Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2014

Notebooks (2011), by Betty Churcher

Betty Churcher AO (b.1931) is well-known to most Australians. As Director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997, she gave us a reason to make repeated weekend visits to Canberra when she brought us wonderful ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, and she taught many of us how to look at art properly in her TV series Take Five and Hidden Treasures. For art-lovers like me who have no academic background in fine arts, her Notebooks are a valuable adjunct to her educational role…

As she explains in the Introduction to the 2011 Notebooks her father deplored education for girls and it was only thanks to a generous headmistress, Miss Craig at Somerville House Brisbane, that her fees were waived and she was able to complete her secondary education.  In her rather endearing self-deprecating style, she then tells how she made her way to London to follow the dream that had sustained her since her first childhood visit to the gallery in Brisbane.

A graduate of the Royal College of Art London, Churcher also holds a Master of Arts from the Courtauld Institute of Art.  For as long as her now failing eyesight held out, she would sketch artworks in the galleries that she visited, and jotted down notes about the paintings, especially if she was hoping to persuade the gallery to lend the artwork for exhibition in Australia.  Selections from these notebooks have now been assembled into books that every art-lover will want to have.  The first Notebooks was published in 2011, and its successor Australian Notebooks has just been released.

You can see examples of Churcher’s sketches and notes on the front cover of the book,  and the book is profusely illustrated with full colour reproductions of the paintings, accompanied by her sketches.  But be warned, immersing yourself in this wonderful book will give you itchy feet and make you long to be in the galleries represented so that you can see for yourself the paintings so lovingly described.

Churcher begins with the National Gallery in London.  The first painting that she discusses is Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream (1655):

Like Shakespeare, Rembrandt can bring us face to face with those endearing aspects of human nature, and in this little painting of Hendrickje bathing we witness the human condition at its most enchanting and vulnerable – and 49-year-old Rembrandt at the height of his powers as a painter of human emotion.

Hendrickje is self-absorbed – she seems not to be aware of us, and wades shin-deep into the water, stepping cautiously, carefully feeling her way for a secure footing on the river bed.  There is a breathtaking tenderness in the way the legs break the surface of the water with a tiny ripple, and against the brisk, muscular impasto of the cotton shift, the small spiral of hair that falls down is infinitely delicate and seductive.

I have written a note to myself as I stood drawing in the National Gallery,  ‘No reproduction captures the look of girlish glee on Hendrickje’s face – it is pure delight – on her part and on the part of Rembrandt who observes’: Rembrandt paints the contentment of another warm body.

And above my drawing of her knees I’ve written, ‘There is a feeling of secret delight – almost illicit delight’. It may be, as Sir Anthony Blunt suggests in Neil McLaren’s catalogue of Dutch paintings in the National Gallery, that she is laughing at what she sees reflected in the water – that she can see beneath her shift, although we can’t.

I’ve also noted that ‘they’re good serviceable knees’.  They’re not the knees of a Greek goddess; they’ve been down scrubbing floors, and trudging to market, but the dark triangle of shadow cast by the hooked-up shift suggests that they’re also alluring in bed. (p.55)

Now, doesn’t that make you want to get on a plane to see for yourself?!  There is nothing like seeing the real thing… I remember a somewhat similar experience when I first saw that famous portrait of Elizabeth 1, the Ditchley portrait which I had only ever seen in reproductions in history books. I was stunned to realise that each of those little coloured dots in the squares on her gown were jewels.  This portrait was as much about the astronomical wealth of the queen as it was about her power, something I did not appreciate until I stood dwarfed before it.  Yes, size does matter!

From the National Gallery in London, Churcher then adds to the itinerary for my next overseas trip with a visit to Kenwood House and the Courtauld; to the Metropolitan in New York; to Le Petit Palais in Paris; to the Prado in Madrid and to the Doria Pamphilj in Rome.  In all these galleries she has favourite paintings which she places in context and describes in fascinating detail.  She shows us that it’s worthwhile reading up on ancient myths and legends in order to fully appreciate the paintings, but what’s most important is to take the time to look properly rather than rush about trying to see everything.  It takes a long time to read this book because it’s important to ‘read’ Churcher’s sketches as well as what she says about the placement of light and shadows, the composition of the paintings, and the patterns of lines and shapes; it’s her sketches that focus the eye where it should be when looking at the reproductions of the paintings in the book.  There are paintings here that I have seen in situ, and I thought I’d looked at them properly, but I never noticed the beggar in The Triumph of Bacchus by Velasquez  or the drink proffered to the Infanta in Las Meninas.  I hope I will know better next time…

I don’t have an iPad, but if I did, I would want to have this book with me in electronic form when travelling.   I don’t find an iPad comfortable to read with – too shiny, not the right shape – but it would be perfect for reading up on the paintings over breakfast or on the tube en route to the gallery, because it could show the full colour illustrations which a Kindle can’t do.

Highly recommended.

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: Notebooks
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (University of Melbourne Publishing)  2011
ISBN: 9780522858426
Source: Kingston Library



  1. I have fondled this book a few times, and seen her interviewed about it. It’s a fascinating idea that she came up with isn’t it. I agree re reading on an iPad. The only real books I put on mine are travel guides like Lonely Planet i.e. books you don’t read intently. I also bought the Prado Guide – a HUGE book/document/app as it turned out but it the iPad manages the art well. I like your idea of Betty Churcher’s book on the iPad. Will give it a thought.


    • I don’t think there was an app when we were in Spain, it seems so long ago now but it was only 2010. I bet there’s one for the Louvre and the British galleries now, I had to lug around the print ones which were not handbag friendly!


      • No, I was thrilled with the app BUT I couldn’t use it IN the building. My I was mad but for some reason that we didn’t understand with their English they had it blocked so you could only use it elsewhere but not when you were walking around.


        • That seems a bit counter-productive…


          • So we thought … It set me off on quite a grumpy track that day as I recollect as I thought I’d found a great way of helping me manage that huge place!


            • *chuckle* We got into trouble because I took a picture of Tim in the lobby!


              • Hmmm … Then they are clearly twitchy there, and overly so!


                • Maybe blocking apps in general is to protect against art thefts? Vandalism? Religious nuts? Terrorist threats? Maybe just protecting commercial turf?
                  LOL It makes an interesting contrast to the slackness at Italian museums…


                • I suspect it’s just commercial, but doesn’t make a lot of sense.


  2. Your review’s fantastic! The problem is that now I want to read this book and that I cannot afford it (even if I am sure that it’s worth the price).
    Australian ? Hum… My library says: ‘Hey! We’ve got all Peter Carey’s works in English: You want extra? Please, don’t be foolish…’ ;)
    But thanks for your thoughts: I will pay more attention in museums now.


    • Hello Flo, thanks for dropping by:)
      I always have to think twice about buying art books, that’s why this one is a library book, not my own copy. I suppose they’re expensive because of the cost of the colour reproductions.
      But your library should consider buying a copy because the art works she talks about are international artists and the galleries she visits are mostly in Europe.
      Maybe someone who loves you will buy you a copy for your birthday *smile*


  3. It is really extraordinary how the eye and thought of an artist, or of someone who loves an artist, can change your perception forever. I attended a series of lectures in Perugia in the nineties about Caravaggio – and of course we were able to trot off to see some originals! – and I’ve loved him ever since. I never would have been able to see him in the same way without those lectures.


    • I know what you mean: I was never interested in Rothko until I took a bunch of students for a tour of the gallery guided by one of their education staff. I can’t begin to tell you how good this teacher was, she sat the kids (and me) down in front of a slab of red and had us all fascinated from the get-go. It’s all about learning what to look for.


      • Yes, exactly the same thing applies for literature, when you ‘do’ a book or a poem as a student (depending on the teacher!)


        • I think I have been blessed with many good teachers. I went to so many schools I don’t remember many names, but the cumulative effect is that I learned to love books, music, art, science, maths and politics, and nobody made me do sport!


  4. […] system of art history‘.  He rejects the ‘quiet contemplation of images’ that Betty Churcher describes with such captivating joy.  He wants action.  (Try bungee-jumping, I thought rebelliously, and I hope the rope breaks, […]


  5. […] written about Betty Churcher (1931-2015) before.  She was an arts administrator, well-known and much-admired as the director of […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: