Australian Biography

Betty Churcher - full interview transcript

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So were there a lot of parties and other sorts of things? Could you describe that to me?

Yes, it was a pretty wild life at the Royal College of Art, and of course, bliss for me, who'd led this fairly cloistered life really in Australia. And, ah, I became a heavy smoker, which I continued into my late forties, early ... Really heavy smoker. And having not liked it at all, you know, trained myself to smoke, because I - it was one of the things that set me apart.

All of the students were smoking and there was I, not only was I an Australian, I was not smoking. So I made myself smoke. And I remember I used to have to run down a flight of stairs to the bathroom to rinse my mouth after each cigarette 'cause I found it so vile.

But you know, before I could say 'knife', I was addicted. And of course, the drinking gave you licence, you know. We'd have these college parties and whether you were drunk or whether you were not actually drunk, you pretended you were, because it gave you the freedom to behave outrageously, and everybody would just ... "Oh, she's not really like that. She's just drunk."

And did you behave outrageously?

Oh, yes. Indeed I did. And so did everyone else, I have to say.

And were you meeting interesting men at this time?

Yes, I was very much in love at the time with a teacher that I met at the first school, the Walthamstow school, and ah, we had an affair that went on for quite a while. And then I met another boy who was a student at the Royal College of Art, and then I met Roy.

So it really hasn't been a wide range of experience, I wouldn't say, but it was, ah, great fun. And Roy I met through a, a fellow student at the Royal College. He was - he and Roy were friends, and they had taken digs together in London, and so I went home with Pete and met Roy.

So how long have you known Roy?

Oh ... since about 1953.

And what was it that distinguished him from the two that had gone before that you ended with?

Um ... I wonder. I often wonder what it was. Yes. I [was] just really attracted to him physically to start with. Ah ... he was as tall as I was, which helped. Um ... I think you sort of sense someone's going to be, ah, husband material or not. I don't know. I just felt that, you know, he was someone that I would like to spend my life with. And that's how it's turned out.

When you say husband material, where were your ideas about what would make a good husband coming from? Where did you get that from?

I don't know. Probably, probably my father. I wonder where one does? But, ah, I was just looking for someone who wanted a family, and who would be prepared to have a family, and not all of them would. You know, many of them had no intention ever of having families, and that was really important to me even then.

And I don't know why. I just always - that was always on my agenda, to have children. And I thought - and I think there's a bit of genetic selection that goes on, you know. You look at someone and you think, "No, not a good genetic mix", subconsciously, subliminally. But, ah, but one of them would have been a disastrous genetic mix 'cause he was a schizophrenic, but, ah, very interesting, a great painter, fascinating man.

But when he was off air, he was seriously off air. But, ah, Roy was such a lovely sort of solid person after that. And Roy was the next one after Reg.

And did you have interests in common as well? Did you feel ...

Well he was at the Slade, so he was a painter. And, ah, yes, and I, I just think he - you know, I got to meet his family. He was the first one that I got involved in with the family, you know. The others were all ... just lovers, you know, that one met and parted ... [INTERRUPTION]

What do you think Roy saw in you at the time?

I don't know. One would have to ask him. I think he thought he was getting a wealthy woman, actually, because I had a friend at the time who had access to, ah, cartons of American cigarettes. Now I don't know how he had access to them, but he did. And, ah, at college parties I'd be there with my Chesterfields or whatever they were, and, you know, passing them around and I think he thought, "Oh well, here's a good thing".

And I thought I was getting onto a good thing too, because his friend Pete - they used to go home for the weekend - and Pete's mother used to send him up with a whole lot of goodies, you know. Lovely little mince pies and meat pies and cornish pasties, and that'd be their week's supply.

And I arrived on a Monday and thought, "Whoa, these boys live well", and moved through the ... a large amount of their food. And Roy said, "Don't bring that one home again. Don't bring that one home".

Because you ate too much?

I ate too much. So he - I thought I'd struck it rich and he thought he'd struck it rich and we had not.

But he was very different from the sort of person you might have thought that you should marry.

Oh yes, yes. Well, he didn't have a profession as such that would earn him a living, did he? And he had a beard, didn't he? And this is in the 1950s, and in the 1950s, when we came home, Roy's beard was enough to have policemen stop us in the street, to have the whole tram, you know, slowly turn around and solemnly stare at this bearded creature.

It was - it was extraordinary. Men did not wear beards in the 1950s. Roy's, I think, was the first beard in Brisbane. And it created a stir wherever he went. And I had to prepare Mum very carefully.

So by the time you'd graduated from the Royal College, you were together with Roy, and thinking already of marrying him?

We were married. We did get married, yes. We got married, um ... really, you know as you said, you know, it's much cheaper to live together, but I was in the situation with two old girls downstairs that would not tolerate it. You know, and I, I was sick of trying to - we used to clomp down to the stairs too to the front door too. Roy would then take off his shoes, I would walk back and he'd be carrying his shoes, creeping up behind me.

And one day this was happening and they opened the door. So I got sick of that. I thought, "No, this is silly". I said, "Let's get married". Put paid to that.

And you did.

And we did.

In London.

In London, and that was - you're not supposed to get married because they stopped your grant if you got married. They didn't want married students, for some reason. So we kept it a secret and, ah, when Roy was finishing off at the Slade, Coldstream his professor said - he was saying goodbye to Roy - he said, "Oh, by the way, give my regards to your wife". So they knew perfectly well. But we hadn't - just didn't let on.

Before we entirely leave the student days, you had some difficulty financially even while you were in the middle of your time away, weren't you? And you needed to appeal back to Brisbane for some support?

Yes, what happened - I, I, I wasn't really eligible for a grant, and all of the students were on county grants, from whichever county they'd come from. And when I got into the college, Robin Darwin, who was the principal, knew a man in Brisbane, um, Cummings, Professor Cummings, of - Professor of Architecture.

And he wrote to him and said, "Look, this student has just got in, this Australian student. She's very good, she has no grant. Is there nothing Australia can do for this? For a student that's got into a ... you know, a prestigious college in London?" And Cummings went to the Courier Mail, which is the paper in Queensland, and the Courier Mail started this extraordinary appeal.

And, ah, people were writing in and donating five shillings, and seventeen and six, and, and it allowed me to stay there. Otherwise I couldn't have done it, 'cause I didn't have the money. The money from the scholarship that I won from the Royal Queensland Art Society had given out long, long, long ago. And I had to pay for my rent, I had to pay - keep - we lived very frugally on the smell of an oily rag.

That's why the sight of all these pasties was such a great thing. I was living on bread and butter, just about, at the time. But, um, that grant from Australia saved my bacon.

What did you do after you graduated?

When we graduated, when I got - we both graduated together, actually, he from the Slade and I from the Royal College. I won a travelling scholarship, and ah, so we decided we'd make it do for both of us. So we'd travel to Italy. So we went to Paris first, had a week in Paris, and then we toted up our ah, budget and I saw we'd nearly spent half in a week. You know, I thought, "Oh, you know, how am I going to do this?" I thought I could perhaps go back and hide out in a little country town in England and then suddenly appear after three months.

But then we got ourselves to Italy and Italy was so cheap then. We lived for the rest of the time in Italy on what we'd spent in a week in Paris. Just hitchhiking around, and living in youth hostels, and visiting, you know, galleries and churches, and ... marvellous time.

Yes, Betty, what did you make of Italy and the galleries at that time?

I - it's an experience I shall never forget. You know, like walking into Giotto's Arena ... cathedral in Padua, you know, that is just such a mindblowing thing that no reproduction can never even give you a tiny glimpse of what it's like. And that was one of the things I realised, that reproductions were just so appalling.

I had to buy the postcards before I went into the gallery, because I knew the minute I'd seen the picture, I couldn't tolerate the postcard because the reproduction was so bad. So I'd buy them before I went in, put them in my bag, go and look at the pictures and then not look at them for a while. And then I had them, so I could tolerate them then.

But, ah, no, there's no substitute for the - the real thing. You just don't know what you're looking at when you looking at a reproduction.

And after Italy?

After Italy we came back and that's when we decided to come back to Australia, because really not to - just to see Mum and Dad again. Because I'd left for two years and I'd now been away for nearly six. So I thought, well it's just not fair to settle down in England and not see them again. And they'd not met Roy.

So we decided to come back. Now we could have both emigrated for five quid. You know, I'd been away six years, so I could have emigrated back home. Roy certainly could have, but we would have had to stay for two years and I had no intention of staying for two years.

So we paid our full fare and of course, that's the end of that story, isn't it? Here we are. But I, I - we left a whole flat of furniture in London, and books, and everything. We were only coming out for a very short while.

And what happened?

Roy fell in love with the place. Ah, all of our grand schemes of how we were going to raise the money to get back fell through. Roy was going to be a sugar-cane cutter, if you don't mind, in north Queensland. And it all just, you know, it was crazy pie in the eye [sic] stuff. Pie in the sky stuff. And, ah, you know, it just didn't happen.

And I think then, before long, I got pregnant with Ben, and, ah, that sort of really settled us down.

But Roy had no intention of going back, I don't think.

I'm worried about the flat full of books and furniture. What happened to that?

Well, Roy's brother moved in to mind it for us, and ah, he purchased it all. And Roy still bridles a bit about this. He paid us twenty-five pounds. But twenty-five pounds was jolly good. There were some lovely William Morris chairs.

There was some lovely things in it, but it was a good price for the time. Roy keeps saying, "Two William Morris chairs. Two this, and two that, for twenty-five pounds". But we were very grateful to get it. Some of the books he packed for us, and we got, we got the books sent out.

And so how did you feel? You said Roy fell in love with the place. How did you feel having had London open up a whole new world to you, you were now back in the one place you'd always wanted to get away from.

I didn't want to be. I really didn't want to be. It ... makes me feel a bit ashamed to say it, but I really didn't. I wanted to live in London. And you know, every time I go back, it is in a way my spiritual home. Every time I go back there, I think, "Yes, this is where I want to be". Like we've just been there, and I just find it so rich and so - so much to offer.

And yet I - then I come here and look at this wonderful landscape, and I think, well, you know, what a fool I am to even think about it, you know, because this is so beautiful and unparalleled, this clean air and beautiful environment that we live in.

But, ah, there's a bit of me that regrets that I didn't make my life there. Not a scrap of Roy. Not a single cell in Roy's body feels that.

What did he love so much about Australia?

I think the freedom. You see, as an Australian, you know, you move in there, and you don't worry about the restrictions that British born people worry about. Whether they're on this stratum of society or this stratum. It doesn't matter to us, you know. We, we didn't worry about it.

But Roy felt very constrained. Working class background, and I was sort of moving with, you know, I had a friend who was a viscountess and, you know, this really threw him. It didn't throw me in the least little bit 'cause I couldn't give two pins, you know, the fact that - whether they were nobility or upper middle class or lower middle class.

The one I fell in love with at Walthamstow was working class. And ah, that ability to range between classes, I think Roy really envied in me. But he is being born into it. Very difficult. It's not as easy to move freely around. And I think the freedom here, the so called 'classless society'. Well, it's not. We know that.

But, ah, compared to there, it was and is, I think.

How did you deal with the fact that you actually didn't want to be here and you were pregnant and clearly going to stay and not get the money to go back. How did you deal with that psychologically yourself?

Yes, it wasn't as strong as that. It was really a little bit of regret. I hated Brisbane. I feel disloyal saying this, but I really hated Brisbane.

Why?

Oh, well, I call it 'redneck territory'. You know, it was, um - especially when we came back in 1957, and ... it was very hard still for women to have any sort of a, a presence or anything. It was all about Roy, you know, and Roy's work, you know, and I was sort of - no hope of, you know, ever sort of competing on their ...

And that never was the case in London. You know, you never felt that. There was a different sort of restriction that I felt in Brisbane to the one that Roy felt in London. But, um, I didn't like the, ah, society. I didn't like - I didn't like anything. I hated the heat.

You know, this thing of going to Queensland for the climate. Perfect one day [sic] - 'Lovely one day, perfect the next'. Absolute torture in the summer months, you know, because it was a humid heat, which I really, really hated.

What were you doing in Brisbane?

I was - let me think. Oh, we started a school, Roy and I, when the sugar-cane cutting seemed to be not too practical. We, um - someone, a friend of mine from the Younger Artists' Group - I was just sitting on the tram with him, and I said we had nothing to do. We had to make some money. And he said, "Why don't you start teaching?"

And they said there was a little room at the top of the School of Arts in Brisbane. So we went along to the School of Art [sic] and sure enough, there was. You know in the - in roofs you've got like the tin roof then a little lantern with, you know, ventilation, and then the building proceeds down there? Well just in that little tin roof was this attic.

And, ah, they rented us that. So it was up about five flights of stairs, which of course didn't phase either of us one little bit. It was filthy. We had to scrub it, and the only tap was two flights down, so we had to carry buckets of water. And you'd scrub about a square foot of it and you'd have to empty the water again.

The real disadvantage of that was the heat, 'cause you're trapped under that tin roof. No windows, just that little bit of ventilation at the top. We used to have fans going, and put wet rags in the - and put them over the fan and then they'd dry to a crisp in about four seconds. But we had ... you know, the students would come up and we had quite a roaring business then.

Because the alternative there was the technical college, and it was really not very good. You couldn't do it now, but then, in the late '50s, we were offering quite an exotic and different alternative. And Roy is a very, very good teacher. Really good. You know, I'd see him talking earnestly to some student that I thought was hopeless and thinking, "Why is he spending all that time?" Well, you'd see this student slowly blossoming.

You know, he'd spotted something, you know, and given them a confidence and, ah, a way to go forward. And he really is a quite exceptionally [sic] good teacher, I think.

And how long did that last?

The school at - in the School of Art? It's very hard to remember. I became pregnant when we moved down into St Mary's Church. Jon Molvig who was the king of the kids, you know, he'd moved up from Sydney and he was the - the one that everybody, you know, swaggering around, doing the James Dean bit.

And he didn't like Roy. He thought Roy was an English poof, you know. And Roy liked him, I think. But he then decided to move off, to move south. And ah, so we rented the studio from - he allowed us to take over his studio, and that was very much better. That was underneath the church hall at St Mary's Church at Kangaroo Point, with a lovely patio thing overlooking the Brisbane River. It really was quite beautiful.

So from this horrid little dusty, dirty attic, to this lovely space under the, um, St Mary's Church. So that worked really well.

And the school continued there?

And the school continued, and it grew. It, you know, because it had more space, more room, more get-at-able. And I remember we used to do the most extraordinary things, 'cause the students didn't have much money. We used to prime up ... we'd buy butcher's paper, or, um... I forget what it was called. Ah, just very cheap paper and size it, glue size it, so that you could paint in oils on it.

And then Roy would buy paint in bulk and, and decant it into these little jars and sell them little jars of paint. And, um, that was really because, you know, they'd come along with these tiny little tubes of red and blue and green and put out a tiny little squidge of it. And that drove Roy mad, so he decided there's got to be a way around this, and his way around it was to sell them the paint, en masse.

What about your own painting?

Well that's about the time my own painting was getting a bit frantic. Frantic because I was ... I'd lost my direction, you know. My direction in London was just to try and encapsulate a human face, you know, and, and transfer it onto the canvas in all of its sort of personality, and solidity, and reality, and space.

And suddenly I felt - now whether it was Brisbane, you know, the gung-ho thing of Brisbane, and you felt that that was, you know, just not good enough ...

Molvig?

Molvig to a certain extent, yes. Jon Molvig, with his, you know, wild expressionism and here am I sort of painting like this. Um, but for whatever reason, I departed from what I should have been doing and tried desperately - and of course, I was just like throwing a child into a swimming pool without having taught them a lesson, because I was just floundering, splashing around there in paint, not really knowing what I was doing.

And to be honest, I think becoming pregnant gave me a wonderful out. You know, people say, "Oh, well you gave up painting because you had children". You know, well there's something to be said for that, but I also think I had reached that point where I didn't know where I was going. But as I said, if I hadn't had children, probably I would have been forced beyond that, you know, over that hill and continued. Who knows?

At that time, did Roy know where he was going?

Roy always had a better idea about where he was going, yes.

Do you think that might have affected your - you in the sense that having someone who was very confident of their direction right there next to you all the time ...

Probably, and Roy was always more, ah, say, 'modern'. You know, he was doing, you know ... and I was sort of - really what I was doing was trying to paint a Rembrandt, I s'pose, if I was brutally honest about it. Ah, or a Chardin or a Cézanne head or something like that.

And Roy, of course, was always much more within the current, um, mode, you know, whatever it was at the moment. So yes, I s'pose that did have an effect on me. Increased the inferiority complex a little by a quotum - quotum of a few marks, I think.

That was a pre-existing sense of artistic inferiority?

Um ... that is a hard question. No, I don't think I felt that at the Royal College of Art.

Be a bit hard to with the results you were getting.

No, with the results I was getting, yes, I don't think I felt that at all. I think it was Brizzy, old Brisbane town that did that to me. I really do. I think there's such a lot about Brisbane that I didn't like.

You were back there being Ian's sister?

I was back there being ... well and Roy's wife. Mmm, you know, as much as he insisted - because everyone embraced Roy, you know, the artist, with open arms. You know, the English artist to boot. And, ah, there wasn't much of a place for me, to be honest, in, in that system.

And so you had a baby.

So I had a baby, with great joy.

And what did that mean to you?

Well, I always wanted children, and it was a great, ah, fulfilment for me. And, ah, I had four in fairly quick succession. Um ... I probably, you know, if I'd had the, er, fortitude, I'd have gone ... I really wanted a daughter. But that wasn't to be. But I now have daughters-in-law, so that worked out.

And you stopped painting. Now do you think that if you had continued with your frantic splashing about, you might have found another way forward? That that could have been a sign of a transition?

It could have been, but what I've found was that all of that, ah, concentrated energy that I'd been putting into painting, I now put into Ben. I, you know, it just shifted, and I found I didn't have any emotional energy left. You know, I had - because it wasn't really to do with time, because, you know, babies sleep. You know, there is time when you can paint.

But I just found I didn't have any emotional ... I didn't have the need to do it. You know, before I had an absolute need to justify myself as a person, and, ah, and I know this doesn't affect many women, because many women have babies, quite large families, and they continue - the need to create continues just as strongly.

But in me, it didn't. You know, I think it - the children became something of a substitute to that. [INTERRUPTION]

You had spent your entire life directed towards being an artist, and yet you talk as if you shed that ambition just like that ... when the baby was born.

Yes.

It couldn't have been so simple. There must have been some sort of internal struggle, or accounting, or worry about it, was there?

No, well remember I was in trouble with my painting, and then remember, I was absolutely over the top about being a mother, and with Ben, you know, this wonderful little person. And I think the two things combined to get me over that. Now I did try to paint again - you know, when Ben was about four or five months old - I did try to come back into it. But I found it very, very hard. I just couldn't. I hated what I was doing, and it was almost as far as just going through the, the motions.

All of that really obsessive focus that I'd had seemed to have gone. And I think - obsessive focus was going on to Ben. I think that's what it was. And then remember I got pregnant very quickly again. Ben was only four months old when I was pregnant again, and so that then - the thought of another baby took on. And ah, I've never regretted it, you know.

People think that I must have regretted it, but I really didn't. But there was a point when I thought, "Okay, you've stopped painting. Now what?" You know, because you're right. It had been my life. It had been my total focus, you know, of my mind and my emotions. So I - that was when I thought, "Well if you can't paint, the next best thing is to be in something where you're looking at it or talking about it".

And that's when I moved into teaching, first in high schools, teaching art in high schools. And really even then, I thought, "Well what I'd really have liked would have been to have got into an art gallery and be actually handling works of art". "But I've left it too late", I thought, "to start at the beginning and work your way through, you know, assistant curator, curatorial assistant, assistant curator, junior creator [sic] curator", you know, I thought, "It's all too late to get into that".

And that thought did occur to me, but I did enjoy teaching.

So motherhood fulfilled you.

It really did, yes.

But not sufficiently for you to feel that that's all you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

No.

Why do you think that was?

Well I think I was sensible enough to know that they were going to turn into ... er, grown up people that wouldn't want a mother, you know, and that, you know, sooner rather than later in many cases. So it was a finite period of my life, and I knew my life was going to continue. But also, I did want that intellectual engagement, you know. I wanted something outside of myself.

I'm not a highly domesticated person. I'm not a natural cook. I - you know, I did, I did cook. Roy does all the cooking now, but in those days, I was the cook. But I was a real, you know, recipe watcher. Roy just sort of throws things around, comes up with marvellous things.

But, ah, so I'm not a natural cook at all. I don't know that I was a natural mother but I just loved it. I loved - you know, just ...

What did you love about it? Can you give me ...

Oh, just the magic of ... you know, every time I was going to have a baby I'd think, "Oh, I'm going to meet a whole new little person. I wonder who it is", you know. And just that magic of being able to, you know, have another little human being, in and about and around you. I just adored it. I could have gone on having babies forever, probably, if good sense hadn't taken over.

And you didn't miss painting? You'd even been painting when you were pregnant, hadn't you? Quite a big work ...

Yes, I did a great big mural when I was pregnant. No, it was just Ben's emergence and arrival, this little person, and you've never before realised, have you - you know that - there's that total dependence of someone on you. And I'd never had that before. Nobody had ever been totally and utterly dependent on me. And that did affect me. I think that's, ah, the thing that gets all mothers in.

But, ah, no, right up I was ... well, Roy had to finish the murals. I was right up till nine months pregnant, scampering up scaffolding, you know, up a great wall in the Millaquin Sugar Company in Brisbane, painting this great big sugar mural.

To the love of all the workers. The building was still under construction. And could - them, them seeing me perched up there, you know, with this huge tummy, painting, and the really hard thing was, there was no toilet in the, in the building. You know when you're nine months pregnant and to, to go to the toilet, I had to get down off the ladders, get out of my smock into clothes, walk up to the - there was a mothercraft centre up the road, and use the toilet there and then back then up the ladders. You know, and that was the worst aspect of it.

But, um, yes, that went right up until Ben's arrival, but Ben's arrival did rather put paid to that.

But although you didn't miss actually doing the painting, you missed the world of art. You wanted to be involved with art.

Yes. And I've never not wanted to be, ever.

So how did you work out about the teaching?

Well, I'd taught before, you see. I'd taught when I left school, and ah, I loved teaching in schools. I love teaching schoolchildren and in some ways, if I hadn't sort of been moved on by other people, I would have probably - could still be a high school teacher. Because I think there's something very magical about those years, from - in, in high school, from sub-junior to senior. You know, age thirteen to seventeen.

You know, where they're so malleable, so ready to receive things, so alive to new ideas. And I really did enjoy that. I loved working ... I was working mostly in girls schools, I have to say. Well, entirely in girls schools. But I had some wonderful students. You know, they're still friends. They're still by me now.

What had happened to your own little private art school?

Oh, well Roy kept teaching there. I actually kept teaching there, to a certain extent. In fact, I was doing an enormous amount of teaching, even while I was pregnant and after. Because I was teaching at the St Mary's Art School - where Roy was really running it - but I was teaching there.

I was teaching at the, er, Technical College, Saturday mornings art classes. Um, teaching one or two days a week down at Wynnum, where I'd been teaching before, because the headmistress at Wynnum, Mrs Drew, when she heard that I'd got back and couldn't find a job, she said, "Oh, this is exactly what Australia does to all of its best talent, you know. You know, they - you know, lets them come back and then lets them languish".

"Do you want a job?" I said, "Yes, I do!" And she gave me a job immediately, which was wonderful. So I kept teaching at Moreton Bay, really, for some years, until I moved, really out of high school teaching, into tertiary teaching.

And do you think that there was any linkage between the qualities in you that you brought to motherhood, and the qualities in you that you brought to teaching?

Yes, I think there probably was, now that you mention it. But I haven't - wouldn't have thought of that. But that, ah, nurturing thing that I, you know, was very much a thing about motherhood, you know, that you had this little person who was totally ... you were ... was totally responsible for. With the - each student, I felt that a little bit.

I was totally responsible for them getting an inkling of what art was about. And this is just using what I could, you know. Reproductions, etcetera, etcetera. But, you know, some way of trying to get them to understand what was there for them, what riches were there, and where to look for them, for themselves.

So I think there was a connection, yes.

[end of tape]

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