Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2018

The Forgotten Notebook, by Betty Churcher

This is just a quick review to let you know about another one of Betty Churcher’s wonderful ‘notebooks’.

I’ve written about Betty Churcher (1931-2015) before.  She was an arts administrator, well-known and much-admired as the director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990-1997.  People flocked in their thousands to view the blockbuster exhibitions she organised, and she shared her love of art in a wonderful TV series called Hidden Treasures.

And she also published her notebooks, which are a delight for amateur art-lovers like me.  As she travelled the world organising loans for her exhibitions, she would sketch aspects of the paintings she admired in her notebooks, usually annotating them as well.  In published form, these notebooks contain her sketches and annotations, reproductions of the paintings and her own thoughts about them, written in her trademark unpretentious style.  The Forgotten Notebook is her third, and sadly, her last.  Using a notebook she’d forgotten about, it was written not long before she died, and published posthumously.

I think it’s the best of them all.  That’s partly because it is so beautifully produced – larger than its predecessors so you can see the paintings better, but also because the paintings in it are the paintings I love. Each one is set in context, there is a bit of history about the painting (who it was painted for, who bought it and so on) and then there is discussion about the painting itself.  Each one gets about ten pages, which include a full colour page reproduction of the painting, and a full page detail of the painting as well as her sketch.

Major artists included are Leonardo Da Vinci, Piero Della Francesca, Bellili, Titian, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Poussin, Goya, Manet and Courbet and others as well.  I particularly liked the Vermeers she has chosen because they are the ones in American galleries that I haven’t visited.  I have seen ‘Girl with the Red Hat’ and ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ in other books we have about Vermeer, but Betty Churcher’s words bring them alive because she draws attention to the small details that one can usually only notice when looking at the actual painting.

For example:

Vermeer has opened one of the top windows to allow only one beam of light to fall down on this quiet, domestic scene.  And just as he did in the case of Girl with a Red Hat, where he set his model against the dull ochre of a tapestry, here he places the girl in front of a very dark religious picture on the wall. This allows the light to illuminate her hands, the scales, her fur-lined gown and her white cotton headscarf.  Vermeer is a master of tactile reality – whether it’s the touch of fingers on the tabletop, the delicacy of the fingers holding the scales, the imagined feel of a plaster wall under the hand or the sense of a fur lining.

However, she doesn’t seem to be weighing gold, because Vermeer always used lead-tin yellow when painting gold, and there is no trace of lead-tin. In the seventeenth century, gold and silver coins were sometimes shaved or ‘clipped’ and only scales could gauge their true value.  You can see three gold coins lined up on the edge of the table , front right.  If she is weighing minute gold shavings this might be why she is holding the balance so gingerly, steadying herself with her left hand on the table top.

What fascinated me was the hand holding the scales – that little finger poised horizontally.  If you let your eye run up the painting from the little finger, up the plaster wall, almost to the top framing edge, you will see that a nail has been driven into the wall – it casts a tiny shadow –  and to the left of that nail is a hole, where a nail has been pulled out, taking a tiny chip or plaster with it; this shows the influence of the Italian artist Caravaggio, who included every crack in the sole of a bare foot, every tear in a cloth jacket. And the miraculous things about Vermeer, like Caravaggio, is that no detail is too small to escape his attention, but never does such a small detail impose itself on the bigger picture.  (p. 115-119)

The Forgotten Notebook would make a lovely gift for anyone who loves art.

Image credits: Girl with a Red Hat (Wikipedia Commons) and Woman with a Balance (Wikipedia Commons)

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: The Forgotten Notebook
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780522868678
Source: Kingston Library




    • If you love art, these books are great.


  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. I am happy to hear of her third book. I have the first two and love her books, thanks for sharing this third one. 🐧🤠


    • I didn’t know about this third one at all until I saw it in the library.
      PS Are you back from O/S now?


      • No I am still in Californi6tha. Meeting up with blogger Hogglestock weekend of 21st. Home on 26th. I just ordered the 3rd hurcher book and her Turner one from Amazon. Should be there when I get home. Just love her work.


        • A lovely book waiting for you at home – that’s nice:)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading that description at the end, I love that the more you look at a painting the more you see.


  5. I have one of her notebooks, but haven’t had a chance to spend time with it, which makes me feel very sad. (I’m on the road again, though, so am not sure which one I have.) I think I need to change my reading strategy somewhat to fit some books like this in.


  6. I’ll get this. I was a great admirer of Betty Churcher.


  7. Sorry about the tardy response, Bill, Sue and Jan: I’ve been living the life of Riley, belatedly celebrating my birthday here:


    • Happy Birthday! Did you do any driving in the Grampians?


      • No, I’m afraid not. We had what’s called a Chef’s Pack: a tour of the cellar on Saturday afternoon, a delicious 5 course meal on Saturday night, a tour of the kitchen garden (the biggest in Australia and the source and inspiration for the menu) and then we drove home.


    • Happy Birthday Lisa … looks really lovely. I had to look up where Dunkeld was!


      • It’s a lovely spot. We first discovered it in 2000-1 when we stayed at a farm property at the foot of the Grampians, it’s changed a lot since then.


        • It’s a part of Victoria I don’t know at all.


          • LOL It’s not often I have the march on you when it comes to travelling Australia!
            Seriously, if you’ve never been in that part of the world, set aside at least a week (like we had in 2001/2, we celebrated *that* New Year there) and use Dunkeld as a base to go exploring. (We were 20 minutes by car from the town on a farm property built at the turn of the previous century. It’s probably been touristified by now but we enjoyed no phone, no TV etc and watching the roos coming in to feed at dusk. There is the Blue Lake, Halls Gap, and so many interesting places all around. At this time of the year with all the wattle coming into bloom it’s just gorgeous.


            • Haha Lisa! Victoria may be the main place you have the march but I’m working on rectifying that as I’m enjoying getting to know the state! The Grampians and the mallee are on my list.


  8. […] The Forgotten Notebook by Betty Churcher […]


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