Australian Biography: Betty Churcher
Art has always been Betty Churcher's (1931–2015) private and public passion. As an educator and a gallery director, her vision was to make people see art as accessible and relevant.
Despite feeling disadvantaged since childhood because she was a girl, Betty was a role model for women: the first female head of a tertiary institution, the first female director of a state art gallery and the first woman to be Director of the National Gallery of Australia.
She was also a talented young artist herself but gave up painting when she had children.
In this interview, Betty talks of art, family and career and the determination that drove her to achieve.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Well when I first saw the house - my first memories are when I was living at Southport. I don't know what my father was doing, but we were living at Southport - and those are my very, very early memories.
And we must have moved to Holland Park in Brisbane, probably when I was about, um, three or four. Not very old. And my first memory is calling at the house, which my parents had owned. My grandfather has designed it. He was an architect.
And it was then in the middle of cow paddocks. It was just a house, standing in this great paddock full of cows. When we moved in - when we finally left Southport and moved into Holland Park - it was still a dirt road, you know, running up the middle with no curves, no gutters.
And there were still cows wandering up and down and Mum always had to have a fence because they'd be eating her flowers if we didn't. But the great magical thing for me as a child was just down the bottom, there was a lovely creek.
Now that creek is now a subterranean drain, I'm afraid, in deep suburbia, but it was the most magical creek. It was one of those lovely little creeks that had crystal clear water and that green cow cropped grass going right up to the edge.
And every now and then, a little bit of, ah, the bank would break away and become a little island, topped with this little lovely little pad of green grass. I used to remember - sit on that, and just watch the water run by and dream, and that was really probably one of my favourite spots.
Mum, on the other hand, didn't like me going down there, because she thought it was just a little bit out of sight, and there used to be gypsies in those days. Now not that the gypsies would have done anything to me at all - had the slightest interest in me - but she still had that Victorian residue of the thing that the gypsies were not to be trusted and that they might even steal children. All of that nonsense.
They used to camp down the creek a little bit further on, and ah, they'd go into the bush. The bush was paddocks. This creek ran through paddocks, and then it ran into bush. And that was wonderful, too, 'cause that's where we used to make our cubbies, in the bush.
But the gypsies would go into the bush and cut clothes props. And they'd cut them off, you know, a little branching tree, pile them onto the back of the horse dray and then go through the streets of Brisbane with their "clothes props". You know, they'd call out - they had one of those wonderful almost Cockney calls.
Oh, for clothes-lines. When they were long, they were stretched between poles, and you get heavy clothes on them, you've got to prop it up in the middle so that the - you know - the sheets don't dangle on the grass, or on the ground.
And I know Mum, for all of her thing about gypsies, she still used to buy clothes props from them. The other thing I remember about those days - and I'm talking now, ah, mid-thirties in Brisbane - was the Depression.
I didn't know it was a Depression, of course, but it was the tramps. And the tramps that used to come - we called them tramps. They were people just down and outs, you know, looking for food or work. And they'd come to the back door. We had a house on stilts, a ... an old Queenslander type of house, and they'd always come up to the back door.
Mum would never give them money, you see, because they might spend it on cigarettes or beer. And I thought what if the poor brutes just wanted a beer and a cigarette. She'd always make them a peanut butter sandwich. I used to think, oh God, peanut butter.
But they'd very kindly tuck this peanut butter - packet of peanut butter sandwiches into their pockets and then go to the next house. And they used to do that, just go from house to house, asking for money, for jobs, or, you know odd jobs around the place, or for food.
And they became just a part of my, er, early memories, and I thought the world was just divided into tramps, gypsies and other people, ie. us. Um, I had some friends there, but not terribly many friends. The real friends I got was when I went to school. I went first to the nearest state school, which was at a suburb called Buranda and I didn't like that.
I was completely confused about school. I had no idea why I was going, what I was supposed to be doing. Um - one of my nightmares was that - 'cause it was burning hot Queensland weather. At lunchtime, we all had to troop downstairs with our little bakelite bags, you know, our little cardboard suitcases, and at the word of 'go', we'd all open our suitcases to get at our lunch.
We'd be sitting in searing ranks on benches. And this terrible smell of peanut butter sandwiches and bananas that had been trapped into these bakelite bags for hours, and really, it just - I just couldn't eat. It just put me off completely. And it's put me off bananas, I'm afraid, for the rest of my life.
Um, I would have been probably three or four, I think. I think that's about the age, and at five - I didn't go to school at five because my brother, according to Mum - was not well and had to have correspondence.
Now I don't know whether he was or whether he wasn't. I think Ian was a little bit coddled by Mum and Gran. And so I - he was doing correspondence. He was a year older than I. And so she, in a way couldn't take me to school, so I did correspondence as well.
And that proved to be a bit of a problem, actually, because correspondence thrust you forward much quicker than school. And I'll never forget at this Baranda State School, still quite unsure of what on earth I was doing there, what I was supposed to be doing, and the teacher saying, "Now children, we're going on a wonderful journey today".
"We're going up the hill and down the hill and up the hill". And I thought, "Oh, you silly fool, you're just making a letter 'y'". Because of course I at this time was doing cursive writing, because I had, um, correspondence, you see, one to one, with Mum teaching just my brother and me.
But, um, I didn't enjoy Baranda, and then at the age of seven - I think it was my grandmother paid for Ian and I to go to private schools. Ian went to Church of England Grammar School, and I went to Somerville House. And that I did enjoy. That's when I got friends.
I think one of the things was the revelation of what school was about. It dawned then. I remember in that first year at school [there] was a tree down the bottom. The junior school up in the hill and then there was a dip, and the senior school up there. And in the dip was the running course where we used to play.
And there was a tree and I used to love - like I used to sit on my little islands in the creek - I used to sit in the 'y' shape of the branch of this tree. And I remember sitting up there, feeling very happy and pleased with myself, and some children down below in my class taunting me.
They were saying, "Betty Churcher, second last again. Betty Churcher, second last again". I wasn't even last. It was more ignominious than that. And it just dawned on me, "Ah, that's what it's about. It's about achieving". You - when in exams, I would be there chewing my pencil and looking out the window and, you know, not doing anything, not realising what was expected of me, I think.
And I thought, "Oh, I see. Right". Betty Chu - Betty Cameron won't be last again.
I said 'Betty Cameron' the first time. "Betty Cameron's last again", didn't I?
Ah, I said 'Churcher', did I?
Yeah, well, it is a problem.
Dad was a Scot. He was, um, a dour Scot. He'd had a rough life. His mother had died soon after - I think he was about two or three months old. She must have died as a result of his birth. He had an older sister.
And in those days, in the late nineteenth century, it was the practice - if you lost the wife - the first wife, you'd farm out the children of that marriage to someone else so that you could get on with your life. And that's what happened to Dad.
He went to a grandmother on the shores of Loch Tay which is in the highlands, and his sister, Marion, went somewhere else, so he never grew up with his sister. Nor did he grow up with his stepbrothers and sisters - because his father then married again, and had something like four or five children.
Because I remember during the war, during the Second World War, the phone went and this American marine was on the other end, and Dad being the dour, you know, being interrupted from his Jack Dyer [sic] - Jack Davey program or whatever, was saying, "Who is it? Who is it?''
And this American voice, "Well, it's a silly fool, it's your brother". And, ah, Jim, this half brother, came and stayed with us, and ah - but Dad was, he was a very unfamily man. He didn't want family, he didn't want to know anything about that second family.
He wasn't very friendly, I didn't think, to Uncle Jim, you know, this American marine. The American marine just wanted to fill us with ice creams and candy. And of course ration was on so he was rather thwarted in that.
But, um, I remember he couldn't understand that we weren't constantly wanting to eat ice cream, as the American childrens [sic] do, did. But, um, he was, ah, a very earnest man, you know. He was - I loved him, as every daughter loves their father, I think.
But I loved him very, very dearly and ah, I looked on him as my support. Mum and Gran seemed to be so focused on Ian, you know, the eldest boy - and I think that was a nineteenth century thing too, you know. The boy was what it was all about. And my Gran I didn't like.
No she didn't, thank goodness. But she was - Mum never lost the fact that the most important people in her life was her parents, then her husband, then her son, and then her daughter. And she somehow made this very clear and none of us, whatever rank we were at, really liked it.
Dad didn't like having to vacate his seat, you know, for Granddad when Granddad came into the house. Ah, Ian didn't like, you know, being supplanted by Dad, and I didn't like being supplanted by Ian. And I think, you know, that that was - to make it so clear that we all understood where we sat in the hierarchy was a bit of a mistake, as I look on it. But we all make mistakes, I have to say.
But, um ...
Ah, probably, but you know, I'd love to hear my children on the subject. You never know, do you, and Mum might have been amazed to hear me say that. You know, you just don't know. You think you're doing the right thing and I remember just recently I'm going - do you mind if I leap around a little bit?
I just remember my younger son saying to me how, um, he couldn't understand how I left them do their things by themselves. I'd let them go to cricket practice by themselves and I didn't stay and watch and - and he couldn't forgive me for that.
And my oldest son said, "Oh, I was so pleased you didn't. I couldn't bear to have one of those parents that hung around". So I said to Tim, "There you are. You're not going to please everyone". And I think I did that. I think we all work in um, almost, er, like a pendulum swing.
I did that because I was never out of the sight of my parents for two minutes, for some terrible fate that would befall me. And so when I had children, I was determined they were going to have the freedom of the world, you know. They could come and go and do what they pleased, when they wanted and how they wanted.
And of course, that was a mistake, too.
It didn't seem to. Dad had a job with the Vacuum Oil Company. I remember he was earning - what, why one remembers is - he was earning four pounds a week, which in the early thirties was, you know, reasonable.
Um, Gran seemed to have money. Gran always provided the money for her daughter, really, you know, for Mum. And we always went on holidays to Southport at Christmas time, you know, and stayed at this lovely guest-house for five weeks.
We, we - I know we wouldn't have done that on Dad's salary. That was Gran and Granddad, you know, providing the money. But it didn't seem to really affect us, no.
Um, the war affected - I was very conscious of the war, and the feeling of what bad luck, you know, that my childhood should be shadowed by this war that prevented you to have - from having chocolates and stopped the Brisbane Exhibition and Sideshow Alley and all of those things that I thought, you know, most important to my life at the time.
When the war broke out in '39, I would have been eight, and of course it straddled those years - eight, nine - for the four years. Seven, I was seven going on eight. And, ah, so I hadn't long been at Somerville House when the war broke out.
And the only austerity, of course, was rationing. You know, clothes rationing and food rationing, but not seriously. Not like it was in England.
But I remember they had in shops, which was terribly tantalising, all of the, ah, Cadbury's blocks of chocolates, you know, which were just the, er, promotional boxes. They weren't really chocolates at all. They were just cardboard. And the shopkeepers kept them up there.
And I thought, well that's very unfair, because we can't buy chocolate. We can't get it. They're only cardboard, ah, facsimiles.
Yes, I think it probably did.
He was very rigid. Um, they had that completely old school thing. Mum did everything domestic. Dad did nothing. Dad just sat and received his cups of tea and his slices of toast, or whatever.
Um, and he literally couldn't make a cup of tea because when Mum was sick some years later, she asked me if I'd go over and make Dad his tea. And I said, '"That's ridiculous, Mum". I, by this time, had a small family.
I said, "I'm not going to drive all the way to Holland Park to make Dad a cup of tea". And she said," Dear, he can't do it. He doesn't know how to do it". And ah - which suited him, I'm sure, not to know. But that was the sort of family that - and he thought that that was how it should be. That was the natural order of things.
And when I came to get through Somerville House, you know, and get to the end of my schooling, ah, he decided that I should leave at Grade 10, which is like the Intermediate. And I desperately wanted to go on.
I knew that I really truly wanted to go on to Senior, or HSC, you know, ah - university qualifying. And he made this very, very puzzling comment to me. He said, "Look, Betty, it's not that - just that it's - won't be useful. You'll only get married. You won't need an education".
He said, "It spoils a girl". And I remember thinking,"How can it spoil a girl?", you know. Because I was too young, really, to get on to what he was talking about. What he was talking about is that it'd give me aspirations and ah, hopes and ambitions that perhaps, you know, might spoil it for somebody who wanted to have his tea made for him every morning, noon and night.
But he was that sort of a Scot, you know, and um ...
And he was. Well, because Mum and Gran were so focussed on Ian. So focussed on Ian. And, um, to the extent of silly little things. Like Gran would give us pocket money, and she'd give Ian, say, a shilling, and she'd give me threepence.
Now there's only eighteen months between us. Our need for chocolate sherbets, etcetera, there was no difference. But you know, it was just these silly distinctions that she'd keep drawing that - you know, the eldest boy, important, the youngest girl, threepence'll do.
And, ah, things like that. And Dad would come in on that and try and balance that out and make things fairer for me.
My elder brother and me. And, ah, we didn't see a great deal of each other when we were growing up in Brisbane, although we both, you know, had our family in Brisbane. But nicely, we've now - we've got to this great age, we're now seeing more of each other and we're much, much closer than we'd ever been in any of our lives.
So it, it's a really nice thing that happens towards the end of your life, I think. You sort of put away all of those little hurts and um ... complaints, and can relate to someone much more easily.
Yes, it, it really did. It, it - the sense of unfairness was huge. I remember I used to dream about it at night and then wake up in the morning and couldn't separate the dream from reality. And of course, I'd probably - a very petulant little girl. I'm sure I probably was. But it was because of this, this profound sense of unfairness. You know, everything that I did seemed to be wrong and everything that Ian did seemed to be right.
And it did affect you, because at that age you can't stand back and look at it objectively. [INTERRUPTION]
Well probably if I heard it once I heard it a thousand times, "Oh dear, he's a boy. Naturally he would have that, you know, pref[erence] ... favour". You know, I wasn't allowed to go down the creek, for instance. Ian was. That was because he was a boy, you know.
And none of this made a great deal of sense to me. And um - they were - I just felt, to be honest, that I'd been born the wrong sex. I'd just really think, "What terrible bad luck to be born a girl, and I'm going to be straddled with this for the rest of my life".
And that can only have come from one source, can't it? And that is a sort of the conditioning that happens within that household. If there'd been more of us, if there'd been other boys and other girls, it probably would have been much, you know, would have been diluted and probably wouldn't have been such um ... a thing.
Or maybe I was making too much of it. I don't know. My, my brother said to me when I, I mentioned this on another er, interview somewhere and he said, "Look Betty, it's about time you put that behind you. You know, that was years and years ago". And I know what he meant, you know.
It is time I put that behind me. But I'm just bringing it out now because it is one of the formative things. I think my ... er ... I suppose it's my ambition - but my determination to do things has been grounded in the fact that I was told very early and very firmly that I couldn't.
Just about everything I wanted to do I couldn't, because I was a girl. "No, you can't, because you're a girl." Or "Yes he can because he's a boy". And you know, this difference was being highlighted all the time in our life.
They may have, yes. But I - no, it just made me infuriated. Angry. Made me hate my Gran. I've never got over that, I have to say. Didn't make me hate my mother.
Ah, I think hate is probably too strong a word, but I certainly didn't enjoy him in the way I'm enjoying him now. And I do enjoy him now. And er, he's the same, sort of very much a driven person. He's got a similar personality to me in many ways. Er, he was driven in a - quite a different way.
Much more profitable way. Made a great deal of money, in other words. But ...
He was an engineer. He was, um, a structural engineer. But he made his money by going into his own business and he, he built this business up into a huge business in Queensland and up through the Pacific, and ah, and then, you know, throughout Australia. So he became really quite a wealthy man.
No. No, because as I say, I'd be told to do an exam and I'd be sort of not realising why it was important to do these little sums, or do whatever we were being asked to do, and I'd just chew my pencil and dream. I was a great dreamer. And just be staring out the window and hand in a paper that had probably two sums done.
Because I didn't realise what the name of the game was, you see.
Well, I started coming top. I was going to really, you know - that was going to be the end of that. Betty Cameron was not going to be second last again, if that was the name of the game. So, um, no, I then did work hard, and, er, I worked hard at school really right up until the end, until I got grabbed by art, and then I'm ashamed to say I let all of the academic stuff go because I was so obsessed with art and succeeding in that area.
So I wasted - I reckon I wasted my last two years at school, academically.
Always as a bit of a leader. I was always class captain, you know, from about the age of eight or nine. Um, I s'pose I was a bit of a bossy boots. I don't know. It's hard to say. But, ah, I was popular.
I wasn't - I was reasonable at sports. I was a bit of a swimmer. I wasn't a great sports person. Um, I wasn't when we got on in, ah, school the top of the class. I wasn't the dux of the school for instance or anything like that.
So my academic performance wasn't brilliant. It was above average. So - but I must have, ah, liked leading and they just liked being led and that's how it happened, you know. And I was - I wasn't school captain, either. A friend of mine was school captain.
But the school captain wasn't voted by popular vote. It was the staff. And I think the staff were a wake up to me, whereas ... (laughs)
Oh, I think the teachers saw me as a bit of a, um ... rule unto myself, and I think it irked them a bit. Miss Craig, who was the headmistress, was quite extraordinary. She recognised - she saw in me this potential to be something, and she encouraged me. She was - we were all terrified of her. She was a very sort of upright, you know - always wore her academic gown around the school.
Frightened the life out of us. But she did marvellous things, without my even knowing she did it. When Dad was determined I was going to leave after Grade 10, for fear of being spoilt, she - I didn't know this at the time, but she rang him up and said that if it was a matter of money, then the school would waive the fees. Now this of course shocked and shamed Dad to a point that, you know, he was never going to admit that it wasn't money.
But anyway, Miss Craig let me stay on, and I was doing a little bit of teaching in the Junior School, and that's how she managed to waive the fees. So I did the last two years without paying school fees, but doing a little bit of teaching in the Junior School.
Teaching art. See, by this time it was clear to Miss Craig that I was, um, really obsessed by art, and that this was going to be my forte, and she was an extraordinary woman. She really wanted us all to succeed in whatever we did, whether we were going to be wives and mothers, we had to do that very well.
Whether we were going to be engineers, or doctors, or artists, or writers, or journalists, whatever, we had to do it to the best of our ability. And in that she was a great inspiration. And in that, I'm really pleased, I think, that it was an all girls school. I think that that moving away from that cramping thing of not being a boy, to be suddenly in a world which was all girls with a headmistress and with all the teachers, women teachers, it gave me that feeling that, ah, it needn't necessarily be, you know, a chain around my legs, you know.
I, I can perform and manage, you know, within this female environment.
Dad was opposed. Mum was sort of opposed. Mum [sic] real wish was for me to go to secretarial college and marry a bank manager, or even better, to be a doctor's receptionist and marry a doctor. Ooh, that would have been very good. Or a - anything, you see, that was sort of - had a little bit of status and class and an assured income.
And she could not for the life of her see that how following this course that I wanted to follow - art - how it could ever get me into that situation where I would meet these likely people, and she was quite right. Roy wasn't like what she thought the likely person ... ah, and that's really ...
And that was quite fine. She just wanted to see me comfortably and financially and happily settled. And, ah, I think it did worry her that Roy and I were clearly not ever going to be, ah, financially settled in the way she wanted us to be.
Yeah, student teacher type thing, yes.
Well as I say, I let my own studies go ... abysmally. You know, I remember I, I passed all my exams, but not as I could have. It didn't ,that didn't take a huge amount of time. That was just teaching little kids painting. There was no preparation, there was no correction. It was nothing like that. It was just sort of really house minding little kids. And they just saw me as a big senior schoolgirl and, um - so that yeah, there wasn't a discipline problem or anything.
But, ah, I used to skip classes to stay down in the art studio and, ah, Miss Craig turned a blind eye to that, I think to the fury of a lot of the staff. And I remember being really caught out with my Modern History exam for Senior, because I cut everything down to the finest level. I'd worked it out. Now there is there a choice - you know, you get multiple choice. If I do this part of the book, read it, and I was reading for the first time - this was just in the swot week, you know, before the exam - and I'd read it with great intensity, out of a choice, I'll be able to sort of forget about the second and third part of the book.
And when I got into the exam, it was at the Brisbane Exhibition, I'll never forget it. This person - I, I pronounced, you know, rather sort of pompously that this was what I'd done. And this girl said, "Betty, didn't you listen? Didn't you know? There are three sections, each with a compulsory question". And I realised that suddenly I was going to get two compulsory questions which I just simply couldn't answer.
I remember crawling under the Exhibition Building and reading about Karl Marx, you know at the rate of knots. Enough to pass, I have to say. And indeed, I got a B but I could easily have got an A in history. Those were the subjects that I really did well at, or could do well at.
But not doing it the way I was doing it.
Oh, it was good. I was doing it not on my own, with the Art teacher, and the Art teacher I had a complete crush on. You know, she was just perfect. Pat Prentice, you know, ooh. You know, and so to be with her, was the name of the game. And so I wouldn't care, you know, I'd have gone to the ends of the world to - for her.
And, ah, so I just really enjoyed that. I just saw that as a bonus. I saw it as a bonus being able to stay on for those extra two years, and a bonus to have more time with art.
That's interesting, yes.
Not really. I was so in love with Pat Prentice, oh, just as long as I was near her, that was all that mattered. And, ah, no I don't think I was - I was going around, you know, helping them do their drawings and things like that. But no, it wasn't really until I started teaching, when I finished school, when I finished my HSC - or my Senior as it was called in Queensland - I then went back, straight back to the school as a teacher, teaching Art History and Art.
And that's I think when I first felt the joy of being able to share an enthusiasm. And that was probably the beginning of it, I think.
Yes, she was fantastic. Terrific person. She's still alive. She's living up in Redcliffe in Brisbane. And I see a lot of her. You know, I see as much of her as I can. Um ... yes, I think she was terrific. She was a water-colourist, you know, so it was all in that tradition, you know, of water-colour painting in Queensland, but she had that ability to enthuse and a willingness to give time.
You know, she'd take us out on Sundays and weekends, outdoor sketching, the seniors or sub-senior girls. And, and that was brilliant, you know, because we all thought the sun rise - rose and set with her, so we all loved her. But, ah, it was just wonderful to have someone interested enough.
You know, if it had been me I think teaching, I might have thought the weekend is my own. You know, I'm not going to have these kids traipsing around with me. But she did. And in that respect, she was brilliant. So, ah, I really enjoyed it.
Can we go back now and trace through a little bit the evolution of your interest in the visual world, and your discovery of your own ability in art? When did you first realise that you actually had talent in this area?
Well I, I just could draw. I was a bit like a child who's got, you know, perfect pitch. You think everybody's got it. And kids would say, "I can't draw", and I thought that that's ridiculous. "You can see, therefore you can draw."
And I can remember, you know, I could just draw. If I could see it, I could just put it down. One of my earliest memories - our drawing lessons, they'd make a contemporary art class shudder - but they'd bring in, children would bring in toys and they would put up these toys, and we in our pastel books, you know, with the different coloured pastel papers and our coloured pens, pastels, would have to draw this.
And ah, on this occasion, it was a Mickey Mouse toy, and he had his black Mickey Mouse nose, seen against his black Mickey Mouse ear. And I remember puzzling, "Now how am I going to make that nose come forward?" Now at that age, about six, you - a child at six would have done it sideways, you know, almost like a diagram.
But I want to do it visually, you know. And I remember hitting on the thing - well now, if I put a white line around the nose, it'll separate it from the, the black of the nose from the black of the ear and the nose will come forward. And it was a most wonderful moment of revelation. And that was, you know, silly little kids' crayons.
But I think it was from then I just - slowly dawned on me that everyone couldn't draw, and that just being able to see didn't automatically mean that you could draw. It was, it really was a gift. You know, just something I could do. And Dad had ... had it. You know, Dad used to draw and paint. And, um ...
Not really. Not to the same extent. Um ... Ian could draw more child art, but I was really never interested in child art. I was really interested in observation. Trying to draw the world around me and what I was seeing. And that's why the Mickey Mouse was such a revelation, when I suddenly realised I could draw something coming straight at me.
And that ability to depict an illusion, really, was what I was about.
Dad was. See, this is where I think Dad came in. Dad was always - because he had it, and he encouraged me enormously in this - helped me, helped me to draw, helped me at home and, ah, and really loved it, that I could do it.
Yes, I - that was a difficult one, because all I could think of - I didn't know what an artist was, but I knew there were commercial artists. And the commercial artist used to in those days, you know, all of the ads there'd be a drawing of a shoe, and a drawing of a pair of corsets and a drawing of a hat and I thought, "Oh dear, oh dear. But if that's how it is, that's how it is."
"I'll have to become a commercial artist." And I can remember even trying to do drawings of shoes practise against the time I was going to be a commercial artist.
I don't know that I ever thought of making an actual living from art, to be perfectly honest. My main aim was - after I'd, you know, got to my Senior, my finals - was to get to somewhere where I could study art seriously.
And my - top of my list was London, but if London had failed, it would have been Melbourne. I don't think the professional side of it - this was probably what worried my mother - ever entered into it. Ah, I knew I could teach, because I had taught art - the minute I left school, I went straight back as a teacher at the same school, so I knew I could teach.
And, ah, so there was always that fall back of teaching. But I just wanted to paint.
And the notion of a life in art, and the notion that you wanted to paint. Where did you get the idea that you might be able to paint seriously? You spoke about how you knew about commercial art. Where did you get the idea that you might be able to paint in a different sort of way?
Well, I s'pose when I first - when Pat Prentice came to school and I started doing art history - and we had this awful little outline of art, written by William Orpen with these dreadful little black and white reproductions. But still, even in those overinked, black and white reproductions, I could see, you know, looking at Rembrandt, looking at Titian, looking at the great paintings of the world.
And I thought, yeah, that's what I want to do. But of course that's what I couldn't do, as it turned out, but that's what I actually wanted to do, and suddenly, commercial art had got - you know, had nothing to do with it. Finance had nothing to do with it.
It was simply - I wanted to get myself to a level where I could feel that I was sort of painting something of significance.
Um ... I was - I loved Rembrandt. The master of darkness, but there was something about Rembrandt, and of course it was so dark it didn't matter in these black and white reproductions. But it was to do with people, the fact that Rembrandt seemed to conjure up these people that, you know, just across the centuries, the seventeenth century to the twentieth, and there they were, large as life, looking me in the eye.
And, ah, it was to do with that. To be able to capture someone and, ah, keep them forever, if you like.
Not a lot. You know, in Brisbane, my famous - the Queensland Art Gallery, my favourite picture was by Blandford Fletcher which was this picture called 'Evicted'. And what I loved about that, I s'pose, was the gentle grey tonality that this Newlyn school was espousing, out of Whistler. You know, that same school of late nineteenth century.
But also again people. You see, it was a typical Victorian story picture of the poor little widow woman and her child being evicted from the home, and what really got me in that picture were the autumn leaves on the ground. And they were just crisp and ... you felt you could just crunch them up in your hand.
And it was that tactility and reality that I thought, "If only I could do that".
They - I'm just trying very hard to think what else they did have. They had another picture called, um - another sentimental Victorian picture which I remember of 'Letter Home', of this old woman sort of ... you know, with her head on her hand and letter on the table, ah, gazing into space.
Um, I just used to go to 'Evicted' with such a - like a bee to honey. I, my parents had the view that, you know, we've done that. We've been to the art gallery. You don't need to go back. So I used to think up all sorts of ploys, you know, to get them to go back, just so that I could see 'Evicted'.
Yes, but not again and again, and Dad was a bit of an irascible man. I remember on this one occasion, he said, "No, no, no, we're not going to the gallery again. We've been there". And I said, "Oh, but this is different. There's a big exhibition of war art on". And I just made it up on the spur of the moment and thought, "Oh gosh, you know, now what's going to happen when I get there?", you know, because he was irascible.
And when I got there, it was one of those strange things of childhood, you know, where you - it's just a coincidence but you think there's something more to it - there was an exhibition of war art, but they'd taken 'Evicted' down to accommodate it. So that taught me to tell lies.
But I don't think I even looked. I think through the tears I couldn't see anything. My chance to see 'Evicted' had been taken from me. Ah, they had works by William Bustard, which I enjoyed. There wasn't a lot - there was really, aged seventeen when I went down to Sydney and Melbourne.
And I remember seeing my first Rembrandt. Or Rembrandts, 'cause they then had three. They've now got two. But one of the things that tickles me, the one that really got me, was a little self-portrait. Because again, you know, I seem to sort of feel I was looking into Rembrandt's very eyes, and that's the one that has now been discredited as not a Rembrandt at all.
And now, of course, looking at it I can see quite well why it's not and, and that it really is not. But, er, the other two Rembrandts, of course, were equally impressive.
I think probably because I wasn't terribly good at anything else. Right from a little girl, you know, that my ability to draw had been, you know, a bit of a, um ... an ooh, ah, sort of experience. Everybody could, you know - said, "Oh draw me this and draw me that". You know, like my, my trick, if you like, that I could do.
And, ah, I s'pose Dad, who was an amateur water-colourist, and just wanted to do it. I just wanted to, even though - and I sensed that I had to be elsewhere to do it. You know, I had to leave Brisbane. I couldn't have done it from Brisbane.
No, no. When I left school, I had the influence of that art teacher, Pat Prentice, which was invaluable. And that was the most valuable thing - was her unqualified enthusiasm for everything, and you know, the sky's the limit. That sort of feeling.
Yes, but ... I was really an oil-painter and she was a water-colourist, so ah ... but she did. Yeah, she did. Ah, then when I left school, I had to quickly get myself a job, so I went straight back teaching at Somerville House, which is a very difficult thing to do. You know, leave Grade 11, leave Grade 12 and come back, and you're teaching Grade 11, you know, the kids that were in the class below you.
And that really was a test.
I did like it. I particularly liked the sub-junior girls, because as far as they were concerned I was just the - a teacher. But for the others, ah, who had been my mates, you know, they used to pull my leg and make my life a misery a bit. But, ah, I don't know that I enjoyed that, teaching them. But I did enjoy teaching the ones that didn't know me and that I didn't know them.
Well as I said, I knew I had to get out. And I knew that my teaching salary, which I think was four pound a week, or it might have then been a little bit more, not a lot, I knew that I would never get out on that. And I was a member of this Younger Artists' Group.
And we decided - well, actually it happened in an extraordinary way. There was a young, ah, reporter in the Courier Mail, and he got in touch with me. He wanted a leader story, you see. And he thought up this brilliant idea that the Younger Artists' Group would establish a travelling scholarship for one of its members.
And I thought, brilliant. So I chatted on and on and on about this, and then to my horror, it appeared in the paper the next day - and ah, the scholarship relied on the Royal Queensland Art Society, of which we were the Younger Artists' Group, of the Royal Queensland Art Society, had to donate dollar for dollar, everything we earned - this article says the Royal Queensland Art Society is going to donate a dollar for every dollar we earned.
They were reading it for the first time in the newspaper, so that caused a great stink. But I survived that one and they went ahead with it.
Oh, they were furious - furious that I should .... They thought that I had signed and sealed this and made these statements, and of course he had, not me. I'd - he'd floated this, "Well, if they give you a dollar for dollar". I'm thinking, "Yes, well maybe. It is possible, 'cause we could have exhibitions and the proceeds could go to this scholarship". But I was thinking this was something we could gradually develop and then announce in the fullness of time, after I'd spoken to the President of the Royal Queensland Art Society.
And they felt they'd been caught in a cleft stick, you see. That, this was the trouble.
Oh, they could have. They certainly could have. But I think there must have been a little bit of that, "Oh, not a bad idea". You know, a bit of notice, you know. And it certainly did create a great deal of notice. Because we were having the first pavement art shows. We were putting up art in Queen Street, you know, on the pavement and selling it and the proceeds going to this scholarship.
So the Royal Queensland Art Society got a lot of profile out of it.
Well, I was doing, um, a lot of landscapes. I remember one that I did which I liked very much. I'd love to see it again now, was low tide at Wynnum. I was teaching at Wynnum, one of the schools I was teaching at. It was Moreton Bay Girls' High School. And there the tide goes out for miles, and it leaves this wonderful pattern of pools, waterpools in mud flats.
And, ah, it was a painting of that.
I don't know where it is. It was purchased by someone. It may not still exist. Then I tried to do - then I felt I was in a bit of a rut, you know, just doing these landscapes, you know, visual landscapes. So then I tried to do some rather more adventurous paintings, and that was a really - not a good idea, I don't think.
I remember doing a house in Spring Hill with a pawpaw tree growing up the side of it, you know, putting on thick paint. It was really more about style than content. Whereas the Wynnum painting was really about content, you know, that I just loved this thing of these mud flats going off into infinity. But here, I was trying to paint 'a picture' and I don't think it worked so well.
I think it was self-conscious.
I don't think I'd borrowed it, but I was trying to be, you know, a little bit modern, piling the paint on with a palette knife. And, you know, trying to be a little bit different, and scumbling and glazing paint, and you know, it was a bit of a concoction.
I don't think so. I think the - when the subject is driving you, inevitably it's a much better result than if an effect is driving you, and this really, I think was about effect. The paintings that I submitted for the scholarship that I eventually won, one of them was a, a religious painting that we had to do, and I did the raising of Lazarus.
And I think I've got a photograph of that somewhere. Not the painting. And I had my brother pose for Lazarus. Lazarus was lying on the ground, you know, going into the picture, like Mickey Mouse's nose, and ah, Christ was standing over him with his hands out like this. But of course, I'd drawn him badly. He didn't have enough space for his legs and Dad called the picture, he said it was called, 'Jesu, Lover Of Our Souls, See Me Standing In A Hole'. [laughs]
And that's the sort of thing you'd get from Dad. You know, completely devastating but very, very funny. But anyway, it won.
Oh, I wasn't. I wasn't. Believe me, no. There were three contenders that -and I, I'll never forget. I was teaching at Clayfield College. There were three schools I was teaching at - were Somerville House, Clayfield College and Moreton Bay Girls' High School. And I was teaching at Clayfield College and my now sister-in-law - she wasn't then, married to my brother - she was one of these younger artists and she was officiating at the judging.
So she found out that I had won it, and she rang me at Clayfield College. Well I will never forget it. It was the best thing that I've ever had. Nothing has ever touched it. I remember riding home in the tram, and it was just as if all of my dreams had come to fruition. I remember as the old tram turned the corner at Greenslopes, and I thought, "I'm outta here. I'm going to have a whole new life".
Well the plan was to go to Melbourne, and study in Melbourne. And, you know, it was quite on the cards that I wouldn't, because there was a judging panel of three people and you can, you can never tell with these things.
It was actually to go overseas. I forget how much it was worth, but I know the fare over was ninety pounds. Ah, I think it was to go overseas and stay for three months or something, and come back. So, it was probably a hundred and fifty pounds, I don't know. Oh, no, it'd be - have to be more than that, wouldn't it, for ... if the single fare was ninety ...
About three hundred, was it? Yes, I, I can't remember. But it was quite a lot of money to raise in those days. So over I went, and, um, it lasted for a while, but I stayed a bit longer.
Well, the only place I'd ever heard of was this place called the Byham Shaw School where Pat Prentice had studied. So it just never entered my head that these was anything else other than the Byham Shaw School. So the new Director of the Queensland Gallery was a man called Robert Haines. Wonderful man. And he said, "Well, where will you study?"
And I said, "The Byham Shaw". And he said, "For goodness sake, why?" And I said, "Well, where else?" And he had a friend who was then the principal of this school in Essex, and he said, "You've got to go either to the Slade or to the Royal College, but because they're both, er, tertiary institutions, you've got to get to them from another school. So go to this school of my friend and then get yourself into the Slade or the Royal College of Art."
And that's what I did. And without Robert, I suppose I'd have just sailed over there and enrolled into the Byham Shaw, which was rather a reactionary, you know, backward looking school at the time.
Well it was south west Essex. It was sort of like Walthamstow so it was still really London. Um, it was - the whole of London, England, was magic for me. I s'pose having a Scottish father, and also, you've got to remember in those days, we were brought up on a solid diet of the English romantic poets, English history. All of our sensibilities were tuned to that little island.
And to get back there and to be actually seeing these places, you know, the Houses of Parliament and - it was just - and I'll never forget the walking into the National Gallery. In those days it was hardly - oh, very little attended. I've been in there when there's only been about one or two other people in the room, in the '50s.
And I look at it now and it's buzzing with people and I think, gosh, it wasn't so long ago that this was a funny little backwater off Trafalgar Square there and ah, you know, all of those riches - the down and outs used to come in and they'd sleep on the benches over the - where the heat came up.
There was no air-conditioning in the building at all. But in the winter they'd turn the heat on. And they'd - these down and outs would all sort of lie on these benches and ...
By boat, which was wonderful. When I was coming back from England just a little while ago, I thought, if only boats were still - I hate flying, with a bitter hatred - and I loved the boat trip. And, you know, the whole excitement of Colombo, calling into Sri Lanka, or then Ceylon, and the exotic thing of it all. It was just so exciting for a twenty one year old.
Yes, it was. I was a bit uncertain about my ability to get into the Royal College, which was Robert's plan - Robert Haines' plan - because it was very, very competitive. But I told the principal, this man called Stuart Ray, ah, what I wanted to do, and he was very, very helpful. He helped me a lot. And I think I got in with a bit of a push here and a shove there by people like Stuart Ray and a couple of the staff at Walthamstow at the South West Essex Technical College.
I don't know whether I'd have got in there as easily as I did just under my own steam without anyone barracking for me.
Well, you had to submit, I think, three paintings. A figure composition, a landscape and a figure drawing. And then that was the first sift. And then out of that lot you then had to go in there and you had to do on the premises a life drawing and a figure composition drawing and something else.
And there was an interview. And I found out later that the drawings that we were doing there were really just to keep us busy while we waited for our turn for the interview. It all went on the interview. And there we were drawing and rubbing, and drawing and, you know, really trying so hard to get these drawings right.
And it was really - they were just sort of um - I don't know that they even looked at them. The interview was a terrifying experience, because the whole of the Royal College of Arts staff was lined up in a row, and, ah, they were asking very searching questions, you know. "What are you doing?" "Why are you doing it?"
"What's your biggest scheme?" "What's your ..." And a lot of things I'd really seriously never thought of before. But anyway, I got in, so ... I loved it. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, after selection, everybody for the three years, there were thirty people in each year, so there are ninety graduates, you know, in any one year at the College. But everyone who made the third year graduated. But there was a very rigorous weed out at the end of the first year.
It was a pretty good system, you know, because they were saying, "Don't let a person waste three years and then say 'Sorry, you didn't make it'". But when you got to the end, you got a First Class Pass of which there was one or two, or three perhaps at most. The Second Class Pass was the maximum and the Third Class Pass were the people that they really would have failed, but they had somehow let them slip through that sieve of the first year.
So I got through my first year sieve quite happily. I did actually very well. I was a very good student. I won the composition every year at the long winter ... summer holidays, it was. Um, they would give a composition subject, and every one in the school, the whole ninety students, could have a go at that.
And I won it in the second year. So I was a, you know, a good student. What I didn't have, unfortunately, was the um ... whatever it is, you know, that allows you then to take that, what you have as a student, and the natural raw talent that I had - you know, this ability to draw - and move that on into the next square and the next square and the next square.
And that's what really sorts the sheep from the goats, I think. You know, that was, it - I didn't know this at the time, when I was at the Royal College, that I didn't have it, but I actually didn't have it.
Yes, I did. I was, as I say, I was a very good student. And I did very, very well at the end. I got a First Class - one of those very coveted First Class Passes. I got [a] travelling scholarship and the drawing prize. So really I, I did terribly well.
But I just didn't have this - I don't know whether I didn't have the staying power or whether at the first hump I fell, you know, but that was about the time I was having babies, and whether that sort of shifted my emphasis sideways, so that - and if I'd taken that first hurdle, perhaps I could have gone on and taken the second and the third. Who knows?
I had. Yes. Right from being a little girl. I think it was the Courier Mail Art Prize and then there was the scholarship that I'd won. And no, I'd won lots of things. I was a little winner. And then of course I got ...
No, I was never going to be second bottom again.
Well, I think I was a good student.
Well, I was doing good paintings, and drawings were good and, um ... you know, but I don't really think achieving in art really is about that. I think it is about more. It's about having that relentless obsession. See, I think my son's got it.
Um, leaving aside the sort of paintings that he does, that sort of relentless obsession, you know, that there is nothing else in the world that you want to do, and nothing else in the world that you're going to do, other than this.
Oh yes. But remember as a schoolgirl I didn't know I was going to be a mum.
Oh, yes. Absolutely, and it never entered my head that I was ever going to do anything else but be an artist. That's really what I wanted, and I had my sights set on that, firmly and rigorously.
I was interested - as I said at the beginning - in people. I remember inveigling these two old souls, you know, who were sitting on a park bench, into my studio, these two men. Ah ... old age pensioners, or ... I don't know who they were, from some old age persons' home ...
There's another story in that, too. Anyway, I wanted to ... and this was, I suppose, an inference of Cézanne, Paul Cézanne. And I wanted to do a picture - this was for the Royal College, too, of two men, playing dom ... no playing c... no, dominoes. That's right, they were playing dominoes. And I sort of sat them at a table and they were in their sort of old coats and their hats, and one had a cap, I think.
You know, and they were playing dominoes. So I was interested in people. I remember another painting I did of three people sitting on a Tube train, 'cause I used to sit on the Tube, you know, all the time watching, you know, the people that just sit opposite. And the London transport sort of patterning, you know, of the seat.
And then the reflection of the other people in the, um, glass. You know when you're in the dark tunnel, how you get the reflection in the glass. And those were the sorts of things I was interested in. And portraits and life paintings. Not landscapes at all.
Don't know. Probably Pat. Influence of Pat Prentice. Probably ah, the landscape was there, and the people weren't, although I used to draw my brother a bit, because he was, he would model for me. But it wasn't so easy then, to get people to model for you. And at the Royal College of Art I had friends, you know, other students who would model for me. And, ah ...
At the college? Oh, yes. Yes. Obsessed because I had never really got exactly what I wanted out of, you know, the painting of a human being and transporting that human being onto a two dimensional surface. You know, I'd just never quite achieved that, what I wanted to do. And that was what was driving me.
Well the fashion in London at that time was Bernard Buffet, with his spiky things which I hated. I really hated them. But what was really interest ... influencing me, I think, was Paul Cézanne, Rembrandt, Chardin to a certain extent, but that was really what I was about, to see if I could somehow, in the 1950s, in London, you know, from a contemporary perspective, somehow translate 1950s life in the way that they had - nineteenth century and seventeenth century people - in their paintings.
But the influence really didn't come from other contemporary art. It was from art history more.
No. The teaching at the Royal College was really almost non-existent in those days. It was thought, you know, because it was a postgraduate school, everyone had [sic] supposed to have done their full course at their other art school. So it was really a great lark. The teachers would congregate in the staff room.
There was a big communal staff room and I'll never forget. There they all were with their pipes and their cigars and their bottles of wine, and having a jolly good time, and every now and then, one of them would shuffle up the corridor and make a remark or two, but, um, the only remark that this Ruskin Spear - Ruskin Spear was probably the best painter who was there - and it was a very useful remark, but at the point, at the time, I couldn't see it.
He said, "You know the trouble with you?" And I'm sort of all agog, you know, I'm going to find out at last. "You try too hard." Now I know what he meant. I know exactly what he meant, but I didn't know at the time what he meant.
You know, relax a bit. You know, I was, you know, trying to screw - catch that image and, you know, screw it down, much too rigorously and firmly. And he was trying to tell me, "Loosen up a bit", you know. "Just let it happen".
But saying that, you know, "You try too hard", I thought, "Well, gosh, you can't try too hard". You know, it just went over my head, I'm afraid.
It stayed with me still, yes. It's a remark I'll never forget, probably because it puzzled me. So whatever does he mean? And when it dawned on me what he meant, years later, that cemented it, I s'pose.
Well they were very good artists. Peter Blake was there when I was there. And I remember we had to put up a diploma show, what they called a diploma show at the end of the three years. And that's when they'd go 'round and do their assessment. And as I said, you'd - everyone would pass, but if you got one of those dreadful Third Class Passes, you know, forget it.
And I remember Pete, who I was very friendly with, Peter Blake, he was, into that slightly whimsical pop art thing, long before pop art really had become a fashion, long before Andy Warhol or any of the Americans were known, he was doing do-it-yourself collage kits.
You know, Warhol did his painting-by-numbers. Peter Blake did do-it-yourself collage. I said, "Pete, don't do it. You know, this - it'll be a disaster". But he had that sort of courage and whimsy to be able to do it. And of course, he was one of the other ones who got a First Class Pass.
Oh well, he had the, ah, thing with the areas with numbers, and in a box were the numbers and there might be a piece of fur or something and you had to put number three on there and there might be sort of something here ...
Interactive art. And I remember, you're not allowed to go upstairs when the judging was on, and I'd completely forgotten. And I just ran upstairs to get something, and there I saw this little clot of grey suits - they were all men, of course - grey suits nudging their way in to try and have a go at Pete's do-it-yourself collage kit.
And I raced back and I said, "Pete, I think you're a success. I think it's worked".
Oh he did very well, yes. And so he should have.
More conventional, yes. Mine were mostly portraits, but I had a, a really shocking experience and I don't know the answer to what happened in this case. They asked me, Carel Weight and Roger de Grey and a few of the staff asked me to get out the works I was going to put up and - which I did, and lined them along the corridor.
And this is all very nervewracking stuff, and they wandered up and down and - not talking to me, talking amongst themselves, saying, "Mmm, bit disappointing really, yes". "Expected a little better than this." "Yeah, I thought it'd be a lot better, yes. It's, ah, not really impressive. Is it really?"
And I remember going home, Roy and I were living together and I said, "Roy, I'm not even going to put them up. There is no point". And Roy said, "Oh, don't be daft". You know, and he came in to help me. And he helped me put them up. But my ... um, confidence level was so low.
And then Roger de Grey came up and said, "No, no, no, no, this won't do". You know, we just hung it. And I just - I knew if I stayed there I was going to be rude, so I walked away. Roy stayed and they - and really, he was just trying to help me. Just hung it a bit better.
And then they gave me a First Class Pass so I, I never - I just don't know whether they meant it and whether their visiting - they always brought in a visiting, er, artist to - an outsider, and whether that person liked them and talked them out of it, or - that's going to be a mystery till I die.
So. Or whether they were just trying to, um, give me a shock, I don't know. Wasn't very pleasant, though.
Now let's - before we leave your student life and move on to the next thing - go back to take up another thing from your youth. When you were a teenager in an all girls school, how did you discover boys? When and how did you start going out with boys?
I wasn't terribly interested in boys ... then. Really, at all. I was quite wrong for the age. I was very tall and very thin and very angular, and the thing to be then was petite and bosomy and hourglass figure. I just was all wrong.
I'd have been alright, you know, in the '60s, but all wrong in the late '40s. And, ah, I hated dancing, because, ah, I was always taller than any of the boys. My father used to say, "Watch the chin, dear. Watch the chin". I said, "What do you mean?" "Brylcreem, you know. When you get the Brylcreem under your chin." [laughs]
He was very, um ... as I say, a great comic, but he got right to the point.
No. No. I never forget - I was in a, all dressed up in my sort of strapless blue organdie or whatever it was you used to wear, the ballgown, going off and Dad was driving, I'm in the back of the car and I'm thinking, "Look, I really think I would rather be going anywhere in the world than where I'm going right now". And I thought, "Well, why do it? You don't have to do it". And I never went to another one.
And it was a lovely, liberating thing. But I just thought, you had to go to these balls and you had to sit on the side and be ignored by the boys. You know, the typical wallflower. If ever there was a wallflower, it was me. And just go through hell, just wishing yourself anywhere.
And this liberating thing, thinking, "Well, you know, you don't actually have to do it". And um, it was really at the Royal College, you know, when I started enjoying the whole thing of flirting, and ... etcetera.
A late starter, yes.
Oh, pretty wild. We all had to smoke. I had to get myself used to smoking and - which I didn't like at first. And we used to smoke those dreadful little Player's Weights, you know. And I remember, I think everything but my little finger was a sort of like a dark - sort of about the colour of this floor, a deep sort of golden brown from, you know, painting while I was smoking. You know, the linseed oil.
And the nicotine just created an incredible effect on your hands.
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."
Oh, yes. Indeed I did. And so did everyone else, I have to say.
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.
Oh ... since about 1953.
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.
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.
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]
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".
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.
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.
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 we did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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?
Roy always had a better idea about where he was going, yes.
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.
Um ... that is a hard question. No, I don't think I felt that at the Royal College of Art.
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.
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.
So I had a baby, with great joy.
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.
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]
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.
It really did, yes.
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 ...
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.
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.
Yes. And I've never not wanted to be, ever.
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.
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.
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.
Well I taught in girls' schools, and I just loved that age group, especially the sixteen seventeen year old. Davida Allen was in my class at Stuartholme, and Davida was the most fascinating person to have as a, ah, schoolgirl.
I remember on one occasion she - the nuns were very, I have to say, very, very accommodating. Because on one occasion, Davida covered herself, nude, in blue paint and pressed herself to the canvas and then she built the picture around this. And I had the dilemma of saying, "Well actually, Davida, it has been done before". Yves Klein did it.
I knew she didn't know and I thought, "No, it's the first time for her, and so therefore it's the first time, as far as she's concerned". And the nuns were quite cool about this, but Davida's mother was not. I remember I had to go up to the mother in, um, Toowoomba and say to her, "Well, Mrs Allen, you know, there's an element of innocence here".
"That she can do that, cover herself in blue praint [sic] and press herself" ... "Oh, do you think so?", she said. And, ah, we managed to get over it. But Davida and I, of course, have stayed very good friends, ah, you know, right through our life. We still are. I'm god-daughter [sic] to her daughter ... godmother to her daughter and ah, we're in contact. Not regularly, but every time there's a bit of a joy I get a lift out of it.
But there were lots of them like that. You know, Davida's one that stands out because she was so bizarre. But, you know, I just love the adventurous, open, fun loving thing of girls at that age, sixteen seventeen.
She needed many reassurances.
It could have been. I think Miss Craig has been an enormous influence in my life. She stands as a great monolith of perfection, and fear. As I said, you know, we were really scared of her. But she was so um, gently concerned about each girl in the school, and helping each girl. Always - never letting you know she was helping you.
I didn't find out for years after that she was telling the staff not to upbraid me for missing classes because I was in the art room. You know, I didn't know any of that. I didn't even know actually, what she'd said to my father in that phone call, when she persuaded him to let me stay on.
So she was always in the background, always there, and I, I s'pose in a way it may have been. But I felt in Davida, there was someone worth going in to bat for. And Mrs Allen, who was a lovely woman - now dead - but she was, she was the absolute epitome of genteel, upper middle class, propriety and to have Davida was an absolute, ah, problem.
I remember her taking me into Davida's bedroom and it was - she'd done it up beautifully, all little pink lace things, with little teddy bears and dolls, and there's Davida, you know. Anyway, Davida got paid back, because she had a daughter. I said to her that she complains about it from time to time - not seriously, of course - but, ah, I say, "Davida, you're ... Sarah's doing to you what you did to Dorothy".
The girls, yes.
I loved it. And then when Bill - it was Bill Robinson, actually, who persuaded me to go teaching at Kelvin Grove. And I remember saying to him, "Bill, I just so love this age group. I'm not sure that I love that other age group, you know, when they're moving into young adulthood". Um ...
It was a teachers' training college then. The Colleges of Advanced Education. It would now be a university, of course. Colleges of Advanced Education hadn't yet started, so it was a teachers' training college. And, ah, so they were post-graduation, you know, university aged students, and, ah, I wasn't a hundred percent sure that I was going to be happy there. I was feeling - was I - I always think, "Am I adequate?"
That's always - and I think this is a female scourge. I call it the 'who me' syndrome. You know, someone says, "Why don't you do that?", and you think "Who? Me?" You know, as if anyone else but me, you know, is the appropriate person to do that job. And I think a lot of women suffer from that. Or a lot of women my age. I don't think younger women do any more, thank God.
But, um, I felt, you know, "Was I able to do it?" Bill was a wonderful, staunch friend. Always has been, always will be, you know. And he encouraged me, and, ah, insisted that I do it.
Well, I think he could see that I was a good teacher. He was a splendid teacher. Bill is - has just got a whole wash of grateful students in his trail, you know, that just - he, he was a life changer for many of his students. And ah, he could see that I was a good teacher, and he thought I'd be good in the institution. And he encouraged me.
I think, well, Bill very much, but I think also at the back of it is that thing that, you know, one has to keep moving forward. I remember my sister-in-law saying to me, "Iisn't it funny that Gran", that's my mother, "produced two such ambitious people?" And I'd never thought of myself as - yes, it is - "Ambitious. Me?" She said, "Oh, yes. You and Ian", her husband. And, ah, I've thought about it since. I've thought, "Yes. She was right. I was ambitious".
But I was never conscious of being ambitious. I never thought, this is where I want to get to, and I'll get to it by these steps. But when I was going to make a step forward, and feeling nervous about it, a sense that I must keep moving forward helped me, you see. I think otherwise, I'd have taken the easy option, not been persuaded by Bill, and stayed teaching in high schools, which I loved.
But it wouldn't have been a good thing, when I think now back on my life, if I'd stayed as a high school teacher.
Oh, well, I think I've had more to offer, actually, and I think as a gallery director, I think everything that I've done since, I don't think that was a broad enough palette for me really, which sounds arrogant. Because, you know, what more can you want than eager seventeen year old [sic]. But I just think for me, personally, I needed a broader palette.
Well also, once you moved into teacher training, there was a sort of multiplier effect of what - of your capacities as a teacher, you could transmit them to a whole lot more children that way, couldn't you, really, by training other teachers.
There was, and there was also the despair of, um, seeing the quality of some of the people coming through and thinking, "My God, these people haven't the wit ever to get another job, and for - they're going to sort of, blight the lives of kids for the ... " You know, it's a terrible responsibility, teaching, I think. High school teaching.
And some of them are marvellous, of course, but some of them were abysmal.
I'm just trying to think. I, I went to Kelvin Grove in, ah, when I was just turned 40, and I left in 1977. I was born in '31, so that makes it ... 46. So six years. Seven years. No, wait a minute, it wasn't. [INTERRUPTION]
Kelvin Grove was a teachers' college, and therefore in those days, not so much emphasis put on research and scholarship, more on teaching. But did you pursue any writing or, or publishing while you were there?
Yes, I did. I did my first book while I was at Kelvin Grove, and that was a direct result of being at Kelvin Grove, because I realised I was teaching teachers to teach art, and I realised that all of the art books that existed, that could be used in schools, had examples of art that the children could never see. Like St Peter's in Rome, or um, the Mona Lisa. You know, there was nothing that they could see.
And, ah, nothing to my mind that made them - helped them look at a work of art as an, an audience, not a maker. And so I wrote this text for schools which looked at the components, if you like, of art space, for instance. Line, you know, dynamic movement, all ... different aspects. Colour, you know. So that ...
And then looked at it, not chronologically, but using sculpture and architecture and painting from whenever, you know. Just through the whole stretch of art history. At the end of the book I had a chronology so that they could see, you know, where things fitted. And it was very popular, the book.
In fact, it was really popular. A good money earner, that one. Ah, but in a funny way it was popular - more popular overseas than here, because it was, its rights were taken up by a, um, English publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This guy from Holmes McDougall in - publishers in England was just looking through the racks.
He wanted to have something to look at when he went home to his hotel, and he just happened to pick this up, this book of mine. And he took it, and he thought, "Oh this is a goer". And they bought the end on publishing rights, and produced it in England, where it did very well.
But the examples in it were like Queensland houses and the Brisbane City Hall and - so it was ironic. It was custom designed for Queensland students, but did very well in London - in England, really.
Yes, it was custom designed in terms of the pictures, but the concept was what was really interesting to me in that book, because you started in - with, with the environment in which children live, and took them from that through other aspects of things to um, finally, you know, a space within a frame.
And how to look at it, yes.
I think probably from teaching, and trying to get these - to be teachers, you know, these young people who were going to be teachers - to get them to understand, you know, we're not just learning about Doric and Ionic and Corinthian orders of the Greek architecture. You're really talking about how people lived and why. What was this thing, the Parthenon? You know, what was it used for?
How did the people who lived in Greece at the time view it and use it? You know, what was the difference between that and say, Chartres Cathedral? And the difference was, it was just a shrine for a goddess. They didn't go inside. The ceremony took place outside. And little things like that.
And so they could then relate it to their own, as you said, their own lives and their own way of going about things. And looking at market-places and places where people congregate and meet. Every town's got one, whether it's a shopping mall, or whether it's the Agora , or whether it's a market in Vietnam, you know.
And that's what I was trying to do. Try to look at that whole bigger picture. It was - proved to be a bit of a problem for teachers, though, because if they didn't have the chronology in their heads, and I'm talking about say Piero della Francesca in relation to space, and architecture in relating the figures into Greek columns, you know, and how the space works around in the painting in relation to architecture.
And then in the next breath I'm talking about Picasso, or Matisse. I think if they didn't have that in their head and couldn't help the kids, I think it got a bit confusing. But it was a [sic] worth doing, I think.
I know, yes.
I don't win prizes, unfortunately. I've never won a lottery or a prize of any sort, but I do get awards, yes. Ah, this one was really a fluke, because the [sic] Holmes McDougall entered it for the Times Literary Awards, and they have a segment for information books. And there's a book ... a segment for senior information and junior information.
Junior information is really primary school, and it won the senior information award, which was terrific. It was a surprise to me, and surprise to ... now I'm trying to think who published it. Er, Rigby. A surprise to Rigby's too because - and a shock for Rigby's, because Rigby's hadn't let on that they'd sold the rights, the publishing rights. I was getting no royalties for all of this sale in, ah ...
And I being the docile person in these respects - I'm not docile normally, but in those things, I am - I never followed that up. Never upbraided them and never received any royalties, either.
Never got royalties from the English ... well, that, that end. Whatever they call it. When they just have all the material and they just sell that. Anyway, that's another story.
I got the award, and I was very grateful.
After teaching at Kelvin Grove, I then had long since moved away from painting, and I was teaching painting as well as art history, and I began to feel a bit of a fraud, 'cause somehow, you have to be a practitioner. You have to be engaged in the problems that you're trying to help the children, or the young people, solve.
And, um, I thought well, I've got all of my qualifications in art practice, I've got nothing in art history or theory. So I took advantage of the then generous study leaves that they used to offer. They - you could then apply for a twelve month study leave. So I applied for the Courtald Institute in London, and got in, to my amazement.
Because I had no first degree, but I got in on the strength of my - the success of my publication. And of course, they knew it in England and - 'cause it had been published in England. And so they waived the fact that I didn't have a bachelor's degree, because it's a, it's a postgraduate college. So I had no first degree, and, ah, I had the best year of my life. 1976-77.
That's - I have to date everything to that. Had I been to the Courtald, had I not been to the Courtald. Because that was the great um, real, you know, formative thing, I think, in my life. I had a marvellous time at the Courtald. I happened to have the last - one of the last years when John Golding was still at the Courtald.
He was my supervisor, and, ah, he was a sheer joy to work with. And, ah, it ... there again, I was terrified, you know. I hadn't written an exam. I was 46 - something in the vicinity of - and had not written an exam since I was 17. And so, you know, immediately that thought, "Can I do it? Can I, can I possibly do it?"
But as it turned out, I found I could do it, you know, really I just, suddenly I just slipped back into student mode very, very easily and did a postgraduate degree without ever having done an undergraduate degree, which would have helped me more than somewhat, I have to tell you. But ...
I did a Master's thesis.
Interesting enough, I'm then - now a teacher, I've got no thought of art galleries. I had grown up in Brisbane, remember, in the '30s, without access to anything. All I can remember is that 'Evicted', and I was fascinated to think of how information is brought to places that are in remote areas.
Where the centre of what you're wanting to do is elsewhere. And New York - in the 1940s the centre of art was Paris. And I was fascinated to think how those American artists, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and De Kooning etcetera, how did they - what fed them when Paris was where it was all at?
Now of course, they were there when the expatriate Parisians were moving across to, you know - Matta and André Breton - were moving across to New York, but it wasn't just that. It was Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art, and he was bringing in these incredible exhibitions, out of studios.
He was selecting them out of Picasso's studios, out of Braque, out of Miró, out of, you know, the Impressionists, the Bauhaus. And they were having access to these in New York, really in a way that I think - this is my thesis, anyway - that the young artists in Europe, who were right in the middle of it, couldn't see.
Barr was sort of laying it out as it were on a laboratory br- ... bench, so they could look at this, see what was useful in it for them, and take what was useful and move it into the next square. And they did. That school of American, post-war American painting, really carried forward those really exciting inventions of the early part of the twentieth century into the next square.
It wasn't European artists. European artists later have, but, ah - like Anselm Kiefer etcetera, now - but then, in the '40s and '50s, it, it - the centre as it were moved to New York. And I think Alfred Barr and his policy at the Museum of Modern Art had very much to do with that. And of course, then in my life, subsequently my passion in, ah, as a museum director was the fact that I could not only display what the museum had to the best of my ability, but also bring in what we didn't have. [INTERRUPTION]
They thought a great deal of it, actually. I did very well and, um, John Golding, who was my - as I say, my supervisor - was fascinated, because I went over to New York in order to do this, and I worked there, and did a lot of the original work on the early days of the, um, museum, and was able to talk to some of the artists. Some of them were still alive. Pollock, of course, was not alive but his widow, Lee Krasner was, and I was able to find out, you know, whether they really had been - were they actually going to the museum, were they getting a lot out of those exhibitions.
So I was able to do some very interesting work. In fact, with Lee Krasner, with Pollock's widow, I had a immediate rapport. She was a really tough lady from the Bronx, and we got on beautifully. I was saying, "Well now what did Pollock have in his library? Could he have had access to these things outside of the Museum of Modern Art?" And she says, "Well", she says, "Pollock's ... " - she used to call him Pollock - "Pollock's studio's exactly as it was when he left it". This is in 1975. No work's, no really serious work's been done on Pollock.
She said, "You come up". She said, "Come up, stay with me. Gee I'll love it. You know, come up to New Hampton and spend a week. You can work in his studio". And I ran up John Golding and I said, "John, I've just struck gold here. Lee Krasner's given me access to everything in Pollock's studio. I can, you know, do a whole ... but I'll need more time". And there was this strangled silence at the other end of the phone and John said, "Oh", he said, "Betty, the Courtald doesn't give extensions of time". And you know, quite rightly too, because, you know, that would have given me a huge advantage over other students.
And, ah, so, I had to turn it down. But I think I did the right thing. It was either get your Master's, or get this material on Pollock. But I think .. the Master's in the end was the way to go.
No, I didn't, because you know, there again, it was - I was in the middle of teaching. I had a one year break. That's what John said - John Golding said - "Look, do it. Do it. Come back and do your thesis next year". But you see, I couldn't. I was - I had a family to keep, you know. Roy, as you know as a painter doesn't - you know, it had to be my salary that was really the mainstay of the ... circus. The establishment.
Well they came over on the proceeds of that little book, you know. The 'Understanding Art' book. And I was terribly upset at the thought of them getting on an aeroplane and then stepping off the aeroplane in London and not experiencing the world, you know. Because I'd gone over by boat. And so I encouraged Roy to try and find a way of going by boat, and he found one of the last, the Chandras line. This Greek line was still running trips to London, and they got on that.
They went through the Panama, and it was a marvellous thing to do for the kids, you know, because they had all of those stops right the way across. Marvellous trip, and then they lived outside of London, at a place called Eversley Cross. I lived in college, 'cause I knew - it was a two year course I was doing, but I was trying to do it in a year.
So I knew the only way I could do it would be this total, undivided, boring attention, you know, and ah, which I gave it, but I could only give it by living in college, which I did. And then at weekends I'd go down to Eversley Cross. By, you know, by weekends my eyeballs were swivelling in their sockets. I was absolutely no good to anyone ...
... and the poor kids. But Roy was wonderful. They had a wonderful time.
Oh, yes. And it set - you know, my eldest son is an archaeologist, ancient historian. It was taking him up to see Hadrian's Wall that it was all about. You know, that's when he started, the magic of walking along this wall and thinking of the Picts on one side and the ... that got him interested in archaeology.
He's a near eastern archaeologist, as it turned out, but that interest in history, in ancient history, dated from then.
Yes, I did, because that was one of the rules. You had to ... er, do a - the, the period you'd been away - if you'd been away for a year, you had to do at least a year on your return. And of course, when I came back I was in much demand, because I now had this very classy degree. The Courtald is probably the best - still is, I think - the best art history degree that you can get.
And so, I was being courted from - in Melbourne, but I had to do my year back in, ah, Brisbane. But then I must say I did take off immediately, which gives me a few qualms of conscience, because, ah, it's a bit opportunistic, to have taken that, got your degree, and then immediately gone off to something else.
But I was headhunted there for that job in Melbourne, and again, my immediate impulse was, "Oh well, you're not good enough for Melbourne. You got away with it in Brisbane, but you're not going to be able to do it in Melbourne". And there was terrible anxiety. I had to go down for an interview, and I went down for this interview, and they put me up in a hotel and I didn't - that was one of those few nights when you just don't sleep.
'Cause I was - she said, "We'll ring you in the morning". And I wanted him to ring and say, "Look, I'm sorry, you didn't get it. We ... " And I would have gone back to Brisbane, all of my problems would have been solved. I hadn't shirked, you know, this opportunity. Because whenever an opportunity emerges, I try to reach for it.
So I'd reached for it, and if I'd failed fair and square, I could have gone back to Brisbane, and, ah, lived happily ever after. But he rang up and said, "You've got it". So that sealed it.
It was Senior Lecturer at Art History ... it was then called PITT. Preston Institute of Technology. It's now - then it became Phillip Institute of Technology, and now I think it's RMIT. It's now, of course, as I said, a university, as they all are. But, um, it was a fairly progressive tertiary institution in Melbourne. Brian Seidel was the Head of School, and he was trying to set up something a little bit different to the other schools in Melbourne, and I think he did.
Um, I was worried. I needn't have been. You know, I love teaching, and - I made some very good friends there amongst the students at Phillip Institute. But, er, there's always that, um, initial feeling of lack of confidence in every time I've moved into the next step. But fortunately, there's enough in me to think, you know, "No, come on. You can do it. You know, take that step". And of course, it worked out beautifully.
It was a bit of a trauma for, um, the family. See, Bill Robinson had - while I was at teachers' training college - decided to move up to Toowoomba. He was very unhappy at Teachers' Training Kelvin Grove. And he moved up to Toowoomba. He moved his whole family up to Toowoomba into this terrible little house. His studio was the, the tin recess that they used to put wood stoves in, remember? And that was his - the only space he could have as a studio.
And I - it was a disaster, but fortunately, he hadn't - he'd had difficulty selling his house in Brisbane. He hadn't sold it, so they could move back to it, and pick up their lives. I didn't want to do that to my family, uproot them all from their various schools, go to Melbourne, find the same thing, disaster, hate it, can't do it, and have to move back to Brisbane.
So I, I moved on ahead. I spent a year in this miserable student accommodation at La Trobe University, which was terrible, and all of the kids were reaching a point in their schooling. Ben had finished. Paul was about to finish - he had to do Grade 12. Peter was about to move into Grade 11. There was a natural break for each child, so, you know, the year after seemed the year to do it.
In retrospect, I think I made a mistake. I think I shouldn't have left the kids at that stage for a year. I think I should have taken my courage in both hands.
I think they needed me. I was pushing them, you know. I said to - Paul, whom you've met - you know, I said, "Paul, I'll never forgive myself for walking away from you at that crucial point in your year", because he was achieving terribly well in Grade 11, you know, top. The last thing I did was go to prize giving where he received the Form Prize.
The next year, he was - he virtually failed. He only got his HSC because of his terrific marks in Grade 11. And he said, "Are you kidding?" He said, "That was the best year of my life". I'd got off his back. He went wild. But I still don't quite forgive myself, for that.
That's a very good question. They'd say - they'd be cheering now. Now let me be absolutely honest. Needless to say I missed them terribly and used to write regularly and look forward to their letters regularly, but I'm a bit of a cat that walked by itself. And, ah, and this has been a problem for Roy. I think it's been a problem for all of them, this sense that I'm sort of going along this tunnel which is mine, and I'm being very self-critical here, you know, because I think this is a great fault of mine.
But you can only be what you are, and, ah, I think when I was down there, I was doing it in their name, you know. I wanted it to succeed and I wanted - because I knew that Peter, in particular, would flourish in Melbourne, 'cause he was getting interested in music and I knew all of these things that, you know ... I knew it was going to be a good move.
So I was doing it for them, but I am very independent and can manage ... not easily, but can manage on my own. And, ah, I think in that year, while I hated it, I hated living in that dreadful college, I hated being in amongst students who were nearly twenty years younger than me and it was ... all of that was hard. But at the same time, I was so engrossed in trying to make that first year work - and I was also looking for a house, and I was also trying to pick a school.
I used to go around to schools at closing time when the bell went at three and watch the kids as they came out, and cross them off the list or tick them according to what I - how I thought they were behaving in the, in the street. So I had to pick the school and then having picked the school, I had to find a house within the radius of the school. So there was a lot to do in that year, in my defence, for managing things so well.
And yet you say you've felt a bit guilty ever since, but you think about it. All over the world at this moment, there are men going ahead of their families to establish situations like that. I mean, it's quite common for men to do that.
Yes, but I don't think ... well, this father anyway, I don't think he would have put the same ... I know he didn't, put the same emphasis that I did on their ... you know, achievement. And that's what I think that Paul says, "Are you kidding, it was the best year of my life", I had stopped sort of encouraging and pushing him and helping him with his homework and you know, doing all of those sorts of things, and trying to have him achieve to the best of his ability.
And I did that with all of them. And I do think mothers are probably better at that than fathers. I don't know, sort of ... Roy was terrific in other respects, you know, in camping and outing and, you know, they had marvellous times with their father. But I don't think in those things where it requires doing things that the, that the child may not particularly want to do, I don't think he was so good at that.
I was better at that, and I just think they were at those crucial years of their life, where they could have done with a bit more steadying, perhaps.
The year after, yeah.
Um, yes, it did, because I had to sort of suddenly fit into a much bigger, more complex and complicated city. Melbourne was a very different story to Brisbane.
Yes, I think I did. Brisbane didn't ever appeal to me. Why they didn't appeal to me ... the society, really the whole ... structure. This was a, was a liberating thing for me, Melbourne. The lovely thing that I found about Melbourne was that you could dip in and out of society with ease. You didn't ... you know, in Brisbane you're either in or you're out.
And I think Sydney - I don't know, I've never lived in Sydney - I have a suspicion that Sydney's a bit like that too. In Melbourne, you could - you were accepted and the women in Melbourne were very good. I remember Janine Burke and Lesley Dumbrell and a lot of the women were very - you know, that sort of sense of sisterhood which I'd never, never, never experienced. It just didn't exist in Brisbane.
And that was very comforting and warming and welcoming for me. And, ah, I really enjoyed that, and I enjoyed the complexity of Melbourne's life. But I'm the sort of person, as I say, a bit of a recluse. In fact, I am a recluse I think. And I don't - not a party girl, you know. You know, I don't want to be at every opening.
In fact, I hate openings, exhibition openings. Like exhibitions but hate exhibition openings. And in Melbourne I discovered, you know, you could go to an opening. You'd be welcome, and then not go to them for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and then go to another one and you're still welcomed, you know. It was so ... and I really enjoyed that aspect of it.
Yes, I think I did. I did it without sort of really realising that I was doing it. I just really loved - I really wanted to teach the first years, rather than the third years or the postgraduates, because I felt in the first year, you get them and you can really get them interested in history - but I was only teaching history of art, of course, now by this stage.
And, ah, I did love that, and I did become, you know, something of a, a favoured teacher in the place because I was able - I'm a good communicator and I was able to do this. And, um, I found that I was then moved to Principal Lecturer. And then Brian Seidel decided that he was going to resign, retire early.
And I suddenly thought, uh-oh, you know, I'm Principal Lecturer, so, you know, there's only one - like I was almost a Deputy Head. I thought, whoever is Head is crucial, you know. It's got to be someone I can work with. And I remember doing a lot of vigorous lobbying. I remember trying to talk Bill Wright [sp?] into ... talking to a whole lot of people I thought would be good. I wrote out an application - I didn't want the job, but I just - this was a failsafe, you know, in case ...
I didn't want to work under the, a person I didn't want to work with. I would rather have worked with, you know, people like Bill Wright [sp?] would have been great. I would have enjoyed working under them. And on the ... about four thirty on the day the applications closed, 'cause I was Principal Lecturer, of course, I could look through the applications and see, none of my carefully nurtured people had applied.
So I just slipped mine in, and of course got it, and became Head of School. And I was Head of School for some years.
Yeah, that was my first ... exam[ple] ... you know, taste of having to, you know, lead an exhibition ... an institution, move it forward, fight for its budget, you know, and all of that administrative side of things. That was my introduction to it.
Oh, I found ... I liked it. I loved the thing of trying to sort of progress the thing and ... what I didn't like, actually, was the fact that I was the only - and there was one other woman, Head of School, Head of Nursing, and me, and there was a - the academic boards, you know, all of the different schools, Science and Phys Ed etcetera, and there'd be a huge academic table - you'd be all sitting around there.
And I found that my - a woman's voice is a real problem in a big forum like that, because they would just talk me down. And you can either be talked down or become shrill. But you don't have the tongue, you know, that - like a man's voice can just talk you out. And that was a real problem, and I was ... complaining about this with my staff. I've always had an ability to get on with my staff, which has probably been the secret of my success.
And this artist, Victorian artist, Dom de Clario, I was saying, "You know, well the trouble is, I just get talked down at these blooming academic boards. You know, Peter Ikinbark [sp?] just talks straight over the top of me". And Dom said, "Oh Betty, you haven't a hope". He said, "All of the business is done in the squash ... in the showers of the squash court". He was a very athletic young man. He used to play squash.
And I said to him, "Okay, Dom. You be my mole. You listen very carefully. Tell me what's going on". And so at academic board - Dom would do this. He became my mole. [INTERRUPTION]
It's always been a very collaborative one. You know when I said that that I think is probably the secret of my success, I had terrific staff at Phillip. Dale Hickey, Rod Bishop, Dom de Clario whom I'd already met, Joe Delutis. Wonderful - you know, good artists, good teachers, and we always work as a team. There's never any real hierarchy.
I know there is. There's a hierarchy in the fact that I was a Dean and probably getting a bit bigger salary than anyone else, but there was no hierarchy of opinion. And I think that has happened wherever I've gone. And my success, really, has been the success of those people, combined, and the fact that I probably encouraged them to do their thing and gave them space to do it in.
See, Rod was a very important person, and, and I was able to elect him as my Principal Lecturer. And, ah, he was a very valuable member of staff. There's always one member of staff that you'd like to take with you when you move on, and Rod was one. John Stringer was another, from Western Australia. There's always someone that you feel is very special, and you feel sad to leave behind.
Did your background in teaching affect your leadership style? You said that you always looked for the special qualities in people, in, in your students when you were teaching. Did you do the same with your staff?
Probably. I, I was ... I could recognise what was good about them, and, ah, and then - I've never felt threatened. You know a lot of people spend half their life looking over their shoulder, worrying about someone seeming to be better than they are. I didn't care. I wanted them to be better than I was, because the better they were, the better the whole operation of the school was, and the whole, um, system was.
So from that point of view, um, I was a very egalitarian leader, and always have been, and its - I've always torn my hair watching my - people come after me, getting rid of all of their strength, all of their top people, moving them off the scene, simply because they felt a little bit ... I presume a bit threatened by them, and not realising that those were the very people that were going to make them flourish. But, that's how that was.
No, probably might have been a reaction against that, because Mum was very hierarchical. She would never let me bring children home, because if - in case the house was untidy. Um, and there were these very strict rules. Saturday was my day to clean the house and I would - you know, had to do the whole thing like a cleaner would do, you know, top to bottom.
And it didn't matter, you know, if there was a birthday party, whatever was on, I had to do that. That was my ... "No, that's your job. That's your responsibility." And I'd bleat, "What about Ian?" "Oh, Ian has to mow the ... the lawn." And Ian did have to mow the lawn, but the house took longer. But anyway, she had these rigid rules, and I don't think ... I think I've reacted against that, probably a little bit too much.
I remember saying to the kids once, "I'm really disappointed you didn't ever bring your friends home". You know, I wanted this lovely open - it was an old Queenslander house we had in Indooroopilly - and I wanted kids coming in and out, and, and Ben said, "Are you kidding?" And I said, "No, why?" He said, "Well, Dad was up the back in the studio". He'd been in New Guinea and he'd decided that the only garb, sensible garb in Queensland was the New Guinea laplap.
And he was up in the back with a laplap and they were not going to bring their kids home and have their father walk out in a laplap. So there are restraints that you don't even know about.
I've never actually thought about that. I, I can think what I did in Western Australia and at the National Gallery but, ah, at Phillip, probably by, um, allowing those rather special people better, um, room to move ... I don't know that I made a terrific, er, difference to Phillip. I think Brian Seidel had established, you know, that open system before me which was really valuable.
Where students ... you know, he um, introduced, you know, the, the sound element, the film and sound aspect of the school, and that was ... and the photography. That was all very important. I improved it, I s'pose, from health and safety. I remember the - in the photography, they were in these - in this, you know, building, enclosed building, with these terrible fumes.
And I remember spending -and winning, you know - the money for building, you know, big exhaust things so that the students didn't die of some terrible toxic fumes, because, you know, really they should not be working under those circumstances. And the, the Art School then was from that point of view, really inadequate. And that's the only thing I can think of, really.
Yes, they did. I think Roy didn't so much. I think Roy loved Brisbane, but then of course, he was in his studio in his lap lap, you know. He wasn't having to cope with that heat in normal European clothes. But, ah, oh, Peter just fell on his feet. Peter hated Brisbane. He was a real little outsider in Brisbane, 'cause Brisbane was very much, you know, boys, you know. And there was Pete. Pete loved knitting, and Pete loved making little finger puppets, you know, and doing little things like that.
And painting eggs. He did this marvellous - marvellous paintings on blowing, you know, just a hen's egg and doing these wonderful little decorated eggs. Not the occupation of a boy in Brisbane, and he was ... the life was teased out of him. And when he went to Melbourne, of course, he fell right on his feet, you know, because of that imaginative, artistic life was admired and allowed to flourish.
Oh! Yes. Much better. And the school was much better. He - Peter is very bright, and he'd gone off, without my knowing it, to sit the exam for the scholarship to go to St Peter's Lutheran College in Brisbane. We couldn't afford to send a child to a, you know, a private school, and he won the scholarship. And I was a bit cross, because Tim, who was coming after, I thought would probably not win a scholarship and I thought, "That's very unfair".
You know, that the one child is at this special school and the other child is not. But as it happened, that's when the break came and I could move them to Melbourne. But I don't think St Peter's was really any better than University High where I found them, eventually. You know, I did my school testing. University High was the only one I would countenance.
And then I had to find a house within University High's zone, which was Brunswick. That's how we came to live in Brunswick. And the two boys, Peter and Tim, both went to University High and I think, got an education better than they would have got at a private school in Brisbane.
Roy was an artist working in Brisbane with all his contacts there. His dealers, his outlets, his reputation based there. Did you think that it was a big ask for him to move all of that down to Melbourne?
It was a big ask, and it's been a big ask every time we've moved, because he's been moving away, as you say, from the whole environment that he's built. It doesn't matter so much with dealers, because you can still exhibit in Brisbane, you can still exhibit wherever. But you lose your support system, to some extent.
And I was conscious of that. On the other hand, you know, I, I was the one that was earning the living and keeping the whole ship afloat and I had to keep, you know, moving that forward. And people used to say to me, "Oh, aren't you lucky that Roy is a, you know, moveable feast", as it were. You know, that - you know, he's not tied into a job.
And this is a problem with couples, you know, when they're both professionals, and one's profession leads in this way and another profession leads them that way. Roy's profession, because it is home based, studio based, was, in a sense, transportable, but only in a sense. You're quite right. It was um, difficult for him.
And I think he really fell on his feet and loved - he loved Brisbane, but he also loved Fremantle, living in Perth, in Western Australia.
Yes. The next move.
And how did that come about, Betty? There you were an academic, and you were, you know, doing very well there and leading your institute. People might have thought that at the age you were then - you were well into your fifties by the time you had finished there - that you would stay there, that that was ... you'd found where you were. What brought about the change?
Well, it - I was actually headhunted for the Art Gallery of Western Australia and I think that I had made quite a, um, reputation for myself on the Australia Council. I was Chair of the Visual Arts Board, then I became Deputy Chair of the Council itself, and that brings you into Australia wide prominence, you know. You're noticed.
And I think it was Janet Holmes à Court that had noticed, and when Robert Holmes à Court was made the Chairman of the Board of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, I think Janet suggested that when he was drawing up his list for the headhunter, that they look at me, because I just got a phone call from the headhunter.
Would I go in and, ah - for this interview? And I thought at the time, "Well, my gosh". I was just ready - I'd just done eight years at Phillip, I'd gone almost my ... I'd never been I don't think eight years - more than eight years anywhere. You know, eight years is enough I think to get yourself - to do what you want to do. Anyway, I'd done my eight years and, ah, I'd always thought, you know, where I'd really like to be is working in an art gallery, but thought I'd missed the bus.
But had never thought of, you know, jumping all of those stages that gets you forward in an art gallery, and jumping into the top seat. And so it seemed too good to be true. Had a long, long, half-day interview with this headhunter, and then I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. And so I thought, oh well, you know, so I kept moving ...
But I kept getting phone calls from the headhunter and saying, "Was I still interested?" And I was saying, "Yes". And months went by. Literally months. And then he rang up again. It's about late October, early November. He said, "Are you still interested?" I said, "Well actually, no." I said, "I'm beginning to think about the next academic year now and this has gone on forever. It can't go on". "Oh", he said, "Look, don't, don't drop it".
And I thought he was interested, the headhunter, and the next thing I said - he rang up in a couple of days. He said, "Look, they want you to go over there, to fly over". I said, "Oh, that's good. Is this for the interview?" And he said, "Um, not sure. Not sure, but just to go over". There was my clue, you see. Robert was doing to him what he did to me. He had no idea what Robert wanted.
So I flew over for this interview, and it was the most bizarre interview. If ever anything was telling me what I was dealing with, it was all built into that interview. Becaause the interview - I had the day at the gallery, so I'd looked at the gallery thoroughly, I'd talked to the senior members of staff, I'd looked at the store room, I'd tried - you know, because I thought all of these questions they're likely to ask me.
And the interview was for five o'clock, so I turned up at about quarter to five. And I'm sitting outside the boardroom, thinking as you do, you know, "Now if they ask me about West Australian artists, what will I say?" 'Cause I don't know a lot about Western Australian artists. Trying really to keep focused.
And then I, I looked at the clock and it was twenty to six. And I thought, "Well, that's very odd, to be as late as that, but don't lose your focus. Now, you know, what about, you know, Australian art in relation to international art? You know, what will I say about that?" So I'm really sort of still thinking. And you know, I look at the clock and it's half past six.
This is an hour and a half. I think this is bizarre. And my first thought - this is typical female stuff - my first thought was, they've forgotten. Now I'd better creep away so as not to embarrass them. And then I thought, "No, blow it. I'll jolly well embarrass them. I'm going to be sitting here, my arms folded, and when they come out I'll say, 'Good evening gentlemen, I hope you had a good meeting. I have been sitting out here since five o'clock in the afternoon!'"
And just as I got really bolshie, someone comes out and says, "Would you come in?" So I've lost all of my composure, all of my focus and I go in there, I'm still feeling a little bit bolshie, though, I have to say. And Robert - I don't know whether you ever - he was, you know, tall, dignified, and he used to use silence as a weapon to beat you over the head with.
So he introduced me around the table ... [INTERRUPTION]
So he introduced me around the table in a desultory sort of way as if it was neither here nor there, and I didn't feel in any way that this was an important event. And he indicated where I was to sit, which was next to him. He was at the head of table, so I sat down.
And he sat at the table with his hands like this. Fingers pointing. Dead silence. And I'm bolshie enough to think, "No, I'm not going to ... this is your game. You play it. I'm not going to ..." So I sit silent. And now I think, he and I were the only still things there, 'cause the rest of the table - nobody would dare speak until he spoke.
So there's much rustling of paper and shifting in chairs. Nervousness. And this silence stretches, and stretches, and I'm thinking, "No, I'll sit here till eight o'clock if you wish. I'm not going to say anything". And he suddenly - he hadn't looked at me - he snaps his head to the side where I'm sitting, and he says "You've just been appointed the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia". What do you say? "Golly", or "Gee" or "Thanks"?
So I said nothing ... Or no thanks! Yes, that didn't enter my head. So I said nothing. And he said, "Have you got anything to say?" And I said, "Well, I've no questions to ask about the, um, gallery, because I've spent a day familiarising myself there". I said, "The terms and conditions have never been discussed". And this, if I'd pushed a week old herring under his nose, the expression on his face of absolute disgust, you know, as if I'd said something revolting. And he said, "Oh, I don't know".
He said, "A professorial salary plus a thousand". I said, "Oh, that's good". I said, "What's that?" He said, "I don't know". And that was my - how I got appointed to the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Very funny, but really, he was a very difficult man to work with. Wonderful man, you know, and I learnt a huge amount from him. I admired his composure and his ability, but he was a killer.
You know, he really was. One of the things he taught me that was most valuable is not to rush headlong into things, to wait. He'd just say, "Wait. Let it fall into your lap". You know, and really, you can precipitate, or try to precipitate things. Let them take their full course, but you've got to have nerves of steel, and he had nerves of steel.
And, ah, but it was a very valuable lesson, and I've used it, to success ...
Well, one of the things was that the, ah, government, without consulting me, then the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, bought a collection ... a Louis ... an American collector had collected a lot of Aboriginal art. This man called Louis Allen. And they'd bought this collection for then, I think it was two million dollars.
Without consulting the gallery or without any indication of where this collection was going to reside. And I thought, well this is some of the most important Aboriginal art that's coming into the country. It needs to have a proper home. And I was desperate to fight to have it at the gallery. They were going to put it at some - there was an old brewery there that the government was trying to develop, and they were trying to put it in there.
And I knew they were going to make a theme park out of it. They were going to have, you know, a hologram with an old man telling a story, and the smoke, you know. It was just going to be awful. And treating Aboriginal art in a way that I really didn't think it should be treated. You know, as a, as a, um, ethnographic curio rather than a great work of art.
And I felt very strongly about this. And he told me, "No. Don't fight for it. Wait. Let them find out that their scheme is, is stupid and foolish and then they'll be coming to you saying, 'What shall we do with this marvellous collection of Louis Allen?'" And as I said, nerves of steel, because I did not want to lose this. But I got it in the end.
Oh, they didn't have the money, the Aboriginal community objected strenuously to what they were going to do, they were saying that that particular point was a sacred site and they weren't allowed to alter it, and, ah, no, it, it had endless problems. They've now developed the - I was in Perth recently - they've now developed it as a residential area, but what they were planning for it was abysmal.
He was difficult in that he was an absolute control freak. Absolute control freak. I've never met anyone quite like it. I thought that his aim was for the gallery to progress and therefore he, as Chairman, you know, would be seen to be doing a good job. And ah, that that would be the most important thing.
The most important thing was that I did what he said, and an example of that is when I wanted to set a foundation up. He taunted me that, you know, I hadn't set a foundation up. And I said, thought, "Well, he's right. I haven't got round to that yet". So I went to this person in Western Australia who I knew was very good at this, asked him would he help me. He'd just raised a lot of money for the um, oh, Lawrence ... ah, Gallery in - at the ... you know, at the University of Western Australia.
He said, "Oh, look, I've just raised all of this money for the Lawrence Wilson Gallery". I said, "Oh, come on Ivan. Be a sport, just for me". He said, "Well look, I'll do it if you let - if I can pick my team. I don't want people there for the social cachet. I want people that'll actually work. I want Kerry Stokes to be the Chair. I want Kerry Stokes to be the first donor, you know, that'll start the ball running [sic]".
"If you ... if you can promise me that". So I went to Robert, and I said, "Robert, great news. We're getting on with this, um, foundation. I've got Ivan Hoffman working for me. I've got Kerry Stokes going to be in the Chair". "Oh", he said. "You can't do that. Can't do that". And of course, that was me putting the opposition into a senior position, which I never even thought of.
And I said - "But" - he - I said, "Why?" He said, "You've got Ivan Hoffman doing all the work and Kerry Stokes getting all the glory". I said, "No, no, no. This is what Ivan wants. This is Ivan's scheme, to make it work". "No", he said. "You can't do it. I'll be in the Chair". So I thought, "Oh well. If you will, you will".
So I went back to Ivan and said, '"Look, Ivan, Robert's got to be in the Chair. He wants to be ..." "Well", he said, "Forget it. Forget it". He said, "There'll be no meetings, he's never here, it'll be, you know, it just won't work. Count me out". So I thought, "Well if it means that to you, um, do what you want to do, put Kerry in the Chair and I'll wear it". 'Cause I thought, I'd, you know, be persecuted for a while, but then he'd see it would work, and it did, you know.
Ivan started raising money immediately. And then I thought, "Well then he'll let ... see, oh well, it worked", you know. He never forgave me, and that was the beginning of the end. That's how I had to get out. He just kept on and on and on. Every time I made a move, he'd pull the trip rope and I'd fall flat on my face. And I'd pick myself up and dust myself down and move on in that direction, and he'd pull the trip rope.
He was just not going to let me operate after that.
For everything I did, from thereon. I had deliberately and blatantly gone against what he'd said, and that he could not tolerate. And he was just going to - he was driving me out, you know. And indeed he did drive me out. But, um, in the middle of all this - when this was happening - this was after about three years I'd been there, I get the phone call from Canberra to say was I interested in Canberra.
And I - my first reaction was no, 'cause I'd only been there three years. So I said, "Not really". It was Cathy Santamaria who rang me from the department. I said, "Not really. I've only been here three years". I said, "What about Patrick McCaughey I kept thinking of people that, you know, might be appropriate.
Because they'd come - drawn a blank in their initial advertising. And then about ten days later, something else happened that Robert did, and I remember sitting at my desk thinking, "I can't cope with this". And I thought, "Mmm, I wonder do I have to?" And I rang up Canberra. I said, "Is that position still available?" She said, "Yeah". And I said, "Okay, count me in".
And Robert used to do this thing. He'd ring me up and I had to go down to his office. And always he'd keep me waiting for forty-five minutes. Not forty-six or forty-four, always forty-five minutes. So this occasion - I knew I'd got the job in Canberra - but I was going to just tell him why, you know. Not tell him I'd got the job but tell him, you know, what my problem was working with him.
So I sat there. He had a girl in the outside office - and Val, his personal was in there but she'd every now and then get up and go. So I waited 'till it got to forty-four minutes, and fortunately, the girl in the outside office got up and went in and I just ducked into the ladies, which was just here, and I waited there. Forty-five, forty-six, forty-eight minutes. And at about fifty minutes I came out, and it's the only time I've ever caught him on his back heel.
He was standing out there looking around like this. "Oh", he said, "I thought you'd gone". "Oh", I said, "Robert, I wouldn't do that". And then I went - we went into this office and oh - and I told him exactly, you know, what my problems were, you know, and how we'd have to find a modus operandi, otherwise it was just, you know, nothing was ever going to happen.
And he virtually told me - he said, "Well, you're wilful", ah, and he wouldn't concede that anything that I was doing was right. And I said, "Well, in what ... in what way do you want it to happen?" But of course he didn't have a way. All he wanted to do was to be in control. And in the end - so I voiced all of my complaints in a reasonable way, but I voiced them - and he sits there in silence.
And then the silence stretches, and then he gets up, gets his papers into order, walks towards the door to go and I thought, "My God, he's not going to say anything". And when he gets to the door - I'd said to him, "Well, what are we going to do, Robert?" You know, I wanted some, you know, way to move forward, because I, I hadn't accepted the job in Canberra at this time and I was just still trying to think what I was going to do.
And when he got to the door, he turned around and he said, "I'll let you know". And it was almost as if, you know, it was the Mafia saying, "Cement slippers for you, girl. You've had it". And I thought, "Oh well, that's it. I'm off". You know, there was such a threat in it. You know, "I'll let you know what I'm going to do". And, ah, I just couldn't cope with that any more.
I remember on one occasion - he used to ring me up from London, to ask how things were going. And you'd tell him. And then there'd be these long, long pauses. And you could either gabble nervously, and on this occasion, I used to prop the phone and I'd do things, 'cause, you know, I was writing this letter, talking to him.
And I got engaged in this letter, and I was writing page after page of this letter and then suddenly I thought, "What's this?" You know, this phone was sort of - I'd completely forgotten that I was in conversation with Robert. And I said, "Oh Robert, are you still there?" Long silence. "I was beginning to wonder if you were."
And it was all cat-and-mouse game, you know. Like, exactly as a cat playing with a mouse, is what he was doing with me. You know, giving me a little bit of a lead, letting me think everything was alright, and then you know how a cat will just put out its claw and pull the mouse back? You know, there was a lot of that.
So sadly, I left Western Australia, which I loved. You know, I was very happy there. [INTERRUPTION]
In the Art Gallery of Western Australia?
Yes, I was. I was really able to do a lot at the gallery. Ah, one of the first thing [sic] I did was to import John Stringer, who had been working in - he was an Australian but had been working in New York for years. And, um, I had a senior position coming up, and I knew he would be marvellous. So I got him to apply and to come across and, um, I was able to employ three or four members of staff, you know, key members of staff, that really made the gallery sing.
He really got the thing going. He was one of those people who could make - hang a gallery to make it look beautiful, and um, I was able to get some extensions done to the gallery. Trying to make it a - much more a part of the life of Perth.
One of the things I did - it was, it was a beautiful gallery, I think, beautifully designed gallery, you know. Designed around a central foyer which was - with the galleries going off like spokes in the wheel. It was lovely. But it presented a fairly closed face to the rest of Perth. So we built a, ah, a café restaurant at the front so that was - opened it up. So people could come into the restaurant, to the café and then move on to the gallery.
And it somehow just sort of freed up the, ah, people movement in the gallery. And wherever I've been, it has been motivated by trying to make people enjoy the place, I insisted on the curators putting up a little bit more information, not a lot. I hate it when they put up a whole half page of text and try to give you an art history lesson, but just little interesting things about the, um, picture, to make people look a little harder.
An example that I can give you is that once we had an exhibition which had a little Constable in it. And ah, down in the bottom, you could just see a little bit of light on a roof. And I said to the curator, "Well, for instance, if you say that the cottage down in the left hand corner there is the cottage of Willie Lott, who was the lock-keeper, you know, at the, um, Constable's father's mill", that in itself - people will have to look, they'll see a cottage being ... has been represented with just a stroke of white paint and all of that.
Then you don't have to say any more. And, and I noticed - then I watched people look at it. They'd read this little label, and you see them - "Cottage? cottage?" - you see them looking hard. "Oh!", you know, they'd step back and look at it and suddenly this little stroke of white paint became the light on a roof. And little things like that to just lead people in, to make them look with a little bit more curiosity and then they do the rest.
You see, you don't have to write any more than that. And, ah, so I introduced that, with some resistance. There's always resistance because um, there's a tendency for curators to think - they're, they're thinking of other curators, not of the public, often. And, um, what is self-evident to them - they can't believe what's self-evident to them is not necessarily self-evident to someone else.
And, ah, so that was my first move there. And also, bringing in exhibitions, as I said. You know, the Brisbane girl, growing up in Brisbane in the '30s is never far behind, and, ah, I was able to bring in some wonderful exhibitions that were enormously popular because Perth hadn't had them. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, yes, when I exhibited the pictures that Alan Bond had purchased. And the demonstration was the people of Perth who were angry with Bond. Bond had then been - I forget what he was doing with Pinochet, but it was, you know, something ...
Telephone company, yes. And, ah, so there was much sort of anxiety that the Art Gallery of Western Australia was supporting this tycoon that was, you know, perhaps not worth supporting. And my argument of course - I had this angry crowd outside the front of the, the gallery and I thought, well there's only way to deal with that and that is confront them, to go out and talk to them.
Which I did, and they were very - they weren't aggressive at all. And I just put - they put their case - and I put mine. I said, you know, "I take your point. Now my point is that this is an opportunity for the people of Perth to see these paintings, which they won't otherwise see. They're going to the top of that tower which was the big Bond building then, and that's the last we'll ever see of them. And what you're saying, I, I'm not sort of condoning what, or supporting what you are saying, and there are one of two ways of dealing with this. Either refuse to have them, make the point". "That's what we want you to do", you know, they said.
"Well I agree, but, um, where I'm coming from, it's more important people get a chance to see it." And in a funny way, there was a sort of - they didn't really agree with me - but at least there was a sort of, um, a respect on both sides, you know, that, you know, they could see where I was coming from, not agree with it, but they could understand it.
And when the, um, Robert Holmes à Court launched the exhibition, they were battering on the doors outside, and Robert made a very amusing remark about that being the first time he'd noticed people battering on the doors to get into the Art Gallery of Western Australia. But interesting - even more interestingly, he had rung me up from London, when the pictures arrived. He said, "Have you seen the pictures yet?"
I said, "Yes, I did, Robert". And one of the things that really interested me was the Van Gogh, 'The Irises'. Because I looked at that painting and I thought, "My God. That painting looks ..." - oil paint, when it goes on, you know, when it's new is juicy and oily and fresh. When it's a hundred years old, the oil dries out and it subsides, and you'll often get little hairline cracks in a brushstroke, you know, a thick, fat brushstroke.
Because as it dries, it makes these little cracks. And I looked at this and I thought, "Ooh, it doesn't look like a hundred years [sic] old paint to me. It looks as if it was painted yesterday and I ..". and Robert said, "Ah", he said, '"But have you got the right one?" And I said, "Well funny you should say that", I said, "I made the remark this morning that the Van Gogh looks as if it was painted yesterday". "I think it was", he said.
And I've since found out that it wasn't the Van Gogh, it was a facsimile. Someone had done an exact copy, a very good copy, and that the real Van Gogh had never left Sotheby's New York. Because as you know, Alan Bond never paid for it. And I was talking to this Van Gogh expert who was in a position to know and I said, "Are you sure of that?" He said - I said, "Because I was very suspicious".
And I've since looked at it. It's now in the Getty. And I've looked at the very brushstroke that I'd looked at in Perth, and I've looked at the brushstroke in the Getty, and sure enough, it had the little hairline cracks in it. So that wasn't the Van Gogh we were looking [at] - it wasn't the real Van Gogh that we were looking at.
What do you think about Alan Bond's getting mixed up in the art business? What kind of effect did that have, do you think, on art? Was it a positive one - that you had somebody like that wanting to collect - or did you see that as a negative?
Oh, he, he was not a - really interested - he was just interested in building his persona, through art. He was no use to me as, as the Gallery Director. He was a positive, um, um, negative effect on the art market, because what the dealers were trying to do at that point - you remember the '87 crash. This happened just after the '87 crash. The message they were trying to get out is the financial markets are in disarray, the art market on the other hand, is rising.
And that's why - was it Christie's or Sotheby's? Sotheby's, it was. Sotheby's, it was really a cooked up deal, the whole thing. He never had the money to pay for it. He never paid for it. He never - you know, he didn't even put down a deposit of half the amount, fifty-six million, I think it was. And when you think about it, they're not going to let the picture out of their possession when someone hasn't put the money down.
And indeed, he never put the money down.
Well it's - I've thought a great deal about that, because it's always standing firmly between you and what you want to do, the pictures you want to buy. And, um, and the, the art market out there, the private market - see, the only people who can ever pay that sort of money are individuals. No institution, not even the Getty - well perhaps the Getty could - but there are not many institutions that can pay that sort of money.
So that means that all of these prized paintings, you know, the really top of the market, all go into private collections, of multi-multi-billionaires. And, ah, that is a problem for, um, public galleries, because you're never going to be able to own them. All you can do, all you can hope to do is borrow them from time to time, for - in exhibitions.
And that, of course, is the whole point of the so-called blockbuster exhibition. There is a reason to apply for, and get, the line of works that reside in private collections, and bring them together into a context that people can enjoy and understand a bit better.
Badly. Peter said, "Well you might as well just go. Go, go to England, go to America. It's like another country". Peter was devastated. Peter living in Melbourne. Tim less so, because Tim was just starting his life, you know, as [sic] university and, ah, feeling nicely independent. But, ah, the others didn't mind.
Ben and Paul were independent by this time. They didn't mind. I think Roy was keen to go, and Roy - Western Australia really suited him down to the ground. He loved it. He made some very good friends there that he's continued to have. You know, George and Jane Haines. George Haines and Jane Martin. And the whole thing - I loved Western Australia.
I said to Roy, "It's like being on holiday all the time, even though you're at work". You know, there's something that - we were living at Fremantle, we had this lovely house overlooking the Indian Ocean. Every morning you'd wake up and there's just this strip of ultramarine blue across your window with a little sailing boat ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well as I say, my first instinct was "No, it's not my job. Not for me". The 'who, me' syndrome was moving in, and I'm suggesting everybody else and then out of desperation I thought, "Well, yes". I have got this ability to jump in fearlessly, you know, where fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and I think I'm a bit of a fool in that respect. I do jump, and then start thrashing for the side of the pool.
And, ah, I had really no - I knew it was going to be difficult, because James Mollison who was such an icon, and - but I hadn't quite realised the implication of what it was to inherit an institution that had been begun by a single man, every rule, every regulation had been initiated by him, every purchase had been initiated by him.
Every colour had been chosen by him, every member of staff had been appointed by him, and it's, it's a very rare situation to inherit, 'cause generally you're coming in and there have been two or other people. But anything I did was seen to be flying in the face of the wishes of James Mollison, which didn't make it easy for me at all. Because there were some things that I thought really needed to change.
I thought the National Gallery of Australia had to take its place as a much more national institution, which meant it had the resources more than any other gallery in the, in the country, therefore it could generate exhibitions in a way that other galleries may not be able to. See, Australia had been, up till then, accepting exhibitions that had been made elsewhere, like 'The Gold of the Pharaohs', things like that, that had been devised by curators elsewhere.
And I thought, "Here's an opportunity for Australia to devise exhibitions with our own scholarship, tailor-made to our audience, relating it to things in our collections, you know, putting our collections into a broader context". And, um, that's what really excited me. And that was the first thing that I really wanted to do when I got there.
But of course, I inherited a difficult organisation. The roof was leaking. They were trying to mend the roof and to fix the roof was a nightmare. It took nearly two years and we had to keep closing bits of the gallery while they did the roof over above, you know, for, for safety of the works of art below.
When I arrived, the gallery had plastic buckets everywhere. Drip, drop, drip, drop all around the gallery, you know. It was the most - it was appalling. And when I was making - while we were making those alterations, while the gallery was in upheaval, I decided to make some alternations to the gallery. The big, main hall of the gallery was vast, and had really been designed with its concrete walls and its great, you know, cathedral spaces, for large American painting.
I'm, I'm convinced of that. It was designed as if that was going to be the art of the future, and of course it turned out that it wasn't. So while that big main gallery was being closed because the roof was being done, I thought, here's an opportunity to get an architect in, to really redesign this space so that we can bring the lighting down to a lower level and light the works properly.
And really I s'pose what decided me was we had to move 'Blue Poles' out of that gallery into a smaller gallery, and it was on a white wall. And I remember Michael Lloyd, who was my - everywhere I go, I've got this, a few people, you know, that I really rely on - well Michael Lloyd was the one in, one of the ones in Canberra.
He came panting up to my office, he said, "Quick come downstairs and look at this". I raced downstairs and it was 'Blue Poles' on a white wall. It was just a revelation. Because on the cement, the grey cement, the cement was very light absorbent. The light was coming from that huge height. By the time it got down to the picture, it was exhausted.
The brick floor's light absorbent. There's no reflected light. And suddenly, here's this picture zinging, you know, with this orange line which I'd never even noticed before. And that's what confirmed me. I thought, no, we've got to do something about this. And that's when I brought Andrew Anderson[s] in.
And he, I think, did a wonderful job. I said to him, "Let's do it in such a way that it can be restored to a 1970s building". You know, because one never knows. You know, they might build a whole new extension to this gallery and they may want to return this part to its original state. So, at great expense actually, we built those walls prowed of the actual cement walls so we weren't destroying the cement wall.
They can be removed and it can, you know, return to its original state.
I did tell him what I was doing. I didn't want him to do it because I knew he wouldn't do it. And he wouldn't agree to the reason. You see he's - for him, the building was paramount. For me, the paintings were paramount. That's - was really the major difference. That became clear to me, you know, when -in, in our exchange of letters. He wrote to me once and he said, "Look, that building is the most important work of art in your care, and you're desecrating it".
And I explained to him, "Look, it can all be returned. Nothing is permanent. It's just a sort of a temporary space. It's -no - not really terribly different to the screens". You know, the moveable screens they had in that space. "Oh", he said, "things never change". I said, "Yes, they do". I said, "Chartres Cathedral's changed quite a bit over the years, and I think this one might too".
Anyway, he, he then wrote another letter and he said, "That building", he said, "is in Bannister Fletcher", which is the great architectural tome. He said, "It's in Bannister Fletcher, along with the great pyramids of Egypt". I was terribly tempted to write back and say, "Ah, but the great pyramids didn't leak". Because I had these blipping buckets all around the gallery.
But I resisted that. I like Col. Col doesn't like me because of what I did, but I really do like Col. He's a - I think he's a terrific guy. But, um, we couldn't see eye to eye on that and we never would, because of that different - we were just coming from different angles. The thing I loved about Andrew Anderson[s], as he walked through the door of my office, before he'd even sat down he said, "Now, I'm going to have to know what art's going to go in these spaces".
So he was thinking about the art first and foremost. How it had to be lit, how it would best be seen, how we were going to divide the collection up. And, and what we did, we just divided that great big space, basically into four, so there were four segments, but there was that curved coving with the light - concealed light there so that we could light the pictures properly.
That was one of the main problems with that space. You simply could not light the pictures properly. If a light blew in the morning, at ten o'clock, there was no way of replacing it till five o'clock that evening, when you had to bring a cherry-picker in, you know, to get to the top of that, that great height, of those spaces.
But I didn't want to lose that sense of grandeur, so Andrew's four screens, with their coving, you still get the sense of that lovely cathedral-like space. And as I say, it can return to that space again.
Oh, he does, yes.
And so would have respected that. What do you think - Col Madigan then didn't go public, though, over it. It was an argument between you, and you weren't altering the building. What do you think about the more recent controversy about the changes that are being proposed now?
I can see why he got more agitated about that, because what I was doing was not altering the building fundamentally. I was simply altering the internal disposition of spaces. And I had pointed out to him that it could return. I wasn't destroying anything that he'd done. The new idea, you know, to put that great big glass thing across the front - and this is a personal and private view - I think is not a good one because that building relies on that tall portico entrance.
You know, where the undercroft - you know, where the library's above it - the research library's up there. But the façade really needs those great tall columns and that shadowed space above. I was going to actually glass in that area to make a bigger foyer. You - the gallery's big failure is that it has never had a proper space for people to congregate.
You know, I used to use that bridge to the High Court. We'd put, you know, pavilions up on that High Court bridge and - but there's never anywhere for people to congregate. So I, I'm sympathetic with the need to make a proper entrance to the gallery which it never did have. Col gets very angry when I say that, 'cause he said [sic], "Yes it does" - it was that grand entrance, you know, up from - and he said, You know, "The car - altering the circulation of traffic was the problem".
I said, "But Col, you'd have to have been chauffeur driven". Because you have to drive past the entrance, right around to the carpark and then he's expecting people to park their car and then walk right around the building in order to come up the grand entrance. Well of course they won't do it.
People, like water, find the easiest course. And the easiest course is up those horrid little steps and that ramp, you know. And that's just how that is. You know, there's nothing you can do to alter that. All you could do is put the carpark down by the lake there, so that people naturally moved up towards that main entrance.
But I er, I - just privately - I didn't like that extension. I thought it made - turned it into a bit like a shopping centre, really. You know, it had that - and it lost, you know, its sort of sculptural look for the façade of the building. And I think that's what Col was going bananas about. The second plan though that they've got now I think would be a good one.
That's to make an extension out towards Kings Avenue, which doesn't interfere with that front façade. That front façade stays. That - you know, the bridge across from the High Court and that lovely undercroft space. Um, and I think that, that's probably a better solution. But that's why Col went public and angry about that, I think, because it really did compromise the, the building.
Well, it had a very set - I think very prescribed mindset. You know, they were very - one of my biggest adversaries at the beginning, was Michael Lloyd, who turned out to be my great strength and the person that I really relied on and took great pleasure in. But he was deadset - everybody was deadset against me, because they could see me coming in ... [INTERRUPTION]
I presume that for the job of the National Gallery, your selection committee and the appointment was of a slightly different kind from the one you'd had in Western Australia. How, how were you selected and why do you think they chose you?
I don't know I - why they - I think they'd come to the end of their options. Patrick McCaughey wasn't interested and the ones - the people who'd applied had, for various reasons, not been considered suitable. And so I was invited and as I said, you know, I was a [sic] slightly reluctant about it, and very unsure as to whether I could do it.
But Gough Whitlam was the Chair for the selection panel, and I remember Rene Rivkin was there, and he had his gold worry beads and all through the interview he clicked these gold worry beads. I felt like grabbing them and keeping them still. But, um, it was very [sic] different interview because, ah, it was a very talkative and, and jolly interview, because I really didn't care whether I got it or not.
Again like with Melbourne. Melbourne I really didn't want the job. This time I sort of wanted the job but I would have been quite happy to have gone back to Western Australia. So - and I think that puts you in the very best position to win a job at interview. The only job I've ever applied for, I've only ever applied for one, and I didn't get it. Every other job I've been headhunted for and I've, and I've got.
But it amuses me to think of the one that I did apply for I didn't get.
Oh, it was for the, ah, it was quite right I didn't get it. It was for the Head of the Victorian College of the Arts. You know, not of the Arts School, but of the whole Music, you know, Drama, etcetera. And I went in unprepared. It was just - and they were quite right not to give it to me.
That was while I was at, um, Preston Institute - Phillip Institute. And I can't remember the date. But it was a very half-hearted - Len Parr had been the Director and he said, "Why don't you apply?" It, it wouldn't have occurred to me. And I applied but I didn't give it any thought or didn't really prepare myself and didn't do a good interview and didn't get the job. But it's ...
Very relaxed and told them precisely what I would do and what I thought needed doing with the National Gallery and without fear or favour not worrying whether they agreed with me or not, you know, which one often is at an interview. And of course it went down very well. And as I - Gough walked, Gough walked me out, you know, towards the lift and he more or less told me then and there that I'd been successful. But, um, I was successful.
That I wanted to make it a lively and viable place, evident as the National Gallery of Australia, doing things that no other gallery could do because it was resourced as a national gallery. And it had to be recognised, not just within Australia but overseas, as the National Gallery. Because when I travelled, I discovered they all thought the National Gallery was in Victoria, because it was called the Australian National Gallery, like the Australian Aquarium and the Australian Centre for Photography.
But the National Gallery was in Victoria, and I had to explain very carefully, "No, the National Gallery is really called the Australian National Gallery and it's in Canberra". That was really beside - behind my desire to change the name. That was a very unpopular move with the staff. Ooh. Changing the name of the gallery. How dare I?
I thought that we needed to change the buying policy, because the money available for purchase of works of art had not altered. The value of works of art had risen, the number of departments - see, James had made it an encyclopaedic collection. We collected everything, from fashion to theatre design, ceramics, pre-Columban, cycladic, everything, you know, was in the collection. So what do you do when you've got a pro ... - a very sort of confined amount of money and a need to build? It's a new collection.
So I, I, I said that I think we should slow the amount of - the number of works coming in - in order to make room for the major works. I said, otherwise, we'll never buy another 'Blue Poles'. You know, that's the end of that.
I wanted to put aside quite a large amount of the allocation for purchases into what I called a global fund. Which means anything, whether it was a collection of - large collection of Aboriginal art, or a Magritte or a Matisse, or an Arthur Streeton. Something we would never be able to buy. The money was divvied out very evenly to every department. Because there were so many departments, it meant our buying power overall was very, very limited.
There was a global fund but it was only standing at - I think at five - oh it might have been seven hundred thousand. But I wanted to actually cut the amount of money in half, put two million in the global fund, divide the two million that remained amongst the various departments so they still had buying power. But anyone could apply, and that's why I called it global. It wasnt just ...
Michael Lloyd fiercely opposed me in this, and we used to laugh about it afterwards. He said, "Yes, but I wasn't to know then that you were ..." - he was in charge of Aboriginal art, he was senior curator of Aboriginal, er, international art. He said, "I wasn't to know that you were going to be such an enthusiast for international art".
Acquisition policy, yeah ...
Yes, I wanted people to feel comfortable. I thought the gallery was - had a cold front for the public. You know, there was very little given away, you know, in the sense of information or, even finding your way around the gallery it was, you know, difficult. You'd find people with a haunted look on their faces saying, "Please can you tell me how to get out of here?"
You know, the levels were so confusing. And I thought there was nothing really to make the average person feel comfortable. And the other thing that I was very aware of is that the National Gallery is in a situation of a population of say 330,000 people, and therefore, if it's going to be viable, if it's going to warrant that amount of taxpayers' money, it's got to draw people from other parts to it.
One of the things I did was, um, I found out all the tourist buses were shooting past the National Gallery, and I couldn't work that out. And the reason was, one, the Gallery was insisting that they paid the entrance fee when they'd already bought a package, you know, tourist deal. And the other thing was that the tourist, um, they call them coach captains, used to lose them. You know, they'd disappear into this sort of vast, you know, labyrinth and they'd never find ...
And I said, "Look, if I can fix those two things, will you bring the people to the gallery?" Because I think once you introduce people and they find that it's not a scary experience, it's fine. So I removed the charge and I made it a thing where they had people to meet and greet somewhere and get onto the bus and greet them and say, "Now, we're going to do this. It's going to be a twenty minute visit", you know, and take them around just to two or three major highlights.
You know, major Australian painting, 'Blue Poles', everyone wants to see some Aboriginal art, and out. And then hopefully, a proportion of those people would come back. That was the aim.
Well as I did in Western Australia, I really insisted that they put a little bit of information, if it was appropriate. I was not for putting, I said, you know, I don't want an art history lesson. I just want - and if it's quite clear what the subject is, and what the artist is trying to do, just the title and the artist and the date and the material is sufficient. But if it's not, if it requires something - and I fought the curators. They didn't want to do it.
I remember a particular one. There was a Robert MacPherson, lovely work of art. It was a little tin boat at the bottom, and then running up the wall on pieces of wood, beautifully lettered on, um, brass plaques, was the names, the Latin names, of every frog variety that you could think of. Now the fact that that [sic] those were frog names, I thought, was important to the work of art, because it was his childhood memory of a little boy with his little tin boat that he'd made, pushing his way through the reeds, and these "br, br, br", you know, different frogs croaking away, it was, you know, embedded in the work.
And, you know, all it needs is that. 'The Latin names above the child's boat are the Latin names of frog varieties'. You know, that's, that's the label.
Well I won in the end but by God it was a battle. And I think they thought it was what they call dumbing down. You know, sort of that if people didn't know - and, and I defy anyone to know that those - unless they're a zoologist - that those are frog names. You know, they knew because they were curators and they'd, you know, read books on Robert MacPherson and Robert must have told someone in the first place.
So if the artist thinks it's significant to tell somebody, it's significant to tell Mr Average that's just walked into the gallery, I think.
I think they thought it was Betty Who? You know, they didn't think, "Why on earth?", you know. If it had been Patrick McCaughey or someone, but I was as far as they were concerned - I always remember the - remember when Brian was appointed, the front page and all of this brouhaha. When I was appointed, there was this little tiny column. What was it? 'Mother of' - '58 year year old mother of four inherits top job' and I thought, "Oh, blimey, there we go", you know.
Now that didn't help, you know. That sort of - in the, in the attitude of a lot of the staff, I was a 58 year old mother of four, you know, and not an appropriate person to be running a national gallery. Now that did turn around. You know, that - not with all of them, I didn't - but with a significant number I did manage to turn them around.
Oh, it just - silent determination not to do what I was asking. Just absolute determination. I was saying, "Well look, I'll write the labels". "We haven't got time." "Well, I'll write 'em." But, you know, then just not happening and not happening. And having to insist, you know, and things like that. It was, um - and at meetings, I can remember really quite rude behaviour at times.
But it was, in their - to forgive them a little bit - it was hard. You know, they had been used to this, you know, a single person, ah, James Mollison, who had this sort of, um, persona in Australia and suddenly here was this strange woman, you know, coming from the west and, ah, I certainly had the credentials, you know, the academic credentials and all of that, but, ah ...
I think by respecting them. Like I remember with Michael Lloyd, you know, when I announced this global fund, I remember him, er, storming out of my office and slamming the door after him. You know, there was no doubt about it, you know. But then, because I totally respected him and what he could offer, and what he had offered, what he'd done, and was clearly, as time went on, anxious to assist him do more, you know, and progress, he slowly began to see that, you know, what he'd been objecting to really didn't exist and he no longer objected to it.
In fact, as I said, we became firm friends.
No, I never did. I, I, um - not at all, and of course, I came in at that time when the unionism was, you know, really, really very, very strong and a lot of it was coming from, um, security staff, interestingly enough. A lot of the resistance. The security staff - James had been such a - almost paranoid about the safety of the works of art. You know, he'd say, "I'd rather there was blood on the floor than someone - something happen to the picture".
Well I wouldn't. I don't want anyone brought down in a pool of blood. I'd rather a picture got destroyed, if necessary. But, um, there was - so and they were, they were policemen. And I said, "You mustn't do that". You know, I'd get letters from people saying, "I was absolutely outraged. I've travelled, you know, thirty thousand, thirteen thousand miles to visit the National Gallery and I was followed every step by security guards". They must have thought this person was - looked a bit odd and they would stalk them while they were trying to enjoy the pictures, you know, and that sort of thing.
So I was trying to bring a bit of, sort of, sense into that. And they wouldn't let people bring - if their, if a woman's handbag was that big rather than that big, they'd say that they had to leave it at the - and the poor woman would say, "Well no, it's got my handkerchiefs - it's got my - it's got everything I need in it, and I want to go to the canteen after, or I want to go to the restaurant after and have a meal". "Too bad. Too bad. It goes in here."
And little unfriendly things like that, and, um, and of course, they were going on strike the whole time. Every time I made a decision that some - you know, kids with backpacks for instance. That was all the - there's nothing wrong with a backpack. There's nothing they could do with a backpack that was - unless it was a, you know, properly big one, but you weren't with the little handbags really that was [sic] on their back, you know.
Why rip those off a kid when they don't ...? Oh, and mothers with babies. They'd say, "Well the mother can swing around and knock their baby into a picture". I said, "I don't think you'd find the average mother would do that". Not because of the picture but because of the baby.
Yeah, I started at the beginning of 1990.
And that was a time when there was a lot of pressure on reduction of money towards all government funded institutions, which often then led to a reduction of staff. What was the situation at the gallery in relation to those things?
Well that was really, probably, the first instance where the staff had had to suffer reductions. It had always been expanding, from the - you know, from when it just started from one person, James Mollison, it had just been a constantly expanding organisation. I came in just as this so-called efficiency dividend that you had to - it had been in place for about four years and they'd done nothing about it.
So by the time I came in, we would have, if we'd done nothing, ended the year with a deficit of something like two million dollars. It was really quite serious, because they'd just kept putting on - every time a job appeared, they'd just put on a person of, a member of staff to do the job, instead of trying to shift things around a bit, you know, and accommodate that new activity.
Every activity had a person, and so there were really - it was overstaffed. But then you get to a point when you're cutting back and cutting back where you're starting then to cut into muscle. You've removed the fat and you're really starting to cut into the muscle that's making the organisation work.
And I arrived just at that point where it was a real problem, you know. Nothing had been done about it, no provision had been made, no cutbacks had been made. And, ah, it was my unhappy task, you know, in that first, very first year, to reduce the staff. Now only by voluntary redundancies. Nobody went that didn't want to go.
And of course a voluntary redundancy means that you've got a deficit really for nearly two years because of your redundancy payout. So it doesn't get you out of the woods really, but it means that down the line you are going to be able to run to budget. The trouble with the efficiency dividend is they just kept applying it.
I said to the government, I said, "It's absolutely ridiculous. It's going to end with just me sitting in this vast building. There'll be nobody left". You know but they - I think it's still - I'm not sure whether it's still applying, but it's just a lunatic - it was quite right, you know. There was fat in the system. There was a sort of a lazy way of thinking, you know. Ah, the sky's the limit. But it then became ridiculous.
But I became the monster that had to do the, the dirty work. I sometimes wonder if James left because he realised he'd got to the end of the point where he could keep operating in that sort of generous way, you know, with money. I don't think so. I'm only joking, but that is actually how it happened. It just coincided - just, just bad luck, really.
So you had these quite serious management problems that you had to deal with, and you eventually reduced the staff and turned the staff around. What was happening with the program of the gallery? What were you doing with that?
Well you see, I had a leaking roof, so we could have no major exhibition until that got - and that spread over really the first two years of my time at the gallery. Nobody could have come in at a worse time, with a leaking roof, with a disgruntled staff, with a, a potential deficit. You know, it really wasn't good news. And no exhibition program.
There was one exhibition which was from the British Museum that happened, almost just as I came in, in fact literally as I came in, but there was nothing in the pipeline. Now an exhibition takes about two years to three years to get together, and there was nothing there. Nothing had been worked on. So I immediately started working on an exhibition, and that was the exhibition 'Rubens and the Italian Renaissance', and that happened in '92, two years after I'd been there.
Which of course was a huge, ah, success and that was one curated by our own staff, or David Jaffe had left, but he had been. He'd been responsible for purchasing the Rubens self-portrait. So the exhibition really had a, had a reason, had a sense. It was putting our self-portrait into a much wider context.
Well I, I thought of that, because I wanted to get a curator that was absolutely full bottle on the subject and full bottle in enthusiasm to, to project that subject. You see, when we came to surrealism, the thing that got them really excited about that - Michael Lloyd did surrealism - but was the opportunity to put Australian surrealism beside European surrealism. So that's where it's different from an exhibition, say like the Italians, which has just come in.
That comes in as a package, and really doesn't have any sort of relationship to Australian scholarship or Australian collections or Australian art. See, even with the Turner exhibition that Michael did, again, Turner was such an influence on early Australian landscape paintings, on John Glover in particular. And we were able to do one chapter of the book on the influence of Turner on Australian art.
So always, there was that little connection, either between the person, the curator that was doing the exhibition, or the work of art that was in the collection already.
Well, that was David Jaffe's passion, you see. David Jaffe was fascinated with the fact that Rubens had been the one who carried the Renaissance back to Flanders. He visited Italy in 1600, in 1608 he went back because his mother was - well, he thought dying, but she didn't actually die. But he went back to Flanders and didn't return to Italy. But in that - in the meantime, he'd had a chance to understand what was happening in Italian art. Because you remember, this is before photography, before there are public galleries.
You can only see great works of art in great persons' collections. And he had introductions to the Barberini family and to various great families where he saw the works of Caravaggio and Veronese and Titian. And then he was able to take that back to Italy. And it was a wonderful subject, you know, and I actually wanted David to - the other thing that was - made me think about it was the fact that the, um, oh, the gallery in Italy that - now my mind's gone a complete blank - the Borghese.
The gallery had been closed for, for renovations for like seven years and I thought, well, God, there's a marvellous collection of Italian art there. You know, all of the Caravaggios etcetera, that we would have wanted. So I said to David, I went over with Gough, who was the chairman, David now living in London, and I said, "Well let's just ask for the Borghese Gallery, you know, if they'll lend their work and we can build it around that".
And David very wisely said, "No, if you do that, you won't get their loans because they'll sense that it's just another 'Treasures from the Borghese Collection'. You've got to give it a little bit of academic rigour, you know, to make them want to lend". And he was, he was absolutely right. So we - it was a very odd threesome - David Jaffe, Gough Whitlam and I toured around Italy, convincing the different superintendents of, you know, the various regions of Italy to lend to this exhibition.
And although it had been written about, David's uncle, Michael Jaffe, had written about this, ah, connection of Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, it had never been exhibited, and they were fascinated that this was coming from Australia. So we got loans, fabulous loans that I don't think we would probably have got if it hadn't been such a new idea.
That whole - that was the beginning of something that really put your stamp on the gallery. You became known as 'Betty Blockbuster', and you had a series of these blockbuster [sic]. Could you talk a little bit more about the idea behind that and just describe the rest of them?
Yeah, well the idea of the blockbuster was really, if you remember back to Betty Cameron in Brisbane in the '30s, not seeing anything, and knowing that Australia, beginning collecting as we did, inheriting no great Royal collections, like the collection of the Hapsburgs, or the collection of Catherine the Great, as various, you know, national galleries around Europe did inherit, having no Gettys or, um, Carnegies, you know, to endow art collections.
What we couldn't buy we'd have to borrow. And I was determined that Australians would get to see the very best. And that's when we were getting these wonderful loans, these wonderful Caravaggios and Correggios and Titians and Tintorettos. And I was just so thrilled to think that young people, Australian students, Australian school children were going to see the very best, you know, in their original form, you know, to the proper scale, not just reproduced in a book, either under-reproduced or souped up in colour or whatever.
Of course, that was very, um- a lot of the curators thought that that was all I was interested in. They thought I wasn't interested in the permanent collection. And I got a lot of criticism for that. There was a lot of derogatory thing in that 'Betty Blockbuster' nickname, you know. Not all of them, by any means. Certainly those who had the opportunity to stretch their curatorial wings and their scholarship, you know,and able to produce a major exhibition, they weren't critical, but a lot of the curators were.
And they thought that, for instance, like the curators of prints you'd never make a blockbuster exhibition out of prints, because it just wouldn't be a blockbuster. The whole thing about a blockbuster is it's bloody expensive. You know, you've got to bring these very expensive works very large distances. Every work has to have a courier that travels with it. You're talking millions.
So you've got to be sure that you can make at least enough. You never want to make money out of it. You've just got to cover costs. So you've got to be sure that you can attract the right number of people. Now in a population the size of London or New York, you can put on a very esoteric exhibition of, say, drawings and it'll work a dream. [INTERRUPTION]
No, it wasn't. The idea came from the curator in ... concerned. This is the ones [sic], by the way, that we generated. We did accept some package exhibitions in between, because you know, an ex- ... an institution can only generate so many exhibitions. So the curator would come to me with an idea, and if I thought it was worth going - we could get the loans, the key loans that would make it work - then we would start.
One of the first things was to get sponsorship, because you have to. Every exhibition needed sponsorship, and you always have to have money up front, because you're spending money on an exhibition, sometimes for three years, before you have any chance of recouping it. And that's why I set up an exhibition development fund, so that after the first exhibition, I would have money in kitty to be spending on the next venture, and so it would go on.
And then I could afford to put on exhibitions that I thought may not be a great popular success but was worth doing, you know, for the, for a variety of reasons.
Never out of collecting, nor would I ever use it for acquisitions. It was just for exhibitions. It was in a separate pot, and that was the other reason, too. I didn't want the government to look at this ex ... - because it has to carry over from year to year, there's a danger that government will see, "Oh, that's unexpected - unexpended funds", but it wasn't. You know, I could prove that it was funds being held against something that was going to happen in the future.
So it was committed, but unexpended. Um, no, I wouldn't use the money made for anything, but nor would I take from our annual vote, which was for staff salaries or for maintenance of the building, or for the collection, the permanent collection, any money to mount a major exhibition.
Firms, you know, like Esso. I made the terrible mistake of letting Esso claim what they call naming rights, which means their name is built into the title of the exhibition. So the Rubens exhibition was called 'Esso Presents ... Rubens and the Italian Renaissance'. Good lesson learnt, because libraries then catalogue the catalogue under E for Esso and not R for Rubens.
And so I would never give naming rights, or if I gave naming rights, I would say, "not on the catalogue". But, um, it's mainly corporations, major firms, ah, some out of pure spirit of philanthropy wanting to put back into the community something that they'd taken out, but more often than not, it was in order to have a profile at a prestigious place, with a prestigious product, you know, a good exhibition, and have their name associated with it.
Not a really good one, I don't think. I hated doing it. I've never been good at that. I used to do it, um, and, you know, because I had such good products, you know, it really worked. And I never had a problem getting exhibitions, but I had a good member of staff. I had a woman called Jan Meek who was very, very good at it. She had a real instinct of how to present a thing, and who to - who would be a good match.
You know, she'd work out the right sort of person who'd be likely to be interested in an exhibition. So all of those things come into play.
Ah, well while you're getting the sponsor, and that takes some time, you're trying to secure the loans. And the loans really depend on the portability of the work of art, and your ability to convince that organisation that it's worth relinquishing that work of art for something up to six months in order to have it as part of this exhibition.
So it's got to be a good idea, it's got to be a fairly prestigious exhibition, whether other major exhibitions lend, you know - galleries and institutions lending, so there's a feeling of some, um, pride, of part ownership in the exhibition. And, um, mainly it is the idea, though, the quality of the idea.
Mounting these exhibitions meant that you were, therefore, in touch with other galleries and museums and collections overseas. Do you think that there were any secondary benefits for the National Gallery, and for art in Australia, in the process of making those contacts? Was there any alteration in the way that you were perceived as a result of the contacts you had to make to mount these exhibitions?
I think the contacts that I had, which are contacts that have lasted - they're now continuing friends of mine, directors of some of the major galleries around the world - crucially important. Your ability to deal with them in a convincing way, and to earn their respect, and if possible, their liking, and ah, that is really half the value. I remember when I was doing the exhibition 'Paris in the late 19th century', I just felt I didn't have the key work.
I wanted one major, major work and I wanted this very important Vincent van Gogh, and I kept, ah, badgering the Director of the Musée d'Orsay. And I kept ringing him with all of the different reasons and in the end when he heard it was me, I could hear his secretary saying, "It's the Director of the National Gallery" and he came up, picked up the phone and he said, "Alright, alright, alright". I'd worn him down and he agreed to let this Picasso come and it was very important, you know, that it was ...
You must have the major pictures to tell the story, although the story was a very complex one.
When you've got your, your exhibition compiled?
Well then the exhibition design, you've got to work out how you're going to display this, how you're going to promote it, how the catalogue is going to be designed, how the - who's going to write for the catalogue. Very often you get outside writers to write some of it. Your own curators will be writing some of it.
Ah, and then the organisation of the whole way it opens, and if it's going to be, you think, a very popular exhibition, you're going to have crowd control, you've got to work that out, you've got to prime your security guards how they're going to deal with this. Because all of these people, you know, that have come a long way to see an exhibition must be treated with care and ...
I was so impressed in London, you know, the way the staff there were, you know. They'd obviously been well trained, these security staff, to make people feel very comfortable and happy to be in their gallery.
And with all these things working together, could I just ask you a little bit more about the publicity side? Because, um, you worked very hard, didn't you, to raise the profile of the gallery. What were you thinking about when you were working at increasing the profile and achieving this level of publicity you had to for these pro ... for these exhibitions to succeed?
Well I think it was probably the first exhibition we put on, which is one I didn't work on, which was 'Civilisation' from the British Museum. I remember I then had on the Board of the National Gallery, Penelope Seidler who lived in Mel- ... in Sydney. And she came up, she said, "Betty, nobody in Sydney knows about this, has not heard about this".
And I suddenly twigged, you know, I hadn't thought about it, that being in the centre of Australia as it were, in the centre of New South Wales, you have to promote it. It won't get there naturally by word of mouth or by - in the way that in a crowded city exhibitions do. So we started then to do it very, very seriously.
But I was always careful not to promote everything on an even key. Every - I wasn't going to have everything put forward as 'the best that's ever come', 'the biggest that's ever come'. You know, all of these superlatives. I wanted to make sure that the product that we were selling was the product that people were going to get.
So that if it was sort of a small and very sort of even academic exhibition, it was promoted in that way. Or if it was something that was going to appeal to everyone and every - you know, from all over Australia - then it was promoted in a different way again. I didn't want to do that thing of crying wolf, you know, saying everything was the best they'd ever seen, and clearly it wouldn't be.
You were very key in the strategy for promoting the gallery, and you personally, and your life, and your work, um, was used as a way of raising the profile of the gallery. How did you feel about that? You were doing endless interviews and so on.
Yes I was. Um, I was a bit diffident about it at first. I got used to it. I realised that that's really what a director has to do. A director is the public face of the gallery and, and really as well as balancing the books and making sure that everyone in the institution is working to full capacity and everything's running smoothly, you also have to promote what the gallery is doing.
And you can't do that from an office with a closed door. You know, I had to be out there and about everywhere, all over Australia. Not just in capital cities, either. I was doing things in regional Australia, small towns, opening exhibitions, launching books. And I don't do it naturally and easily, you know. It all costs.
Yes, but that's, ah, I said at the beginning I was a bit of a hermit, I really am. And, ah, probably at my happiest when I'm on my own. And so being in a crowded situation, and certainly being the focus of attention is not my idea of bliss.
Acting. I'm afraid it, it really is. It costs, though, you know. Sort of - I, I still do it but I don't - I wonder why on earth I do it now. But you do it for a reason, either to oblige a friend, or to - because of the artist or whatever, there's always a reason that I do it. Whereas before it was always for the gallery, but now, um ...
Oh, it costs me nervous - my nervous system, because I'm not, er, naturally a gregarious person. I'm not naturally a person that can, um, just stand up and talk easily and comfortably and get down and have a glass of wine and it doesn't happen that way.
Think about what I'm going to say, prepare what I'm going to say, be nervous about it before I say it. Because I'm concerned if I've accepted it because it's an artist that I respect, and I'm opening their exhibition, I want to make sure I don't short change them. I want it to be - say something to the point, something that will be relevant to the exhibition, something that will give credit to the people that organised the exhibition.
There's a lot of things. You could rabbit on about lots of things, but not necessarily to the point, and I like to be the point, I think.
Well, as well as the Rubens and the Italian Renaissance and the two Asian exhibitions, ah, Turner clearly was a, a highlight. We did put on some exhibitions that came to us as a package, like 'The Queen's Pictures'. I happened to just hear that the Royal Collection was travelling, and asked through the, um, it was then the Governor-General's private secretary who organised that for me. And, um ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well it was a very exciting time, a high adrenaline time. The curator would come to me with an idea. Let me take an example. I think it's probably easier to tell you a specific example. When Turner was being, ah, developed, I remember Michael Lloyd coming into my office and I'm working on something else. He comes bursting in, 'cause he's had this marvellous idea. He said, "Hey, what about an exhibition of Turner?"
And I for some reason immediately thought of Constable, 'cause Turner and Constable are twinned in my mind. And I'm still doing something here. I said, "Oh Michael, it'd be too difficult. Look, the V & A charge enormous amount of money for those large sketches. I know they've got a huge fee, and you'd never get 'The Hay Wain' or any of the major works, and without the major works".
And he sort of looked at me and he just walked quietly out of the room. And I thought, "Wait a minute, he didn't say Constable, he said Turner". And I remember running up and I said, "Michael, I think it's a fantastic idea!" And that was the beginning of it, and so whoa, we were off. So then, we had to - he then starts working it out - what it is ... , you know, I said, "What aspect of Turner are we going to go for? Is it going to be the grand, historical Turner?"
'You know, 'Hannibal crossing the Alps?" "No, no, no", he said, "No, it's going to be Turner, the ah, precursor of the modern age, the 19th century Turner". Ah, so that means all of the, er, late, you know, like the 'Rain, Steam and Speed' and the 'Ship Off Calais', and all those wonderful pictures. And he got together the most magical exhibition.
And it was a groundbreaking exhibition because he was able to get the two 'Burnings of the Houses of Parliament', which happened in the 1830s. He was on the spot. And what a lucky thing that it was Turner, the one British artist who could really turn that into a dramatic and marvellous experience. He wanted one - he sold one - and he wanted the other one to stay as part of his collection, because he has, had planned to make this huge bequest to the nation of his whole work.
Anyway, somebody complained about not being able to get a Turner, and Turner said, crustily, "Well you've only got to my studio and you can have anything you wish. All my paintings are there'. So this person did come, and Turner had forgotten to turn that 'Burning of the Houses of Parliament' to the wall, and he wanted that.
And Turner tried to say, "No, no, no, that one I have reserved for the nation". He said, "You did tell me, Mr Turner, that I could have anything". Anyway, he got it. So that's how the two crucial pictures in British art, you know, crucial because of their splendour in their painting, but also because they were recording such a dramatic event. The old mediaeval Houses of Parliament burning down.
They both escaped, and they both happened to end up in the United States. One at the Philadelphia Museum and the other in Boston. And so he was able to reunite them. They'd never been seen together except in a very small exhibition in New York - in America, not in New York, but in America that quite a few people saw, but not many.
So, we - and he did some wonderful things like bringing together ancient and modern Italy, which had not been seen together, probably since it left the artist's studio. But the - while he's doing all of that, getting the concept, starting to write the loan requests, um, I then have to follow up. I go across ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, Michael has all - got the curatorial idea together. We then write off the letters to the various organisations that own the Turners. You know, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Philadelphia Museum in America. Then it's my task to go across and talk to the curator - the directors of the galleries first and then the curators of the divisions where the paintings are, to convince them that this is a worthy exhibition.
And, ah, this is how I've become so friendly with people like Neil McGregor, of course, and, ah, 'cause he is the most generous man you could possibly imagine. If he, if he can possibly make it happen, he will. And the same with Nick Serota, the Director of the Tate Gallery. I found him wonderful. They're - they all love Australia and they love helping a good idea.
And they could see that this was a splendid idea. And, ah, so I talked to - I said to Neil, "What I really wanted was this very famous picture called 'The Fighting Temeraire'", because it's absolutely epitomised what Michael was doing. He was trying to show how the old age was being towed away by Turner and presenting a new opportunity for a new life, the new industrial age. And in the picture, the old Temeraire is the old, great, ah, sailing hulk, and she's being towed up the River Thames by this little cheeky little tug, steam tug.
So it's steam power carting off the old, you know, hearts of oak. Beautiful painting. The sun is setting, it's full of romanticism. But it's one of the great icons, and Neil really went into bat for me with the directors of the National Gallery. And the vote was absolutely tied between those who voted yes it should go and those who voted that no it shouldn't go.
And I said to Neil, "Look, I will do anything to get this picture. We can build a crate within a crate, you know, with - so it's sprung, so it has no - get rid of any vibration. No problem at all. I'll even then put it into a waterproof thing so if the plane goes down we can retrieve it from the bottom of the ocean". I was so passionate, because it was going to be the icon of the exhibition.
But it turned out, Neil said, "Well, you've created - you've made history, because the - your request has forced the directors of the National Gallery to draw up a list of those things which will never move". And one of them, I was quite right, was Constable's 'Cornfield'. That will never move. And the other, unhappily, was Turner's 'Fighting Temeraire'.
That will never move. And there were quite a few - you know, they just picked the great icons of the National Gallery which they felt the loss would seriously diminish the cultural life of Great Britain, and that was one. So we didn't get it, but that's - so that was the stage where you're trying to persuade, trying to find ways in which you can get these things.
With the 'Burnings of the Houses of Parliament', I had done a very good favour to the director of the museum there, this Anne d'Harnoncourt, so she was very much predisposed to be helpful to me. This was to do with lending the Brancusi 'Birds' to her exhibition. And then I'd got a no from Boston. So I appealed to her. I said, "Look, Anne, we really want to get these two pictures together. That's the whole point".
"Oh", she said, "Leave it to me. I'll ring, I know him very well". So you see, that's how things get done. It's through connections, through knowing, through collaboration, you know, that I had gone out of the way. I'd gone that extra mile to see that she could get the Brancusi 'Birds'. So she's going to go the extra mile for me. Then of course, you've got to get sponsorship.
Because without sponsorship, you can't put the money into the promotion of the exhibition. I used to try and use the exhibition fund to fund the exhibition. That's the crating and freighting of the exhibitions, the curator travel and all of that, my travel to go and solicit the loans. The promotion, which was often, you know, two and a half, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, I would try and get a sponsorship.
So I'd always be looking for something like two and a half to three hundred thousand dollars, and then I'd use that to promote the exhibition, and thereby promote the sponsor, whoever it was. And if they could see it was a [sic] going to be a real [sic] popular thing, that was going to get the interest of people, of course, see it wasn't too difficult. I, I found it quite easy with Turner.
But then you've got an enormous amount - everybody in the organisation, I would say, from your volunteers to your lighting electricians, to your exhibition officers, to other curatorial staff, to your publishing department because of the, ah, you know, catalogue that's got to be a really serious contribution to Turner scholarship, and it was.
Ah, so everybody's got a hand in this operation. And when it finally goes up, there's a wonderful collaborative pride in the exhibition, 'cause they've all had a go at it. Even the guys that drive the, um, cherry-pickers, and the - and you see the um, volunteers all rolling up the posters and the things they're going to give out on opening night.
Then of course you've got to get the person - the right person to open it. And don't ask me who opened Turner because I really can't remember. I was absolutely frantic by this time, because by this time I knew that Michael was dying. He had terminal cancer, and that completely destroyed me. So I just staggered through those, um, last days of Turner, getting Turner up.
Fortunately, he lived to see it opened. He never lived to find out what a huge popular success it had been. He died a couple of weeks into the exhibition, which was a terrible tragedy for Australia, because he was the most talented young man. He was just at that point of his profession where he was just about to blossom, and it was a great loss to the gallery and a great loss to Australia.
Well, he was a natural. He was an obvious - he had terrific respect. Wherever I went, to whatever gallery it was, in America or in Europe, I'd say, "Michael Lloyd". "Oh, Michael Lloyd. Right, this'll be a serious exhibition." So he already had that. I had to build that network up. He had it, so he would have walked in, starting off with that respect of his peers in other places. And that is crucial, because without that, you don't get the sorts of pictures that you want.
And I noticed a huge difference between, say, Turner, which everybody had had a hand in, right down to the catering staff, you know, thinking of how they - what they were going to produce for the opening, to an exhibition that came in as a package, like 'The Queen's Pictures', which was a fantastic exhibition. This was, um, the Queen's private collection. The most marvellous ... one of the great Rembrandts - double portraits of Rembrandt's 'The Fish Builder' [sic], ah, 'The Shipbuilder and his Wife'.
Um, that was in it. But that came just as a package. The catalogue had been done elsewhere. So very - the only people who were engaged in that really were the exhibition officers, the lighting technicians, and the curator was, you know, just easing it into the building. And, and of course the promotion department. It had to be promoted. But it was quite a different feeling in the building.
And that's why I put - personally put such store on exhibitions that we had generated, because it was furthering Australian scholarship, it was promoting the idea in other people, out there, that we were a serious country, you know, doing serious projects. And it was such a good morale booster for the - every person in the building.
Well some I didn't turn around. They left. You know, the really disaffected moved on, and I could name them but I won't. Um, but I could count them on the fingers of that hand. But the other ones, there was a genuine fondness in the end, because we worked together. Anyone that works together, in a true collegiate way, if you really are - and not being, um, hierarchical about it, so you do give the people, when I'm talking to the electrician, he's the one that's got the knowledge, so, you know, he's got - he's at the top of the pile when I'm talking to the electrician.
And when you're talking to the catering man, his - he knows what he's doing. So you give everyone their expertise and you become a genuine member of a team. And they understand, they understand that I am the friend of all these people over there who own the - who - custodians of these pictures. So they wouldn't get the pictures without my advocacy overseas. So we've all got a vital role to play.
But there's no one role that's really more important than the other, honestly, you know. It requires each one to play their role. And I think you just become a team player and it's like a football team. Everybody likes everybody else, by and large.
Nevertheless, you attracted quite a lot of criticism from art critics and from the art public at large. Do you think any of that criticism was valid? For example, you were criticised for not collecting enough contemporary Australian work.
Yes, I was. I didn't see - I don't think that was valid. I didn't see the National Gallery's role for collecting untried artists. I saw that when I was in Western Australia, my job was to collect the very best of what was happening at that time, in the 1980s. Now it didn't matter - I used to say to the curators - whether they're still painting in the 1990s, what we're representing is the best of Western Australian art in the 1980s, and then we'll do it in the 1990s, and in the 2000s.
And so there I was collecting right out of studios, straight from young artists. I don't think that's the task of a national gallery. It's a, it's an encyclopaedic collection and one of its real problems is how does it keep judiciously adding to this without grinding to a halt? You see, the Metropolitan Museum in New York is also encyclopaedic. It's almost ground to a halt.
I remember asking to see something and the curator just said, "Oh, please don't ask to see that". Because they just didn't know where it was. It was just sort of - it's - it can be chaotic. I had a meeting with the curators just before I left and I said, "Look, I want to play a game". I had a lunch. They didn't know what was happening. We all set the table up very nicely, had all of the curators in, and I said, "We're going to play a game. It's now the year 2050. What's the National Gallery?"
Dead silence. They didn't know what I was talking about. I said, "Well", I said, "Have we split into various um, categories like they have in London? You know, they've got decorative arts at the Victoria and Albert, they've got, um, ancient art at the British Museum. They've got paintings at the National, and modern art at the Tate. Have we done that? Or we do we have a ring of warehouses circling Canberra full of pictures and paintings and sculptures that we're never going to be able to exhibit?"
You know, I just wanted them to think ahead. What do you do with a national collection that must keep growing? It certainly must keep growing, but I don't think you buy untried artists out of young people's studios. I think the National Gallery, personally - now I shouldn't be saying this because they've bought one of Pete's - but I probably wouldn't have.
Because I really, really think you - an artist like, ah, Charles Blackman, an artist like John Olsen, like Jan Senbergs, Geoffrey Parr, you know, all of these artists, you have a track record and you know that they're serious artists, that they're going to have made a serious contribution to Australian art, and will continue to make.
They - they should be in the national collection. But not a youngster, I don't think.
Yes, and proved that they are indeed serious and contemporary artists. You know, like if they'd bought mine. I was a bright young person, but that would be just a, a weight around their neck now, because I never went on, I never produced anything else, and so it's not valid. Ah, what is valid about an artist's work is their total output, not just a few things that they do at one point in time.
Oh, also that I was 'dumbing down', to use that silly term.
By popularising. And, and that some of the ones that left never changed their mind about that. They thought that, you know, they wanted to put on these very finely tuned esoteric little exhibitions that, believe me, wouldn't have attracted - they would have attracted scholars, they'd have attracted other artists, they'd have attracted a few aficionados but they would not have done what the exhibition program that I put in place, which was to generate enough money to be adventurous.
And to put on an exhibition like 'Vision of Kings', you know, the art of India. They - you know, those little exhibitions would have not caused a ripple on the surface of the lake. So, um, I'm, I'm convinced I did the right thing. But what I wanted, when I got that extension built on the gallery at the back, so that we could put our - I didn't want - like the exhibitions disrupting the major gallery, and there was no exhibition - temporary exhibition space in the building.
So I got that extension approved and we built it. And my idea was when there wasn't a major touring exhibition, that was when that space could be used for these very academic, er, highly tuned specific exhibitions, drawn from the permanent collection.
No, it doesn't seem to have panned out that way, but then that's another person in the place with a different idea. But that was my idea. So a lot of the things they wanted to do, you know, from their print collection, from their drawing collection, from the photography collection, it's a fab- ... you know, there are fabulous things.
Costume, fashion, you know, there's everything in that collection. But I thought, well that's a wonderful opportunity. We keep our permanent collection on show. Every once, or at the most, twice a year, we would have a touring exhibition. For the rest of the time is the time to bring out our hidden treasures and show them.
No, well the external building wasn't finished, you see. That extension. I didn't ever get to use that.
When it was time for you to go, there was a tremendous amount of controversy over your replacement, and given that you'd settled everything down and everything was looking much happier, how did you feel about the fact that your departure created such a furore?
Oh, it really made me very upset. Deeply upset, because it turned out that there was one member of staff who did not want Michael Lloyd to succeed me, and it was his sort of rather machiavellian way of um, trying to see that that didn't happen, and indeed he saw that it didn't happen.
But, er, my agreeing to do that extra year - it turned out to be an extra eighteen months - was to allow the dust to settle, and for good sense to prevail, and for them to see that yes, Michael was the right person. So that Michael could then move in and, um, take his place. Because he'd been selected by the selection panel unanimously.
It was just, you know, madness.
Well what went wrong was that the, um, selection panel met and they selected Michael Lloyd. Michael Lloyd was the name that went forward. The Minister would not appoint because - whether it was the Minister or the Prime Minister - I don't know, but it was because of this scuttlebutt that had been put about, about a scuffle that had taken place at the gallery.
Now I - unfortunately it happened on a Friday night, I wasn't there, so I didn't know. Michael Lloyd was not a good drinker. He never drank, because he was one of those people that a few drinks would just set him aflame, you know, and he - but on this one occasion, he had - 'cause it was a member of staff leaving - had a few drinks.
And I said to him, I said, "Michael, you're going to have to defend yourself, because a whole lot of scurrilous things are being said about you, and you're saying nothing. You must - you've got to ... " He said, "Betty, I cannot remember anything after 6.30". And I said, "Well make it up!" He said, "Oh no, I wouldn't do that".
So you see, he was just such an honest man. I knew that he wouldn't do anything. I knew he could be - flare up, you know, I mentioned to you that he stormed out of my office and slammed the door after him. He was that sort of guy. He had a very - what do you say, short fuse? Um, but he wasn't a nasty man. He wasn't a violent man.
And, ah, so I knew a lot of this was being concocted to sully his reputation and prevent him from moving smoothly and easily into the job, which is what he would have done. Because when he heard that I was accepting it, he rang me up and said, "Betty, don't do this. You're giving the Minister an out". And I just couldn't say to him, "Look Michael, the Minister's not going to appoint", because I knew he wasn't.
And if the Minister had not appointed - had not extended me, if I had not - one of the other candidates would have been appointed, and they would have been then in for five or six years, so Michael would never have got it. Now as it turned out, Michael was fatally ill. We didn't know that. So I might have decided not to go on, if I'd known that.
I thin he was just terribly mistaken. I think he thought he wouldn't flourish under Michael. He was fairly high up in the hierarchy of the gallery, and I think, mistakenly, he thought Michael wouldn't allow him to operate and flourish in the way that he wanted to. Maybe he thought he should have been the Director. I really don't know.
Um, clearly I don't want to say too much about that.
Well I don't even want to say that, to be honest.
And so, you were asked to stay on while they continued their hunt, because they'd decided not to appoint. But there were alternative applicants there. Were none of them - did you think none of them were suitable?
Well it wasn't up for me to think that. I wasn't on the selection panel and the retiring, er, person never should have any say, and I had no say and nobody had consulted me. I think some of the people who had been on that list thought I had influenced the result, and I, I certainly did not. Um, but I, I - whether the Minister didn't think anyone, or whether the selection panel got their noses out of joint that the Minister hadn't accepted their opinion and said, "Well, we're not going to put forward another one. This is our choice ..." [INTERRUPTION]
Not really. No, I, er, came back with the same - I didn't, I didn't coast the last eighteen months, in other words, at all. I kept going, you know, vigorously. I had the building that I had to keep fighting for, and trying to get that underway, and, ah, make sure that it was coming in under budget. There was a lot to do. Um ...
Well, when I - Roy and I were doing, um, a retirement trip, a little celebration trip in Europe when all of this was happening, and I was getting phone calls from Cathy Santamaria saying, you know, "Would I consider ... "
Yes, from the department. "Would I consider a [sic] extension?" And I thought - I remember saying, "Well, to what end? Why?" And I was told then that the appointment was not going to be made that had been suggested. So I then spoke to Roy and Roy thought, "Oh, well, you know, this is s'posed to be your retirement trip. What's going on?" And I said, "Well look, Roy, think about it, you know. We haven't paid off the farm. It'll give us a chance to do that and we can do this and do that". And so we'd get completely ready and quite enthusiastic about going and then there'd be another phone call, "No, the Minister's changed his mind. No, he wants you to retire".
So then we'd talk ourselves into, "Yes, that was a good thing", and then there'd be another phone call. "No, the Minister wants ... " And I said, in the end I said, "Look, you make up your mind. Either I stay or I don't", but I wanted a decision now and they said, "You're staying". So I stayed and, ah, as it turned out, it was, for me, a very good thing.
Because, I hadn't paid off this vineyard, and it did - that extra 18 months - allowed me to, you know, put just about everything into that, ah, mortgage. So I retired debt free, which is, ah, a great comfort.
It is. I probably didn't put enough effort into that. I put so much effort into the program, the exhibition program, the acquisition program, the education program. I didn't spend all that much time currying, um, contacts in government, or in the department. I was always a very good friend of Cathy Santamaria.
I related to her very easily and enjoyed her company. And so that was just a natural - but I didn't ...
She was the Deputy Secretary in charge of the Arts, yes. But no, I didn't do much politing [sic] ... politicking, and when I think about it, I jolly well should have done more. I'd see other members of staff with their - not with the ministers, but with the ministers' assistants, and you know, at that level. And I'd think, "Oh, good, you know, you're doing that. That leaves me free".
But of course it turned around to bite me, because those were the very people who caused a lot of the trouble later.
In relation to the successor, yes.
Yes, more with Keating than with ah, Bob Hawke, although I, I had one meeting with Bob Hawke, and that's all. With Keating it was different because he was interested in the arts, and he had a particular interest in neo-classical art, and knew a great deal about it. So we had something to chat about.
But we didn't really - when I think about it, I think, well what a fool. You had a marvellous opportunity to promote what you wanted, ah, and I didn't use it. I just used it to, ah, chat about the things that he wanted to talk about. And when I think about it, that's probably why he liked to talk to me, because I didn't - he knew I was not going to start trying to lobby or promote some project.
Well not so much about art policy, but I think if only I had pointed out to them that they were not giving us enough money for that extension. You know, there was a wonderful opportunity. All of the problems they're now having. They talk about 36 million. They allocated me 5 million to do that extension.
Now there was an opportunity to build a large space for people - for exhibition openings to take place, to, you know, just for the want of, you know, another 5 or 6 million, it could have solved the problems of the gallery. Well now, I, I did, in order to get that 5 million, do a little bit of lobbying, I have to admit. But, ah, I didn't lobby hard enough or long enough or ask for enough. And, ah, I kicked myself for that.
But in time - the real question was in terms of policy. Oh, one of the things I really wanted to do - which this, um, new director has done - was to remove a restraint, which had been in from the beginning of time, from the gallery's beginning, where any purchase over a certain amount of money had to get ministerial approval.
Now when a wonderful thing comes, an opportunity comes on the market, by the time - to get ministerial approval, I have to say first, you had to get three expert opinions. Now experts, because they're experts, are very busy people, you know, and they're, you know, often in America or Great Britain or France or wherever. Those three expert opinions could be anything up to two months in coming.
By this time, the thing has gone to someone else, and the thing that really I regretted missing and, you know, that the gallery could have had was this most marvellous ceramic bust by Salvador Dali. A thing about that big, with this wonderful woman's head and shoulders. She had, I think I remember, a bread roll on her head, and ants crawling all over.
Beautifully painted, wonderful thing. The Museum of Modern Art moved in like a sea hawk, you know, and just swooped it up and it was gone. And that, but I hade the money - we had the council approval. We could have been the sea hawk that got it, but that silly clause - and the new director has managed to get rid of that. So that's a, a real plus.
You'd been interested in the broader picture of support for the visual arts for a long time, hadn't you, Betty? When did that officially begin for you in terms of an opportunity and a public role to be able to influence the way things were done, in terms of support for the arts in Australia?
I suppose when I first was invited onto the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council - not as a member - but as a, like the Queensland representative. They didn't want to have a member from Queensland, and I'd have to think hard when that was, because a little bit later - after I'd gone to Melbourne, this would have been in the early '80s - I was, ah, made the Chair of the Visual Arts Board.
So I then moved in in a formal capacity, with some influence. When I was the Queensland representative, I had no voting rights, I had no real ability to speak, although I did speak, but, ah, I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to just look and listen and report back. But as the chair, of course, I had more of a, an opportunity and I could see what the value of the, um, Australia Council was and what it could do for art.
It was a great initiative, to set that up for contemporary artists. And some of the things that I thought were most useful was the, ah, scholarships that allowed artists in residencies overseas, where artists could go overseas, but furthermore, have a studio to work overseas. One of the problems with travel for artists is that they can very seldom work.
You know, they can either go and look, or they can go and work, but they can't do both. And these, um, overseas studios, dotted around Europe and America and Japan, allowed artists to go and work, sit in that environment and become part of that environment. And I thought that was very, very good.
Ah, I enjoyed my time on the Visual Arts Board. It gave me an overview of the arts in Australia that I wouldn't have ever got otherwise. I was conscious of the fact that ... that there was a funny sort of ingrown perpetuation of choice, of who was to be sponsored and who wouldn't. And that was because we'd get a group of people in to make the selection.
The artist would have to select - send in ten or twelve slides - and you'd make a selection of people who would make the decision, we didn't. Then we'd ask them to nominate the next panel. But of course they were all nominating their own - and that was the - that - I realised that that was the - a flaw, you know, because you were never moving outside a certain parameter of art making in Australia.
And that doesn't - didn't really greatly matter 'cause I'm sure that has now changed - but during my time, it was, it was worrying me because the same names kept coming up for sponsorship, for studios, for grants, etcetera, etcetera.
Have you ever had any doubt about the need for the public, through the government, to support the arts? Have you - there's always this argument that goes on about the fact that public funding shouldn't be made available for the arts. What - what's your perspective on that?
Well I think the only people that put that argument forward are fairly successful artists, who have, luckily, managed to become successful and self-sufficient. No, I think - there is a need now, simply because, er, when we go back in history, there was an actual physical need for artists, you know, through the guilds, and artists had an, a role to play, even if they were just painting the little cherubs, you know, flying around the main subjects.
There was a role for artists to play. And there was a role for art to play, because there were no cameras, there were no cinemas, there was no, no other recording method. When art became something else - as it did, you know, when the other recording methods came in - I think then that the ability for artists to get up and start running on their own, was, ah, much reduced, because they didn't have a system to work in, like the old guild system.
And, um - or even in England in the 19th century, you know, with the, um, the old salons and the, the, ah, academies. All of those were worth, in effect, what the Australia Council later became - a way of supporting artists, a place for artists to exhibit, and an opportunity for artists to make a name.
Well, I think we - we, the lookers, I think, as this world that we live in becomes more and more mechanised and more and more - the speed of things, the internet, you know, everything happens as quick [sic], fast information, you know, flashing past, masses of information. I think the need to sit quietly with something that does not change, something that has not changed since the 17th century, something that just sort of connects us in a quiet way with the way other people live and the way other people work, I think is going to become increasingly important.
I sat, just recently, a couple of weeks ago in the National Gallery in London and just watched people. Not watched the paintings, watched people looking at the paintings, and it was fascinating to see, you know, the numbers of people. The numbers of people that are visiting art galleries now is increasing, not decreasing. And the only reason for that that I can think of is that, um, that the, the quiet, you know, imaginative contemplation, and that art allows - gives you that room to contemplate and to, to build your own little fantasies around it.
For the person who makes art, I think, it's hugely important. I remember thinking back to when I was a little girl and I felt I didn't do anything terribly well but oh yes, I could draw, thank God, I could draw. You know, and it was that ability - and I think it's the same for music, or for theatre, or for anything - it gives you an outlet. And I think it's a very, very important outlet. Human beings need it, and I don't think the computer chip is going to solve that problem, that deep-seated need of human beings to find a way of articulating a particular feeling about the world, or a particular feeling about how you relate to the world.
I did. I, um, one of the things I did when I travelled, because I had to keep my eyes very sharp, because when exhibitions came up I had to remember where that picture - where was that Turbell [sic], where was that Ruisdael, you know, where were they, which museum did I see that in? So I used to keep a notebook. And I would make little drawings of the pictures, because once you've drawn something, you've imprinted in your memory cell.
And you notice things that you don't necessarily notice when you just look. Because when you're drawing, you suddenly notice there's a line, a very purposeful line. And you think, what's he done that for, and then you suddenly see, "Ah, I see. That's actually, a lance, you know, that's coming across here, that this man's holding, but you hadn't see it before". It just helps you look and it helps you remember.
So that's the only way I've used my drawing since. But I don't use it in a way of fulfilling my personal needs. What has happened to me is that I've sort of switched that, into first teaching, and then into, ah, managing galleries and now into the television things that I produce.
Yes, so I was going to ask you about that. After you left the gallery, you didn't decide to sort of put on your slippers and relax. You've been doing other things. What, what have you been doing since you left the gallery?
Well I've been - I was very active on the Centenary of Federation Committee. I was the Chair of the Major Events and Celebrations, which really was putting me in the hot seat, and I said to Tony Eggleton who was this marvellous Chief Executive of the Centenary - it was great meeting him. I wished I'd met him, er, earlier in my life, and watched him, how he managed things. A great politician and - without being a politician.
But, ah, I greatly enjoyed working with Tony, and when Tony put me on this, I said, "Tony, I'm the original party pooper. I hate parties. I hate cele- ... I hate crowded people [sic]. I'm a hermit. I don't want to do this". He said, "Oh, yes you do. Yes you do". And of course, I, I did it and I actually enjoyed doing it. So that, that took a lot.
I'm on quite a lot of different committees and etceteras. I do a - did do an awful lot of opening and launching and - I was saying to Roy I get to the point now where I was opening so many exhibitions, in schools, in all the, you know, and they were all worthy and it's terribly hard to say no - but I said to Roy, I felt that every - when I opened a can of sardines, I expected them all to stand up and applaud. It had got into this sort of thing of opening things.
So I've really tried to step back from that judging and opening and after dinner speeches and all that. Nobody wants to listen to you but they seem to feel that you've got to have someone there, and I'm really trying stop doing some of that. But I have loved my little short programs that I've been doing with the ABC.
Although I'm, I'm sick of the small format. I don't want to do that any more. But, ah, that was really just an extension of what I'd been doing both as a teacher and as an art gallery director. Trying to get people to look more carefully, and with curiosity - as soon as you can arouse a person's curiosity, you're tw-thirds there. The minute they think - and if you talk about what the, the motive of the artist was, what the subject was, something interesting about the subject, something curious about how it got into the country, all of those things - you've given them something that you've engaged their curiosity, and they've been looking at the image and by that time, they've become interested in the image.
Because people don't give art long enough, I don't think, to let it - you know, what it's really about - get into their heads. And I've just enjoyed that. I, I love - er, the last series I did was the provenance of works of arts in Australian collections.
And there's really fascinating stories about how they got here, like the story of 'Blue Poles', how 'Blue Poles' got into the country, and so many things. And that was, that was really enjoyable.
Yes. Well the ANU were wonderful. When I retired - well, even before I retired, I remember Ian McCalman at the HRC came to see me, and asked me if I would like to do this. And I was just overwhelmed, because it gave me an office, it gave me the support system of the university, it gave me all the equipment, you know, that I would need and, ah, and I have done that since retirement.
I don't know how much longer this wonderful thing will last, but while it lasts, I'm really enjoying it. And I enjoy the ... company of the people at the ANU. I'm in the Centre of Cross-Cultural Research, and I feel I'm a sort of ... an anomaly in that school, but not really. You know, I said this to them and they say, "Oh no, no, no, not at all. We trot you out from time to time..." And I'm not doing the sort of research that most of them are doing, but it is relevant.
Yes. That's where, that's where I've done all of the television programs for, and that's why I insist that the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research gets a mention on everything, because without them, I wouldn't be able to do - I wouldn't have been able to do them.
No, not really. I chair their um, Advisory Committee, which is a committee of outsiders that come in, but that's really all I do. But no obligations in relation to students. At first I thought that that's what it was, and I thought, "No, I don't want to go there again". And be correcting, reading, you know, papers and correcting and ... I didn't want to do that.
But no, there were [sic] none of that. It was simply - it is a research centre, and all I had to do was keep producing and these television programs filled that bill, so it's been a great thing for me.
I used to. When we first came in 1990, I'd be out there pruning, I'd be out there picking. As I've grown older, though, less and less - Roy still does, but fortunately, Paul our second son, who lives here but not with us in another site, he's sort of taken the vineyard over and that's a very good thing, because, ah, I think we're ... well I don't think Roy's getting too old, but I am.
No, we don't. We sell our grapes to Lark Hill. Very, very good winemakers, fortunately. And what we do, when we can get a crop, when the frost doesn't destroy us, if we get a crop, we, we sell one paddock - because we never want the vineyard to do more than be self-sufficient - put the money we make from that back into the vineyard, you know, to buy the lime and the sprays, etcetera, that you've got to use.
We give one paddock to Lark Hill, and Sue Carpenter, makes the most marvellous pinot let's say, and we get half of that back in bottles. But she gets the other half to make and sell as - and it's a great deal, you know. And I think we, um - the same with the cabernet, we get the cabernet made up, and she makes it up for us, and we have that to drink. And Roy and I work hard at that. We get that done pretty well. We're ...
One of our great achievements is drinking a garage full of wine.
You have to do a lot of judging, and you've had to do a lot of judging of art, in the course of your life. How do you distinguish between really special and good art and all the other art that one sees about? What is the difference? Can you characterise it?
Oh well, it's so very subjective and it's so very relative, you know. I've just been up to the Pilbara, for instance, and that's judging the art of the region. So that's judging the art of Tom Price and Karratha and Cossack. Little communities. Well you're clearly there not looking for the sort of thing that you might be looking if you're judging a sort of like a Sydney Biennale. You've got, you know, it depends.
What I look for in a judge, and I've been helped in this in the Professor John Passmore's book, 'Serious Art', what I look for is an indication of serious intent on the part of the artist. Not to show their skill, how clever they are at it, but a serious intent that they wanted to paint that person, or they wanted to paint that landscape, or wanted to do this.
Not because they've seen it in a book, or they think it's a thing that the judge will like, but something that they have personally, seriously wanted to do, and the emphasis is on the word 'serious'. And I think you can, ah, often, that's probably the only thing you can go at, because good and bad are such relative, ah, values, that what's good in the Pilbara may not be good in Sydney, you know, and what's bad in the Pilbara may be even worse in Sydney.
If the intent, the serious intent is strong enough, generally the technique will muddle behind. Um, the most depressing thing is when the technique is paramount and there's been no real, deep commitment driving it, because then you just get this facile, smart, you know, almost commercial art result. Um, I find that if they really try - like there was I remember in the Pilbara there was this little dark little painting, which I really loved.
If I could have carried one off, I'd have carried that off, and it was very inept technically, but it was a real image that he'd seen of these tents in the dark, with a red tank, you know. In the dark, but you know, just, just seeing through the dark you could make out this red tank. And it was a real image that he had in his mind. Or she. I can't remember if it was a man or a woman.
But it wasn't terribly skilfully done but by joves, it was a powerful image. And it was only powerful, I think, because it was a genuine, deeply felt thing that he'd seen and wanted to put down.
You'd be familiar, from the Visual Arts Board, with the great debate between the value of craft in the whole visual arts scene. How do you, how do you see that? The whole issue of the sort of craft versus art debate?
Well I wish it wasn't a debate. I wish it wasn't craft versus art. And I wish craft people didn't feel, ah, second rate when they're making just a beautiful pot, or when they're making just the most marvellous join in wood. You know, that they've got to turn it into art. I think that's when it turns disastrous, when it's, you know, they - it becomes so called 'modern art'.
I just love the most beautifully crafted thing and again, the, the serious intent to make a beautiful table, or to make the perfect bowl or to make a most beautiful piece of weaving, I think that that - the same things still apply. But then when you see a sort of like a wall hanging with bits of sort of shells and seaweed sticking out, you know, they lose me when we get to that.
Because I think it is neither one thing nor the other, really. It's neither craft, nor is it art. Ah, but a beautiful piece of weaving, a beautiful piece of joinery, a beautiful piece of pottery, to my mind is art in the best sense of the word. And I don't want to sort of divide it into craft or into art.
Do you think that there's an element too with which sort of fashion affects things? Does that - as an observer of the arts scene, do you see a sort of issue of fashion coming in and affecting things? What have you noticed about that in Australia?
Well fashion is a problem, because fashions do come and go, and fashions does not just apply to the way we dress. Fashions apply to what we paint and what we eat off and how we surround ourselves in our home. So fashions come and go, and one of the things that really used to worry me, when I was teaching in art school, was that students were often being taught to produce the current fashion.
For instance, when it was all about hard edge abstractions, you know, everything was going on in acrylic with rollers and masking tape, they were all being told to do that, because they all wanted to be in fashion. Now when that fashion moved on, those kids were left high and dry, like a rockpool when the tide's gone out.
You know, there's nothing more depressing than a sea anemone when there's no water around and really, they had nothing to fall back on. And, ah, but it still happens. That was the most, ah, outstanding case. I remember, ah, that appalled me. You know, everybody was being told to turn up, you know, with their masking tape and their acrylic paint and their paint rollers.
And they were all doing these great big, Kenneth Noland, you know, colour field paintings. And that, as I said earlier about the design of this gallery here, I think it was designed to take those great big colour paintings. But that didn't - that wasn't how painting continued and it never is. I'm always impressed by a remark that Brancusi, the sculptor, the, um, wonderful sculptor, Brancusi, he said, um, he said, "I don't aspire to be in fashion, because what's in fashion goes out of fashion".
And he, he really tried not to be in fashion. And, ah, of course his work is timeless, and, ah, will last forever.
A little bit more peace, which sounds a bit defeating, but I want a little bit more time to myself. I, I want to do less sort of official openings and judgings and speaking. I still want to research. I do love research, I love working and finding out about things that I didn't know before. Like I'm working now on the art of the First and Second World War, and I'm just - it's just opening out a whole area for me that I'd never even thought about.
Well, I love to keep doing that. When I did my work on Aboriginal art. Now I'd been buying Aboriginal art for the National Gallery, all through Wally Caruana's selection, but, you know, my approval, but I'd never had the opportunity to really study it, to really look at it. To try and follow the work of an artist, let's say, Clifford Possum, Tjapaltjarri, he's the one that's just died.
But to look at Clifford Possum from his first beginnings, how he developed as an artist, what themes he encompassed, how he then sort of honed down the themes from big, you know, epic map paintings to sort of more specific stories relating to his particular dreaming.
And you know, it was fascinating, and I'd never had a chance to do that. And I love doing that, and I think I will love that till I'll die. Whether I'll continue to do it until I die is another matter, but I might do it just as a private satisfaction.
To do that sort of thing, but also, I have to say, I always imagined when I retired I thought I'm going to - I've got, we've got the whole recording of 'Ulysses' on tape. I thought I shall sit in the sun on the verandah, and I will have 'Ulysses' on my lap and I'll have the recording and I'll listen to it and I'll read it and I'll get more out of 'Ulysses' than I've ever got before.
I haven't even played a single 'Ulysses' tape. You know, that - that's just not happened. And there's, you know, lots of things. You know, music I want to listen to, books I want to read. Um, sort of self-indulgent stuff.
I don't think so, because I'm a very, very private person. But you don't know. You know, I say that, but perhaps it may not be what I want. You really don't know. I think you - I just sort of go with the flow, as you probably gathered, you know, and something is offered to me like, I never thought of the National Gallery as being something I wanted to do but it was offered to me. You know, "Come on".
You know, so I take it and then I just go with it. And, and my whole life has been that. So I'm not absolutely certain as to what I really want to do or what I really should be doing. But my instinct always is to be a very private person. You know, I'm not a great party person. I don't even like great big dinner parties.
I like little dinner parties, where you can talk. I'm no good at small talk, in other words, chat. And, um, I'm always in - at those openings, great big openings at the galleries, I used to loathe them. I'd sit up in my office before going down and swallowing aspirin and digesics to get myself into something of a state where I could cope.
Oh, I had headaches almost daily at the National Gallery - purely tension, you know. Stress headaches. But as soon as I retired, they vanished. Didn't have another headache. But, ah, that was just apprehension and stress of having to deal with all of these people at all different levels. And also, the panic of knowing the person but not remembering the name, and that was a sort of - I've almost programmed myself to do this, not to remember people's names, and I'm no good at it.
Yeah, I don't like doing that. I do it, but I don't actually enjoy standing up. I don't enjoy talking to a large number of people. I've enjoyed talking to you, because - but if this had been a room full of people, I wouldn't have been anywhere near as relaxed as I am now.
Well that is the great paradox, that really is. Yes, because probably, the, er, cloistered life of the studio, which I first devised for myself was actually what, psychologically, I needed, personally. And somehow, life has just propelled me into another thing. But I really think that quiet, self-contained quiet life of the studio - and it is a lonely life, the artist's life in the studio is very lonely.
You're on your own. But I loved it. I just loved it.
No. I've never felt lonely in my life.
Can we go back now to your childhood, and I wonder if you could begin by picking up a little story that you told the other day, about your childhood and tell us again, when you were taunted by the other children because you hadn't done well at school, and I'll - if you can get into it, I'll just ask you and then you can tell us. How did you get on when you went to school?
I was an outsider at school, and I'd had that disadvantage of having the year of correspondence and not starting when I was five, starting when I was six. So I, you know, was out of step. And I was always a little bit of out of step [sic] until I twigged what it was about, because I really didn't know why I was going to school, what this was all about.
I had no sort of preparation. Nowadays, I think it's so good. I watch my grandchildren. They go to pre-school - they go to kindy, then they go to pre-school, and it's all building up so they're beginning to understand what it's about. And I didn't know why I was being sent here for the day, you know, and then the end of the day I'd go home and then the next day I seemed to be going back here.
I had no idea what it was all about. And, ah, certainly no idea that the aim was to read and write and to calculate numbers. I had no idea about that. And, um, I can remember when it first dawned on me what it was about and it was the - some other children. I was sitting down in my little favourite spot that I had at school, which was a lovely - I can remember it still - a lovely round tree that divided like this, I'd made almost a lovely big, wide, warm patch.
And I used to sit there and day-dream. Day-dreaming was my great joy, and still is, I think. I can day-dream anywhere and anytime at great length. And I was day-dreaming there, enjoying myself and not worrying 'cause I wasn't playing wth the other children, 'cause I really didn't want to.
But, ah some little girls came and started taunting me from the bottom, saying "Betty Cameron second last again". And I thought, "Second last? Second last of what?" And then it suddenly [sic] realised, you know, you could be first or last and then I suddenly thought what those exams were about. What we were doing when I was gazing out the window day- dreaming, I should have been busily doing sums, or busily writing little essays, or ...
And I was handing in at the end of the lesson, probably nothing. And it's a miracle I wasn't last, not second last. I wonder who was last? But, ah, that's when it sort of suddenly - I thought, "Ah, that's what it's about. That's why we're doing those sums". And that's - that competitive thing, I think, entered my life for the first time, seriously.
You know, that you could compete and succeed, and compete and, ah, achieve.
I think it probably has, yes. I think it has. I've never been ambitious in setting out and saying, "I want to be ... you know, by the time I'm forty, I want to be ..." and I know people who think like this. I've never, never, never thought like that. I've always been very happy in what I was doing, but I've always done it to the very best, you know. That competitive thing has been within the area that I've been working.
When I was high school teaching, I wanted to do the best I possibly could as a high school teacher. I didn't want to be a high school principal. I wanted to be the best high school teacher. And then when I was in art school, I wanted to be the best art history lecturer I could possibly be, and then when I was a gallery director, and so it goes on.
But it's never towards any other end. I always say to my sons, "Whatever you're doing, make yourself indispensable at what you're doing. Don't be sort of thinking what you want to do next. Just make yourself absolutely indispensable at what you're doing now". And that's really what I've done all my life. And the other things have just come.
As I said, you know, I've only ever applied for one job and I didn't get that one. And the other jobs have just come to me. I've hesitated before taking them, thinking, you know, was I able to cope with this next step, and then I've dived in, and then swum madly for shore, and, you know, then made that the sum total of my ambition, until the next thing happened.
I often think, you know, getting back, right back to where I first [sic] invited to the National Gallery, "Why did they think of me?" And certainly, I'd made a name of myself at the Australia Council, and I s'pose to a certain extent in Melbourne, but I often wonder, whimsically, if it was not the fact that when Gough Whitlam - who was then the Chairman of the Board of the National Gallery - visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia, it was on a day when I had arranged to get little children interested in.
That they would come in, schools ,little - this is primary school children - and we'd have a story day and we'd have - stories would be told that would relate to pictures on the wall. So the building was full of little children, and Gough Whitlam arrived. Well, the stir ... it was like Gulliver and Lilliput. You know, hundreds of little children.
The teacher would say, "Oh, that was a Prime Minister, a former ... " And you'd see these little children suddenly leap on and leap towards Gough, and of course Gough preened and just adored it. And I wonder whether he thought that the Art Gallery of Western Australia was always like that. It's just that he happened to turn up on a day where this activity was happening. The place was just teeming with people, and life, and you know, vivacity and, and interest.
And whether he thought, "Oh, you know, there's something going over [sic] on over there in the west". Had he come the day later or the day before, it might have been a very different story. So I do wonder whether luck, and circumstance, don't play a role in the outcome of things. I think perhaps they do.
But of course succeeding does as well. And I wanted to ask you, how did you feel in life, when - how would you have coped if you'd been in a situation where you didn't get ten out of ten for what you were doing? Has that been a worry to you, when you've taken things on, that perhaps you wouldn't do them to the standards that you expected of yourself which was the 'ten out of ten' standard?
Oh yes, always. When, um, Rigby asked me to do the - no, it was Penguin - asked me to do the book on Molvig. They said, it's part of a series that we're doing of artists, and we've asked Humphrey McQueen, who's writing on - I think he was writing - I forget who he was writing on. But Richard Haese was writing on one of the, um, - I really forget who they were.
But they were really eminent people. And they'd all started writing and I - my immediately [sic] thing was, "Oh, I'm up against the best. I'm starting from behind the eight ball, you know. They've all started work". So I go in there like a steamroller and of course, I come out first. Molvig is the first book in the series to get published. I think Humphrey's McQueen's [sic] book - I don't know whether it ever did get published.
But there has been always that thing, you know, that, "Ah, I've got to be in there, you know, I'm going to be the - I mustn't be last. I must get in there and - not necessarily be first - but must perform and achieve". I've only ever ditched one project in my life, and that I just didn't have the strength to go on with it. It was in the year when I moved down to Melbourne, when I was living in that awful student digs at, um, in La Trobe University.
I decided to do another book. Rigby asked me to do another book, on Australian art, taking it from the, the Second World War onwards. All of the art histories brought you up to Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, but nothing took you on through the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s.
And I thought it'd be fascinating to do a book that took the history of Australian art through those centuries, showing what Sidney Nolan continued to do in the '60s and the '70s and '80s, what did Boyd continue doing, but when did John Firth-Smith came [sic] and when did all the other artists start appearing, so that you could see it as a continuum.
Some of it was the older artists continuing through, and some were the new artists coming in, and the new movements. And I worked really non-stop because I had nothing - no family, no nothing. Nothing to distract me at all, other than the job at Phillip Institute. And when I'd finally - I'd got the house, we were going to move and I'm packing up with great relief, and I packed all of the manuscript which is almost finished by this stage.
Massive amount of research. All original research because nobody had ever done it, so it all had to happen in the library of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Packed that all into cardboard boxes and all of my rubbish and other cardboard boxes and suitcases and lovely young Asian students who had this great respect for the elderly.
And I at that stage was still, you know, in my 50s I was still elderly. And, ah, they came rushing up, "Mrs Churcher, Mrs Churcher, we help you?" And I said, "Well look, those are going to the boot of the car, these are going to the dump, and these are going ..." And of course, it was several days before I opened, after I'd got to the house.
The manuscript had gone to the dump and all I had was all of the scrunched up paper that I'd put into this - these cardboard cartons and taped them all neatly. You know, equally they looked the same, and I remember this terrible feeling. And I knew it was no good, I knew it was a waste of time, but I had to do it. I got into the car, I knew which dump - there was a dump in Bundoora, you know, behind Phillip ...
I drove out there. It's now about three weeks later, and I'll never forget arriving. I was the only person there. It was all bulldozed flat, this dreadful smell and these seagulls just swooping. And that - and then I - they asked me to start again and I said, "Look, I'm sorry, I can't. Simply can't." 'Cause I'd kept no notes. I kept - it was before computers, so you had no ...
The hard copy was all that you had. So that was the death of an idea.
Oh, I don't think I could. It's a huge amount of work, you know. It was huge. I had to go through all of the old exhibition catalogues, and all of the new ...
It's never really been done as a whole sort of history, so that - school people can see, you know, that while John Firth-Smith was doing this, Arthur Boyd was still working on this. He was doing those wonderful pictures of the artists, you know, in the - with the barbed wire, you know, the chicken wire windows.
You know, and see that, you know, the old tradition continued into a different mode, but there were new people coming up. No, I don't know that it ever has been done, but it won't be done by me.
Um ... I have to think very hard here. I don't think I succeeded very well anywhere with, ah, fundraising in the terms of foundations. It wasn't my real interest and I wasn't too brilliant at it and, um, I think if there was an area where I didn't operate so well, it was in managing foundations, and managing the boards of foundations and getting really enthused and sort of passionate about raising money in the way I was enthused and passionate about making exhibitions or buying pictures.
Or making the gallery look beautiful and, you know, accommodating for people. It just never had my - I couldn't, you know. I tried, but I just didn't have that particular skill.
Probably. Americans are very good at it, but then Americans are very good at giving, too. I remember reading - um, I'm trying to think what the director was, of the Metropolitan Museum - and the board there, the Metropolitan Museum, were trying to buy something, and there are all these mega-wealthy people, and one of them says, "Well I'll donate five thousand", or fifty thousand, or whatever it is, and, you know, then around the table become competitive as to who could give the most money.
That doesn't exist in this country, that competitive thing of being - the more you give, the more your - the higher your status, your social status, rises. Social status here is based on other things, but not necessarily on the amount of money that you give.
Yeah, and ended her life a day-dreamer ...
... discovered the importance of success, and so started pursuing success in a competitive way. At this stage of your life, looking back with a bit of hindsight, do you think that success really is so important?
Yes I do, because success - all success means is that you have achieved what you wanted to achieve. If success was to become very wealthy, well then I failed, because that I certainly have not done. But for me, success was to do what I wanted to do, and yes, it was important to me, because it would have meant that I wasn't actually reaching my goals and my aims.
And as I said, my goals were always limited by what I'm doing. My goal is never outside of the square that I'm working in at any one time. And so it - achieving that is terribly important. But had my goal been to be a millionaire, let's say by the time I was fifty, well clearly, I'm a failure. Didn't work.
It was another paradox, really, in your life, that you had simultaneously, what you recognised was ambition, and you've described, as quite a strong ambition. And at the same time this, "What, little me?" side to you, always wondering whether or not you really would do it. How much tension did that put on the decisions you made about what you were going to do next?
I think a lot of tension, because feeling inadequate is really an uncomfortable situation to be in. I remember when I moved from high school teaching into tertiary teaching, I was terrified of having to - I knew I could relate to 17 - 16 and 17 year olds. Could I relate to that next, rather sort of bolshie, independent age group? You know, the young adult.
And I can remember, we were in Sydney, and Guy Gray Smith, who'd been - ah, Guy Warren, who'd been teaching in art schools forever and he said, "What are you talking about? Of course you can do it". And I thought, "Well, I wish I had your confidence". But of course, when I got into that particular pool and started to swim around I realised that yes I could do it, and furthermore, that I enjoyed doing it.
And then my goals for what I wanted to do within that, those parameters clarified and I could see where to go, but before I got in, I couldn't quite see where I would go. Could I achieve? Would I be accepted? Those are all of the things that were going on in my head.
'You've succeeded at this in high school, but that might be your limit, you know. You're jumping up into the next square, and can you do it? You don't know." And then, when I moved into Melbourne, exactly the same feelings. When I moved into the Art Gallery of Western Australia, exactly the same. And on and on.
Yes, I wanted to do well. I didn't want ever to fail, and this is why when I went to Melbourne, that feeling of possible failure was so strong that I didn't want to uproot the family. I wanted to fail on my own. I wanted to go down there, live on my own, for fear that I'd made the wrong decision. I wasn't going to achieve in that, um, environment.
I couldn't do it, but nobody else would have been inconvenienced and I could then go back, pick up the threads in Brisbane and continue. So it was very strong. Strong enough to make that decision to live for twelve months in those awful conditions at La Trobe University.
Going back to that crucial decision you made that you're always asked about, where you left art and moved into other things, and you know, at various times you said, well, you left art and went into motherhood and that's where your emotions went, and you didn't think it was an excuse to get out of something you felt weren't doing so well at, and so on.
I think I probably had, because I hadn't given up art when I started teaching. See, I started teaching when I left school, at the age of 17. I went straight back into teaching at Somerville House, at Moreton Bay College and at Clayfield College. So I, I then knew I had this love of sharing my enthusiasm, and real return for when I could see that my enthusiasm had been picked up by others.
You know, like - when they, they - when I clicked, in other words. So - and that is really all that teaching is about, to be able to rouse people's enthusiasm to the level of your own. And if you're not enthusiastic, well forget it. You know, this is where I think a lot of bad - I mean, when I think of some of the teachers I had and I can suddenly realise, they couldn't have cared less about the subject.
But because - I remember once when I was lecturing in, ah, Melbourne, I was lecturing on Manet, and I was so taken up with this lecture, and I got sick in the middle of it. We used to have a break in the middle of it. And the thought of not being able to go on, and finish this lecture that I really so wanted to share with the students, and it was going so well, and I could see that they were really agog to get to the - to understand this artist better.
And to feel this thing descend on me, and realising that I was not going to be able to finish it, was greater than the inconvenience of the malady. I didn't finish the lecture, unfortunately.
No, I didn't, but I think it is to do with, ah, a desire to communicate, um, a willingness to communicate at the level that whoever you're talking to can come in at. Um - and a real love of the subject that you're trying to communicate.
See, I wouldn't be a terribly good teacher of geography. I remember when I went to, ah, Kelvin Grove, they believed that there were teachers and not teachers and they said, "You're just a teacher". And I said, "No, I'm not. I'm a teacher of art". "No, you're not. You're just a teacher." I said, "What, are you telling me I could teach geography?"
They said, "Yes". I said, "Well, I'm telling you I couldn't". You know, because I'd have to - unless I became passionate about geography. But I think you've got to have a, a, an overriding passion yourself in order to want to communicate it. And, and you only communicate it with any degree of, um, flair if you, you really want to make contact with that particular person.
Whether it's a 16 year old, or a 26 year old, or a 66 year old. It's all different the way you come at it. When I'm doing those television things, I could only do it in the end if I could imagine at the end of the camera, there were two little people sitting on a couch, and they were about 66 - Mr and Mrs Jones - and I was talking to them.
And when I was writing the Molvig book same thing. When I wrote the first book, the 'Understanding Art', I was writing to my eldest son, Ben. Ben was then just the age that I wanted that book to be directed to. So I tested everything out on him, and if he said, "What does that word mean?", I'd just remove the word and put another one in.
Because if he didn't understand, I thought the chances aren't- you know, the other age group won't - but ah, when I was writing the Molvig book, I could not get going. Brian Johns, who was then the, er, chief publisher, you know, of ...
... Penguin, had asked me to do it. And I was just making a terrible hash of it. And I suddenly realised what it was. I was writing with my other art historian peers in mind, and trying to do the rigorous art historical account. I wasn't talking to anyone. I was trying to sort of keep up with the Joneses. And so I stopped that immediately, and I thought, "Now who am I going to write to?"
And I picked Brian Johns, because he was interested in Molvig. He - intelligent man, he didn't know a lot about Molvig - he wanted to know about Molvig. Perfect. So I wrote the whole book to him, and when I'd submitted it, etcetera, I got a phone call. He said it was Brian Johns. I said, "Brian", I said, "How are you?"
He said, "All the better for having read your book on Molvig". So it worked. I was talking to someone. And that's, I think, the secret to teaching. If you're not talking to a person, if you're just talking to the ether and thinking of, what are your peers thinking of you, you know, is this academically or politically correct, I think you've missed the point.
It probably is. It probably is, yes. And the way you present it. All of that.
Well, I think in the same way, through the acquisition of works of art, and how they were presented and the publications that we put out. Very, very important. The way the works were displayed, the exhibitions that we organised, the sorts of exhibitions. What I thought was useful, you know. When I thought - after we'd done that big exhibition of Renaissance art and baroque, in 'Rubens and the Italian Renaissance', I thought it would probably be good to see something of the twentieth century.
And that's when 'Surrealism' happened, you see. So you're getting a balance of, um, art, you know, European art and I, I - and always at the back of my mind is how does it relate to the people who are looking at it. So the Australian component was very, very important, because they could look at Australian art, and there were artists like James Gleeson, etcetera, and Sidney Nolan that they could immediately relate to, knew of, and then they could learn about Miró and Masson and the, and the European - André Breton - the European surrealists.
So there - that, that is in a way a sort of teaching process.
Did you see a link between your teachering [sic] - I mean, I sort of can see a little pattern in your life of things that you were good at. The mothering, the teaching, the gallery directing, and of course, your style of leadership as well, which also had that nurturing ...
Does that - do you respond to that at all? I mean, would you like to talk a little bit about that thought, that they might have all been expressing something really unique to you, something special to you, that you were given an opportunity to bring out in that way?
Yes, I think they do, one leads into the other. I used to think sometimes, when I was dealing with a really difficult situation. I'd think, "Well thank goodness I've had four sons, and I've had to deal with all of their different personalities and their conflicts and their problems". I think it does help you. One thing that you do in life does lead into another.
Um, but how it sort of really feeds in, I'm not quite sure. You know, but I do think there is a connection, and I think the overriding thing in my life is to be - get the best out of every situation I can, and that is, if I move into an organisation, in - if I, if it's with - in Phillip, the other teachers, the people that actually are in contact with the students, well I had to really create a situation where they could operate to their optimum.
Not as dissatisfied, frustrated artists, but as inspired and enthusiastic teachers. And I introduced a system whereby they could job share, so if someone didn't want to teach full-time, they could keep half of all of their entitlements, you know, their tenure, their holiday pay, etcetera, share it with another person, and have half the time to be an artist.
And so they stayed enthusiastic artists, and productive artists, and therefore, better teachers. And the same thing in, in the gallery. You know, my aim was to let everybody, or to try and have everybody, operate to their optimum of their particular satisfaction, and their particular ambitions. And of course, their ambitions helped me.
Your relationship with Roy, with Roy Churcher, which started so long ago. How important has that been in relation to the rest of your life? How has that worked? You had a marriage which was sort of, in a way, a bit ahead of its time. How did that support you, or inhibit you, or how has that worked in relation to your career?
Well, I think it's been very fortuitous, that I have had the freedom to move wherever opportunity has moved me, and we've all moved and in different ways, benefitted by it. But, um, I, I think, you know, had Roy been a medico or a scientist or something attached to a university, probably nothing that I've done would have happened, you know.
Because I would have probably been locked in to his position, whereas he, he's the one who's been moving with me, which is unusual. And that can become a great friction in - when you have two professionals in a family. And now Roy's profession - he is a professional, but his profession was, in effect, moveable - although not without some angst, but it was moveable - and that made it work.
Um, I think my solitary, um, laconic, inhibit- ... not inhibited, probably, but, um ...
Inward looking, I s'pose is one way of putting it. I think that has been a bit of a problem. Roy, by nature, is gregarious, outgoing. Roy would like to throw the place open, you know. All I want is peace and quiet and time to sort of sit by myself and - and so that has caused a bit of problem [sic], and I think, you know, Roy has probably suffered a little bit because of that, because of my inability ...
But on the other hand, I sometimes think opposites work. Probably if I was - or equally gregarious, it would have been a [sic] complete chaos, with - nothing may have happened. Who knows. But I think that that has been, as far as - if you ask Roy what has been the downside, he would have said, "Well, she's the cat that walked by herself and ah, she's always walked by herself, and I just wished, you know, she'd be more ..."
And the children might even say that. I don't know. But I think they sometimes see me, just sort of on my plane, moving off. What they don't realise, probably sufficiently, is that had I not been on that plane, they would not have been having a lot of the benefits that they did have, you know, that - coming from that.
I think it has been a bit, yes. He's not the perfect consort. He sort of doesn't like that second place. He - and that's simply a, er, we're all victims of our own time, and I think his time when he grew up, like his father was, you know, just the - like my father who couldn't make a cup of tea. I don't think Pop would have, I think he probably could have, but he wouldn't have.
And, ah, Roy - we're all products of that a little bit, and Roy hasn't found that easy, I don't think, with me being the one that's being phased - or me being the - like when we went up the Pilbara, I thought we were both going. I, I misled Roy. I thought we were both going to judge. They wanted me the art historian and he the artist.
And we were judging together. And I thought, "Well, what a good idea. We can bounce off each other". But it was quite clear when we got there that it was me that they were after, you know, and the little things like that are hard - they're hard for me, too, I have to say. But I think they're hard for Roy as well.
Probably not as well as we should. We probably should - there's - I'm quiet - I just go inwards, you know, and, ah, probably if there were a few slinging matches and slanging matches and shouting and thumping and carrying on, it probably would be better. But there isn't. We don't fight a great deal.
Um, I sort of go onto a slow simmer, which must be very hard to live with, until I, you know, cool down. But I - and I think that's probably Mum. I remember Mum just hated shows of, er, outward shows of wild emotion. I remember her saying to me, "You don't have to make a noise, just because you're enjoying yourself", and of course, you do have to make a noise when you're enjoying yourself, you know. It was a sort of a very ...
It was always that control, control, control. And I think it's built into my nature now.
When you made a big decision, like going down to Melbourne and leaving Roy in charge of the children, or, or making other moves, did you discuss that fully with Roy, or was it something you'd make a decision about, and then work out how to do it?
Oh no, we discussed it, and I put that to him, you know, that it may be a terrible failure. It may be a terrible thing to do, you know, and would it not be a good idea that I went on ahead. And he thought it would have been. Um, no, that is - no, those sorts of things are discussed. But, um, I did have trepidation leaving four little kids - well, they all weren't little, you know.
By that time, Ben and Paul were sort of fairly grown up. But Tim and Peter needed a lot of nurturing, and I did feel that. And I think fathers don't necessarily give that sort of nurturing.
I don't know. It hasn't been all beer and skittles, I have to tell you. We, ah, have had a bumpy ride, you know. But, um, I think we both have felt that, ah, a sort of commitment, having made that commitment, having four children. I think if we hadn't had four children, there are many, many times I can think where we would have separated and gone separate ways.
But, ah, that sense of responsibility. You've brought four little people into the world and you've got a responsibility to give them a sort of fairly stable base, you know. It was always very paramount in my mind, anyway, and I think in Roy's, as well.
Because you married at a time, back then in the sort of, um, when the '60s and '70s happened, and there was a very strong fashion in marriage, of things being very loose. I mean, concepts of fidelity that had been there before went out the window - they're coming ... but they seem to be making a comeback now. But there was - all of those things, I, you know, put a lot of strain, especially on a, on a couple that had started out in a bohemian environment. Do you think that made it easier or harder for you?
Harder for me. This is why I hate Brisbane, I think. Because it's so applauded, and encouraged, that thing of infidelity, and, you know, multi-rel- ... you know, relationships, etcetera. Which I never went for. I would never ... was into that, really, in a serious way.
Roy got into it in a serious way, as you could imagine. That lovely, gregarious, very handsome young man. Um, he had a wonderful time, and that was hard for me. Now I'm not pretending it wasn't.
Well actually, I'd never thought it in my life, but probably, yes. Probably yes. Because I was frantic inside, you know, I was really frantic by what was going on, and yes, very likely. What an interesting thought.
Yes. And then once Ben became a fact, you know, once I became pregnant and this was clear we were starting a family, then I became absolutely rooted to the idea that that was going to be it. And - but it - Brisbane was awful from this point of view. You know, people would invite Roy and his lady love to dinner and not invite me, you know.
It was just outrageous. The '50s and '60s was just unbelievable, you know. The way people behaved and the way they thought it was perfectly appropriate to behave.
Yes, I s'pose it was.
No, the banker's wife would have done better, I think. Mum was right. Mothers are always right. But then I wouldn't have had my lovely four boys.
Yes, it was humiliating. Um, well to be honest, you don't have many options. In the '50s, you know, with four little children, you didn't have many support systems, other things. You - there weren't too many options. Um, I couldn't up sticks, you know, and take four little people off. Where would I take them and what would I do?
And how would I then, you know, support them? Because I wasn't working full-time at this time. I was working part-time, but not full-time. I think that that was always paramount, you know, that the need to keep, you know, this little nest intact, you know, with these four little people in the nest. Um ...
I think he probably did. Yes. I don't think - Roy always used to say to me, it always used to drive me absolutely mad, "Look, it's got nothing to do with you. Doesn't affect you and my feelings for you at all". Well, give us a break. I didn't want to get on to this, actually. Better get off it.
It is. It is the social history of the times.
Oh, yes. In fact, I think, just about everybody, almost, of my age. Except as you say, the bank manager and his wife, secure and happy in their ...
But in hanging together for that time, what are the positives? What are the things that you feel now that you have in your relationship that, you know, has come from the fact that you have stuck to it and raised the children? I mean, you're still together, although the children are raised.
Yes, well, I think the, ah, thing - I look at other people, you know, and these - with these multi-marriages and multi-relationships, and you know, the untidiness, I think, would have driven me mad. You know, these - there are sometimes, you know, different fathers, you know, five children with five different fathers, and then all of the families that relate to those different fathers. I mean, oh God, you know.
I couldn't bear that. I like the unitary thing, that has been maintained. I think the boys like that too, really, to be honest. I think they may do many things, but one thing that they will never, never, never do is be, ah, is engage in any infidelity. I think they will be sort of absolutely faithful to their wife.
In the course of your lifetime, things have changed dramatically for women. Of all the social movements that have happened in that time, people would probably cite the changes in the position of women as being maybe even at the top of the list. How have you experienced that? How has it affected you, and what have you observed from when you were a little girl in Brisbane until now?
Well, well I sort of missed out on that, you know. I was a victim of the old order. I do sort of envy young women that, you know, enter life with a clear idea of where they're going, what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. Ah, I think that also has its problems for them though because they have such a clear idea.
And that sort of seems to be pulling them in a direction that they may or may not want to be going in, but when they get to be 39 or 40, you know, and suddenly realise they're not going to have any children, they're not going to get married, they're not going to - all of those things.
And I think the lot of a woman is very hard, because you have got, you know, those two very strong urges. You do feel that you need to reproduce, and I think this is just built into our biology. But you also have a need to do other things, in whatever area that you're drawn to. And I think those two things are at war and there's no solution, I don't think.
I think the situation has changed, I think men are now much more helpful, much more sense of responsibility [sic] in making it a shared process, and all of that. But when the chips are down, the final responsibility for all of that is the woman, and it has to be. She's the one who has the baby, for instance. Although the man is now allowed into the labour ward, which they weren't when I had all of mine which was a decided disadvantage.
Um, but, um, I think - I don't think there are many girls that would now feel that they had just been born into the wrong gender, as I felt. You know, I just felt what a terrible stroke of bad luck that I happened to be a girl. I really didn't want to be a girl. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to do all the things that Ian was doing.
I wanted to be - have the freedoms that Ian had that I didn't seem to have, and didn't want to have anything to do with being a girl and I'd think, "Why didn't Mum give me a name that was also - could have also been a boy's name like Frances, or... Why Betty, for God's sake?"
Oh, yes. No, I did. I always wanted to have babies, and, ah, I always - have never, for a split second, regretted that. My choice, you know, to have babies rather than say, pursue the career. And I feel very envious of women, and they do, and they can, and they do it with great success, pursue both with equal fervour and with equal success.
They do have families and they do keep their careers going. I just couldn't.
Oh yes, I did, but not - painting is a very inward and solitary thing. It's very, very hard to paint when you've got other people desperately and urgently relying on you. I remember when the children were little, I tried to start painting again. I remember setting myself up, I had this verandah, and the living room had closed doors, and the children had gone to sleep. So I went out onto the verandah, closed these glass doors from the house to the verandah, and I set up the easel and I got my paints out, and I started to paint.
And one of them - I forget which one it was - woke up, came in looking for Mummy, and wanted Mummy, and I can remember, his face squashed against the glass, this dribbling, screaming face because I wouldn't open the door. And I wouldn't and wouldn't, I kept on doggedly painting away and ignoring this sort of frantic little face at the window, and then I gave up.
You know, and I thought, "Well no, this is ridiculous". And that was, I think, probably the last time I seriously tried to paint. But that's the sort of thing that's really, really hard. I don't know how they do it. I don't know the answer to it. I couldn't do it.
Yes, I did. I drew them - and I remember drawing Ben - but only when they were little immobile things. As soon as they became active and mobile, they're jolly difficult to, to draw. But, um ...
As an artist.
Yes, but I think that is possible. You see, I think painting - anything creative which requires your total inward imagination and inward concentration - is terribly difficult to do if you're not on your own. If you're - I'm sure composing music, I'm sure paint-... I know painting pictures. You couldn't paint a picture while you were sort of also boiling up a stew and sort of seeing to a child. You know, you can't do it.
Yes, well probably if I'd had a studio away from home and had home help, it might have been a very, very different thing. But I didn't have either of those things, and, ah - no, that's true. But it doesn't - running a gallery and teaching doesn't call on your deep inward emotions in the way that the family does. And that is what you are pouring into your painting.
And once I had another vessel as it were to pour it into, these four little people, I found when I turned to that container where all of that emotional energy was, it just wasn't there. It had gone there. And, um, that's why I say that's why I envy some people, because obviously they can control that. Keep that sort of creative energy alive inside them.
I seem to put it all into the kids, and that's what I found was missing. When I did paint, it had a sort of, um - you know, I was talking about that serious intent, you know, that you look for in a painting. I seemed to be going through the motions, trying to paint a picture, rather than trying to do something because there was no other alternative, there was nothing else to do that would satisfy me other than paint that picture.
And, ah, that's what went.
I don't know that he thought a great deal about it. But he probably thought it was a good idea. I don't know. You'd have to ask him. But I think he thought - he could see me struggling away there, and in turmoil and frantic trying to make it happen, and I think he probably thought it was a good idea.
When you're in a situation, which you must have been from time to time in your life, where those two sides of your life, your family and your work, and by this time your work as a teacher and a gallery director, came into conflict, where did your ultimate priority lie?
Oh well, with the family. Always. Always, you know, if there was something happening. Like tonight, I have to say, you know, my ultimate priority is not to get this finished, but to have that dinner with the children, and that's still - you know, it's still like that. And, and so it would have been then, you know. If something had happened, if a child was sick, or something, that became the most important thing, not the teaching or not the gallery directing.
So I s'pose the ultimate responsibility remained the family. But, you know, my ...
No I didn't. You see, remember Roy was at home painting in the studio. So if a child was sick, I didn't have to ever do that thing - I used to feel so sorry for members of staff, when they had to bring their child, sick child into work, because the husband was working and they were working, and this poor little thing, all he wanted to do was to be in bed and here he is, sort of sitting in his mother's office because ...
No, I never had that, thank goodness. You know, that would have torn me apart. If a child was sick, they had the luxury of being sick, in bed, where they wanted to be.
See, I suppose a lot of young women who are trying to juggle the two, um, now, would look at you as someone who pioneered all of this and say, "Well, you know, how did you manage?" Well, you did have a husband at home, but also, what else did you do? What did you do about child care? What did you do about housework?
Well, I had, um, at first, when I was - I was only teaching when I had little children. I had Ben and Paul only, I had - well even before Paul was born - I had a woman that - I only was teaching at Moreton Bay, one day a week. And um - no, two days - and I had this lovely woman that used to come in. She was like a homely aunty. They used to call her Aunty But.
Her name was Mrs Butler. And Aunty But used to come in and look after them, and she'd do a little bit of ironing, or something. But the main task was just to be there for the kids. And she became deeply involved with them. She was a lovely person. And, um, then I went through a series of various housekeepers, you know, who'd come and live in.
And then we moved from our little tiny house to Indooroopilly, where we had a very big old Queenslander, with lots of rooms, and I realised I could have a live-in help. And that's when my teaching was looking as if it was just sort of - you know, it had gone from one day to two days, to two days and two nights, to three days and two nights. You know, it was getting bigger and bigger.
And, ah, so I realised I could have a live-in, and in those days, I'm talking about the early mid '70s. There were lots of - the girls from Cherbourg, which was an Aboriginal settlement outside of Murgon, you know out Kingaroy way - they'd come down to town, to Brisbane, get work as a housekeeper, live in.
And we got the beautiful Necie. Her name was Venice Sheen. She's now in, ah, Cairns. And, ah, a woman of enormous beauty then. I don't know what ... - I haven't seen her for ages. But, ah, great intelligence. And she was a great boon to our family, because she was 19, and the boys were just turning - coming into their teens, so they had an older sister, really, virtually.
And Vernice really became a member of the family, until I spoilt it all by insisting she went to business college and mucked up her life completely.
Oh, she was so clever. She was so clever. She'd be down watering the garden and I'd come home, and she'd say, "Oh Betty, um, Betty Moon rang. The number is 7648 3291". I'd say, "How do you know that?" "Oh", she said, "She told me". I said, "But when?" "Oh, about an hour ago." I thought, "Ooh, what a secretary you'd make for someone". And then she went to business college and did terribly well. Got a grant.
And I was insistent that she did it properly, didn't stay living with us. You know, got herself her own - a room, you know, and became independent and really did it. And she dropped out and she said to me, "Well Betty, when did you last see an Aboriginal girl in a doctor's reception room or in a hotel reception?" And I was racking my brains, and she was right. Then, she would have gone through this business college, got her degree, done her typing and shorthand, and had no - would have no opportunities, really, to use it.
She was so intelligent and sensible that she thought she was just wasting her time, and she probably was. So my brilliant idea of breaking this terrible cycle of Cherbourg, domestic help, babies, Cherbourg, domestic help, babies, you know. I thought, "Well, we've got to get out of this. We've got to stop this". But she was right and I was wrong.
But she was a great joy in our life, I have to say.
Yes, well I was the first woman to become Dean of a school of art and design. And soon after another woman - it's interesting. Once you break the mould, it - you know, other people then start thinking, "Oh", and they start looking at women. And I remember, er, Chisholm appointed a woman not long after I'd been appointed to be the Dean at Phillip Institute.
I was the first woman to ever direct a state gallery, when I became Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. And certainly, the first woman to be the director of a national gallery. And it amused me when I got there to find that Col Madigan - it just hadn't ever entered his head that there would ever be a female director. When I went along to the toilet - only going to be for men. Only men were going to occupy that top floor.
And, and that has been, you know, pretty sort of stronged [sic] stereotyping. When I grew up, I was a little bit like Vernice. Looking out there, and saying, "Well, what opportunities are there?" That's why I felt desperate about being a girl, because wherever you looked, there were men in every situation. There were no women except in the nursing profession and in the theatre, really, as far as I could see from, you know, my standpoint in Brisbane.
And there didn't seem to be opportunity - like at the Royal College of Art, there wasn't a single woman on staff. Ah, at the Brisbane Technical College, not a single woman on staff. And this is why I think it was so good for me to go to Somerville House, where they were all women, and where Miss Craig, you know, the Queen of them all was such an imposing woman. That was really terribly important.
I think if I'd gone to a co-ed school, I'd have still been in that same cycle of it being about male achievement and female achievement sitting somewhere down here.
With some, um, I felt rudeness. I remember the, um, announcement when I became Director of the National Gallery here in Canberra. The, ah, what do you call the headline? The strip ... was '58 year old mother of four gets top job'. And I remember thinking, James Mollison had just moved to Victoria, and I could imagine the headline - he and I are the same age. '58 year old father of none gets top job'. You know, it just is unheard of.
When you turn it around, reverse it, it becomes as outrageous as it actually is. And I actually think that that did contribute, to some extent, to my slow take at the National Gallery. I think a lot of the staff were thinking that, you know. She's just a 58 year old mother of four. And, ah, it does colour people's thinking. And it - the, the media, I have to say, became very, very supportive in the end.
But not at the beginning, and I was amused to notice, you know, when the new director came, after I retired when this Brian Kennedy came, the open-hearted, you know, way he was - front page of every newspaper, you know, 'the great thing' and all that I got was this little strip about being a mother of 4, and I thought, "Oh well".
There I am not going to go.
What does it mean to you, Betty, to be an Australian? You've had a sort of slightly ambivalent attitude to this country, in terms of what you've found elsewhere. But what does it mean to you to be an Australian?
Well when I'm away, I'm always so relieved to come back, and I think how lucky we are to have this clarity of atmosphere, to have this space. And I think space is not just physical space. There's mental space as well. I think this is one of the great things about Australia. It's true that all of my education has been elsewhere, and wherever you're educated, somehow, your heart lies.
And London is my other home. There's no doubt about that. I spent six years there when I was at the Royal College of Art, and then nearly a year and a half when I - no, it was just a year, really, straight twelve months - when I was at the Courtald. But where you study, where you, um, share a student life with people, is- becomes very much another home.
And when I went to London this last time, I was aware that I was - may be visiting it for the last time, and committing a lot of it to loving memory. But it is loving memory that I have for, for London, and everything it can offer. But so is it here. And I think if I was given the two on a plate, you know, "You may live here or here", I think without a doubt, it would be Australia.
I think because of that mental and physical space, and the climate. I think these things are more important than we know. And I think that lack of light. You always think of London in the bright sunlight, London in the spring. But that sort of - when I watched the Commonwealth Games in that pouring rain, you know that rain, and realising that was the norm, not the exception.
And I think it does something to your spirits. They've now started this thing in Norway of trying to put people under lights, you know, so that they won't get depressed in the long winter months. There's something to do with your spirits and, and light. And I think this country is, is a blessed country from that point of view.
Where else in the world could I live in this environment, being 30 minutes away from a major university, a major art gallery, a major library. You know, its just unheard of. To live like this in England, you have to go sort of into the wilds of Cornwall or Somerset or somewhere.
Yeah, I do. I always assume things are going to work out, but I'm always conscious of the fact that they may not. That's always at the back. You know, I'm just - getting myself prepared for that in case it happens. But basically, yes, I am optimistic.
I really think, if I could have it all over again, you know, if someone said, "Okay, you can do this bit of your life again", I would do the babyhood of my boys. I just wished I hadn't been so engaged in other things. I would love to have spent more time, in fact, all of my time, when they were in that lovely growing up ...
My memory of them growing up is of just, sort of frantic, you know, getting in the washing, watching the sky because, you know, the nappies were running out, and making sure that this one was in bed. And, you know, that frantic getting things done rather than enjoying them. I would just love to do that bit again.
Well, whether one could do it differently ...
Yes, what would you do about the nappies? Well now of course, you have disposable nappies so the fact that the - I had children in nappies for about something like six years, it seemed - so nappies loomed large in my imagination. But, um, it is, it's problematic, but I'd like to try. See, I have more quality time with my grandchildren, really, I feel, than with my - than I had with my children.
But then I look at them - the mothers, and I think they're probably the same. They're dashing around doing their bit. It's probably not possible. Probably what I'm talking about is a dream.
Well, teaching them, I s'pose, you know. Encouraging them, introducing them to sights and sounds and different things, you know. I don't think I spent enough of that, you know, just, you know, with their imagination. It was all too practical, to make sure their nose wasn't running, and their dinner had been eaten and their lunch had been packed. You know, it was all of that sort of stuff.
I don't know that I ever spent enough time in training them to - or encouraging them to listen to things. Whether it's music or a crow, you know, I don't care. Or to look at things. How to look at things. How to experience things. That's what I think I'd like to do again.
Mmm, and to realise that I think I wasn't doing enough of it.
I s'pose holding it all together. Hold ... you know, because it is really hard. You've got six different people, all going in different directions and trying to keep all this as a unit, and holding it all together, and keeping it all working, you know, in the way that those six different people need it to work. I think that has been really hard.
No, I'm describing my family. The people at the gallery are better able to look after themselves.
It did, it did, and that's where I think, sometimes - you know, one thing as I said, you know, assists with another. But um, you ask me, you know, the most difficult thing and I think that has been, you know, maintaining that, and keeping that from shattering. Because it can so easily shatter.
And when it shatters you never know what ill effects might be beneficial effects. One never know [sic] what effects it's going to have on the people that are involved. [INTERRUPTION]
No, I was never a trailblazer for the feminist cause. I - as I've said - I slipped into my jobs more or less because they were offered, rather than I aspired after them. But I was terribly conscious of the fact that this was an unusual thing to do. And I think those newspaper reports that treated me almost like a freak, a woman in this top job etcetera, only underlined that.
But it was always a little bit of part of that hesitancy of mine, you know, what I called the 'who me' syndrome. You know, "Is this for me? Could I possibly do this?" I think it was the fact that no woman had ever done it. I didn't think, "Goody, I will do it and therefore others will follow", I have to admit. I didn't think that.
But I did think, "Gee, can I do this? Is this appropriate?" And when they asked me about the National Gallery, I immediately said, "No". I said actually to Cathy Santamaria, "No, that's not my job". I said, "That's - I can't do that'. I said - I actually said that, "I can't do that". I said, you know, "Someone like Patrick McCaughey, you need someone like that".
And that was my belief, even though I'd done those things at that point. And if there hadn't been that annoying little other thing that happened - I can't even remember what it was that made me pick up the phone and ask if the job was still going - that's how it would have stayed, and I would never have been the director of a national gallery.
But fortunately, Robert Holmes à Court annoyed me one more time, and I made the decision.
58, wasn't I?
No, 58, that's right. Sorry, it was the 58 year old woman. You were 58 when they appointed you, so you were not just a woman, you were an older woman. Do you think that age is more of a problem for women?
Yes, I think an older man is considered to be appropriate, and an older woman is considered not. Now I don't know why that is. I, I've never in a funny way caught on to the fact that having been 58, I had a huge advantage over a whole lot of people, in the backlog of experience that I had, in my track record that I had, in the variety of things that I've done in my life.
I only ever saw myself - the inadequacies in me. I never sort of saw those as positives, you know, in fronting up with them as a positive. And looking back now, I wonder why I didn't, because I do think that the older you get, the more you can tackle things, and the more rounded view you bring to it. I almost feel now that if I were to direct the gallery, I'd even do it better know.
You know, just in the experience I've gained since then, like working with Tony Eggleton on the Centenary of Federation. The little - you know, you're learning and rounding off your experience all the time. So by the time you get to 58, you're a pretty well-rounded, pretty experienced person. And I was letting 30 year olds intimidate me.
30 year olds who had come up through the gallery, through all the whole sort of hierarchy of the gallery staff, because I didn't have that behind me. I had plenty else, but I didn't have that behind me. I was being, ah, almost negated for that reason.
So do you think that your experience was one of the most important things in your success? And if so, why is it that youth tends to be given the leadership roles over experience? Why do you think that is?
I really don't know, except I do think that they think of women as grannies, but I don't think they think of older men, like Sir Robert Cotton, I don't think anyone would ever have thought of him as a granddad. I'm just picking someone that I can think of who's an older man who has achieved quite a lot in his life. But an older woman is just regarded as a, you know, doddery old granny.
Now that's just unfortunate. It's just a thing - a social thing that happens. I don't believe in it. I don't think it's true. I think women, like men, gain and grow as they grow older.
I've never felt as if I'm a feminist, and yet I get terribly upset when I see women being thrust into that terrible situation. Like I have terrible fights with Roy over Islam, because I just cannot bear that way women are treated, you know, that complete negation of women. You know, I find that anathema, and everything - fibre of my body becomes wildly feminist.
But I don't think I am really a feminist in the true sense of the word because I don't think of it enough. You know, like when you asked me did I think of being a trailblazer for the feminist cause. No I didn't. And, um, a true feminist would do that. But I get terribly angry when I see women being put down or negated or treated as a chattel or any of that.
And, and that's a sure way of getting me riled.
Well, it started, interestingly enough, just before I, um, retired from the gallery. By accident I struck that Sister Wendy. Do you remember the nun that did those - and she was sweeping down a road in Rome and with her buck teeth and her habit flying. And she said, "Now I'm going to show you something you've never seen before", and she darted into a little - and I think immediately, "I bet you're not". I thought, "Smart alec".
And she darted into this little chapel and showed me this Bernini sculpture that I'd never seen before, and I thought, "Oh, couldn't you do that in Australia with regional galleries?" Show people the riches that reside, not in the state and the galleries or in the National Gallery, but in small regional galleries. And that was the birth of the idea.
And I was being interviewed in my retirement, you know, what I was going to do in retirement, and someone said, "We don't have a sister - a secular Sister Wendy here, do we?" And I said, "Well, actually, you may". And the ABC, it was Paul Grabowski then that was the, um, er, executive producer, and he got onto me immediately.
And as suddenly, I became totally enthusiastic and the idea of that first series, Take Five, was just that. To go to regional galleries and find something of particular interest, like the Degas at Mildura, or the, the Glover in Adelaide, you know. There was something that [sic] of particular interest that was there, that people may not have known about.
And it was just a lovely format. The, the five minute format came out quite by accident. They were going to be half-hours. And I was talking to Paul Grabowski, and I said, "You know, the trouble is, Paul, I know with programming, I know where arts programs go, and I'm trying to get to people who wouldn't ever in a fit turn [sic] - tune in to an arts program". And he said, "You couldn't do it in five minutes, could you?"
And I said, "Well you could do anything. Of course I could do it in five minutes". And what it was, there was that five minute slot before the news on Sunday that Ian Parmenter has, you know, with his cooking program. He was looking to have a longer program somewhere else. And it looked as if that five minute [sic] might be going begging.
And Paul Grabowski said, "Well, I'd like to put my hand up for that. If you can - think you can do a five minute ...", but it didn't happen. Ian Parmenter obviously didn't get his other slot, he kept that one - but the five minute, because of that format, was programmed at a time where an arts program would never have been. And that's why it got that broad cover.
And that's what I was trying to do. I didn't want to talk to an art audience. I wanted to talk to people that hadn't - wouldn't look at an art program or had probably never stepped into a gallery.
Well then, after Take Five, I still had a lot of, um, interest in this format, but I wanted more space. I thought the five minutes was just too restricting. So they then gave me seven minutes, and even those two minutes - two minutes of television is very valuable. And, ah, even those two minutes allowed me to expand a little bit. And that was a series called Eye To Eye.
And the emphasis moved a little bit away from unknown thing [sic] in regional galleries, just to interesting things anywhere in the country, but really, still relating basically to, um, Australian art. And then the next and last one went to ten minutes. So the time has just been inching up. And that was to look at works of art in Australian collections but not Australian - works of art that come from elsewhere, America, England, Europe, but got into the country in extraordinary ways.
One of the ones that I really wanted to do but they didn't use it was a panel that's in - now in the Art Gallery of South Australia that arrived in the false base of a shipping crate in 1880, and it was about to be tossed out. It was never collected by whoever concealed it in the false base of the shipping crate, and it was just spotted by a stevedore.
He noticed there was something funny about this crate and they opened it up, and there was this panel of an altar-piece. And it was a real mystery. It's never been solved, because it was before, you know, moveable cultural heritage laws. There was no bar on importation of works of art. Why conceal it in the bottom of a shipping crate, you know, with other goods in it?
Why was it never collected? You know, it's a real - and they all had a little bit of that sort of mystery about them, and I loved doing it, and that was the last one I did.
Yeah, the one I'm working on - I did one, worked - I wanted to do one on Aboriginal art, very much. I just really wanted to treat it as a serious art history, not as an, a strange ethnographic phenomenon, but as a serious art history. Why was this phenomenon so important as a contemporary art movement?
By looking at the full stretch of some of the leading artists. And in studying their careers - as you would study the career of Matisse, or Picasso, or anyone - in studying their careers, get to understand that this is not just a dot painting. This is something much, much more and there is a great deal of difference between this painting and say a dot painting in a tourist shop.
But that didn't happen for a variety of reasons - politically, mostly - so I'm now working on ...
Really. Yes, the fact that I wasn't indigenous and I was trying to deal with complex, you know, cross-cultural issues. I was trying to show how an ancient tradition flourished and flowered as new opportunities, or new materials, became available. What happened when acrylic paint was given to them? What happened when they then got canvas? What happened when, you know, each time that they seized on this new material, and used it with great imagination, creative effect.
But I don't think it had ever - I don't think it's ever been properly looked at, and I was going to start - I was going to do the Northern Territory, and how the paintings moved from the rock face to bark, when Sir Baldwin Spencer commissioned them. And they were a really - the first really moveable, portable art was the result of a European commission.
And that's really fascinating, that they were starting to reproduce these things onto a moveable thing. They had painted before, on bark, when they - for their wet season shelters. And they had painted their - simply to educate young children to some of the major stories, and to, I think, embellish their environment the way we all do.
But then they would just abandon those, leave those paintings and then build another wet season shelter and then redecorate that. It's all fascinating stuff and I think it would have been terrific interest [sic], and terrific interest to overseas audience [sic]. I was going to call it Through Other Eyes, because I realised we could never see it through their eyes.
And, um, it was going to be that. It would have been very sensitively done and carefully done, and I'm sure would not have offended the Aboriginal people. But the lawyers were just concerned that, you know, there's been a lot of trouble. And it just all seemed too difficult, so I withdrew from that. And I'm now doing, um, a series - not a series, a single hour - on the two World Wars and how attitudes to war have changed and how you can see that change through the art that was produced.
Both the official war artists and the so-called amateurs, who were recording little things like in the trenches at Gallipoli, as a way of making clear to those back home what they were going through. And so they've got that same, serious urgency I talked about earlier. Not a great deal of technical skill, they're not great artists, but they're riveting images because there's that terrific desire to say, "This is how it was".
One of them's made by a young man lying on a stretcher, waiting for the stretcher bearers to take him down to base camp, and very moving. And they write little diary notes as to what they're seeing and what they've been doing and what they've been through. Wonderful little history. It brings the whole conflict vividly to life. And - but that's still in the gestation period. That's to come.