler."
She says the slightly inaccurate portrait masks a chapter of historical accidents that should never have happened.
''Poor old Captain Cook,'' Churcher says.
William Bligh's notebook at the National Library
Churcher could spend days talking about Captain Cook, and indeed has selected Cook's diaries as one of her favourite items at the National Library.
But she's also chosen the notebook (pictured) Captain William Bligh carried in his breast pocket.
''I was interested in the fact that here was a man who'd occasioned two rebellions, and yet he seemed such a fair man, the way he divided up the food … It was a terrible journey they did, right from almost near the Society Islands, right through Carpentaria, right across to Batavia in East Timor, and he got them there alive,'' Churcher says.
''You're holding this book in your hand and you think, 'This is the very book.' It's extraordinary! It's got all his little notes and his drawings.''
The notebook even contains a list of the mutineers responsible for the events on the Bounty of April 28, 1789, when Bligh and his followers were set adrift.
The cause of the mutiny remains uncertain, but might have stemmed from the frustrations of life at sea after an extended sojourn in Tahiti. The crew had been there to obtain breadfruit trees, which were to be transported to the West Indies as an experimental food for slaves.
Detailed descriptions in the notebook suggest Bligh's exacting nature could well have contributed to the crew's rebellion.
''There's a bit where Bligh says they felt the women of Tahiti were so comely and so accommodating and so gentle that they felt that they couldn't do better. And I think he was disgusted with Fletcher Christian for falling for it,'' says Churcher, with some delight.
''They had to wait in Tahiti for breadfruit trees they had to get them to a certain degree of maturity before they sailed. So they were five months there and the men went native. But he didn't! Not Bligh.''
Imants Tillers at the Canberra Museum and Gallery
At CMAG - not a national institution, but an important Canberra collection nonetheless, Churcher is drawn to a work by Imants Tillers, one of a series based in the Cooma-Monaro area titled Nature Speaks: AT.
''He paints on those little canvas boards and he numbers each one,'' she says. ''He'd been doing it since about 1980, so it's now vast.
''I think that may have started when he was a student at Sydney University. He was an architecture student and he won the university medal, so he's a very bright chap.''
This piece, There Is No Horizon, is one of these grid works that forms a larger whole, often using aspects of work by other artists to make a new statement.
Tillers helped avant-garde duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude with one their famous nature-based artworks, Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, in which Little Bay in Sydney was wrapped in 90,000 square metres of synthetic fabric.
''I think that alerted him to the idea that a work of art doesn't have to be bound by a frame to hang on the wall, a work of art can be a vast thing … It's big, it's an idea, it's a concept, and I think that's what this work is,'' she says.
''Ostensibly it's all one work, but you can't see it all at one time, any more than you can see the Barrier Reef, but you can see a little bit of it, and you can get the concept of the reef, it's there, a vast thing stretching out.''
Battlefield Burial at the Australian War Memorial
While there are plenty of fascinating objects in the memorial collection, Churcher is irresistibly drawn to its impressive art collection.
One painting that stands out is Ivor Hele's Battlefield Burial of three NCOs, a scene captured during World War II following a 1943 battle in New Guinea. It was a short battle on a hill called Timbered Knoll, with the allied forces beating the Japanese into retreat. Three Australian soldiers were killed.
The burial took place, as was the custom, deep in the jungle, and official war photographer and filmmaker Damien Parer was also there to capture the scene of men digging the grave and honouring their fallen comrades.
''The battle was over at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so he didn't have much light, and then it started to rain halfway through the ceremony, so he had to try and get his film,'' she says.
''Parer didn't do the corpses because he didn't like to do that. He did it after they'd buried them with the three crosses … The men are there in their slicky waterproofs, and he used the rain dripping off their capes as a symbol of the whole horror of burying your comrades in the mud, because that's what it was, it was just this awful, slimy mud.''
But Hele, unusually for official sketch artists, drew the men digging the grave, with the three corpses right in the foreground.
''He must have been only about the length of this table away from them. So I thought it would be nice to use a shot from Damien Parer's film and the drawing that Hele made on the spot and then the painting that he made back in his Adelaide studio.''
Lucy Quinn's Top Five
The ''Sundowner'' Bean car at the National Museum
Quinn was particularly taken by the museum's large collection of vehicles, in which there are historical firsts.
She was especially fascinated by the Sundowner Bean car (pictured on page 7), which was driven from London to Melbourne by Australian adventurer Francis Birtles. He used bicycles to conquer previously unknown routes and set speed records in the early 20th century.
''He was one of those really interesting characters in the 1920s - pretty rough round the edges by the sound of it, and pretty adventurous,'' Quinn says. ''He did a lot of overland records across Australia, which sounds really crazy when you think about what the infrastructure of roads is like now in Australia.
''One of the things about this [exhibition] is you say treasure and the word evokes glitter and gold and shiny things, but a lot of the treasures that we have are actually battered and worn and aged, and might have been forgotten about or lost and then re-found.
''Part of the thing that really captivated me about Birtles's adventure was the car is an amazing object, but when you read his own recollections of his journey - that's one of the fabulous things about Canberra, you can go to the National Library and find a first-edition copy and read it - it was a different era of travel. The sense of boundaries or borders is not there in the way it would be in the contemporary sense. He's describing travelling through mountains and it's actually quite hard to ascertain where in the world he actually is.''
Damien Parer's Oscar at the National Film and Sound Archive
Speaking of battered-looking items, Quinn also gets excited about Australia's first Oscar, awarded for 1943 for a film by official war photographer and filmmaker Damien Parer.
Called Kokoda Front Line!, the film was an edition of the weekly newsreel Cinesound Review, and was filmed on New Guinea's blood-soaked Kokoda Track.
Shaped like a classical Oscar, the statue is especially dishevelled because it was created using war metal, the usual resources being unavailable due to rationing. Its inscription reads: ''To Kokoda Front Line, for effectiveness in portraying simply yet forcefully the scene of war in New Guinea, and for its moving presentation of the bravery and fortitude of our Australian Comrades in Arms.''
''It was really exciting for Australia but the thing that was quite tragic about it was that Parer had actually died not long before it was awarded. He was killed in the Pacific because he basically just got too close to the action,'' Quinn says. The plaster and enamel statue was accepted by the film's producer, Ken G. Hall, with the understanding it would be replaced with a proper version. Curiously, there is a different version of the award in the Australian War Memorial's collection, with little information about where it came from. Quinn surmises that Hall kept the temporary version and gave it to the National Film and Sound Archive to ensure Parer would be properly recognised as an individual artist, rather than an employee of the then Department of Information.
''Kokoda Front Line! is a very emotive film. He introduces it at the start and he's almost making an appeal for people in Australia to realise how dire the situation is, how close the front is to home and the co-operation or partnership that's occurring through New Guinea.''
Marion Mahony Griffin's drawings at the National Archives
It's generally accepted that Marion Mahony Griffin (above) had as much to do with the design of Canberra as her more famous husband, Walter, and her dreamlike renderings of the capital held in the National Archives bear this out.
The couple were, in fact, the perfect team: he was a stellar architect in terms of three-dimensional imaginings, and she the gifted draftsperson. Without her delicate watercolours, which came, almost late, rolled up with the rest of their entry, it's possible the design would never have been selected.
''People have been more of a champion of her,'' Quinn says. ''She had a real talent for envisaging and realising on paper the potential for a design, and the interest in landscape as well as architecture is something that is really, really important.''
She's especially taken by the fact that Mahony Griffin made the drawings from across the sea, in America, without having seen the site for Australia's capital up close. All she had to go on was the competition kit, which included a topography map of the future city's contours. ''It was a really successful realisation of the space, particularly the view from the summit of Mount Ainslie,'' Quinn says. ''One of the things I mention in the book is that when you look at that picture, if you've actually been up there and looked off Mount Ainslie, you feel a sense of recognition, and that's absolutely uncanny because she hadn't visited the site, and there's something about the colour and the tone, even the foliage of the trees. They could be eucalyptus trees - you'd believe it.''
The Magna Carta in the Parliament House Collection
Quinn is always tickled when she thinks about the first time she went to check out the Magna Carta on display at Parliament House. ''I was watching people coming up and looking at it and a man said very loudly, 'Oh yes, but it's a fake.' It's almost like people wouldn't believe that we'd actually have a Magna Carta here in Australia.'' Of course, it's not a fake at all - far from it. This 1297 edition of the founding document of Australia's justice system is one of four known copies left in the world.
It was bought by the Menzies government in 1952 for £12,500, a much-larger sum than was offered by the British Museum when its existence was discovered. Another of the four remaining copies was recently bought by the US government for $US21.3 million ($20.2 million). Our version was found, incongruously, in a school in Sussex in the 1950s and, to this day, no one is sure how it got there. It was without its companion document, the Forest Charter, and the school decided to sell it, eventually taking it to Sotheby's when it couldn't get the asking price of £10,000.
The purchase was controversial, not least because it was kept a secret from the public until well after the deal was sealed and the document was on its way to Australia by ship. Its handlers took eight years to stabilise the document so it could be put on display, although it was displayed temporarily in Melbourne during the 1956 Olympics. It's now in a gas-controlled chamber, the same one that was designed in 1961.
''The thing that was also ironic was that the British Museum realised in 2007 that they actually had the companion forest charter for it that was missing,'' Quinn says. ''If they'd known that in 1951, they probably would have some grounds to veto the sale.''
Sidney Nolan's Riverbend at the Drill Hall Gallery
Quinn and Churcher agree that this book would not be complete without including Sidney Nolan's spectacular work Riverbend - a nine-panel painting mounted in a specially designed room at the ANU's Drill Hall Gallery.
Part of the Australian National University's permanent art collection, Riverbend was created by Nolan during three weeks when he was living in London, at the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965, and includes the artist's most pervasive theme: Ned Kelly. The nine panels, which are 11 metres long, show the infamous shootout in 1878 at Stringybark Creek.
''I think it's a really interesting landscape work because it breaks a lot of rules,'' Quinn says. ''It's segmented, but you have quite a physical reaction when you look at the work. I find when you look at it you actually find yourself scanning through the landscape, looking for these little figures, and you have these tantalising elements of his obsession with Ned Kelly. But that's not the dominating aspect of the work. It actually reminds me of being in the bush, when you walk into the bush and you're looking for a fixed point, and the trees themselves can almost be overwhelming. There is no skyline in that work; the light filters through the sky in the leaves. It's a very successful landscape piece.''
Treasures of Canberra by Betty Churcher and Lucy Quinn will be published by Halstead Press. A special Treasures Centenary map will be available next week from cafes, hotels and institutions. The map is also available as a smartphone app from January 17 on the Treasures page at canberra100.com.au