Betty Churcher, who was the first woman to head both a state and national art gallery, had an extraordinary career in arts education and administration in Australia. This was a change in direction from the expectations of her early years when she was regarded as one on Queensland's most exciting young painters. In her "retirement" she returned to art, and to drawing
Elizabeth (Betty) Ann Dewar Cameron was born in Brisbane in 1931 the the second child and only daughter of William Dewar Cameron and Vida Margaret née Hutton. Her talent was evident at an early age as she was 13 years old when she was awarded The Sunday Mail Child Art Contest in 1944 and 3rd prize the following year. Cameron took her initial art studies under the tutelage of Patricia Prentice at Somerville House, Brisbane and also studied art privately with Caroline Barker and Richard Rodier Rivron.
The Younger Artists Group (YAG) of the Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) was founded in 1941 and several artists who have made a significant contribution to art in Queensland had their beginnings here: Patricia Prentice, John Rigby , Margaret Olley , Margaret Cilento, Peter Abraham, Harold Lane, Joy Roggenkamp and Betty Cameron herself. Cameron was regarded as one of the most promising of the Younger Artists Group members when she began to exhibit in 1948 as one of the four paintings she exhibited that year, 'Frosty morning’ was purchased by the Darnell Fine Arts Committee of the University of Queensland. Subsequently, Betty Cameron received the 2nd prize awarded by the RQAS as an encouragement award at the Annual General Meeting in 1949.
She became Chair of the Younger Artists Group and was instrumental in the push to establish a travelling art scholarship. By the middle of 1950 the RQAS decided to provide a grant up to £150, provided a matching amount of £150 was raised by the YAG by 30 June 1951. Their efforts (which included a exhibition of the works by Cameron, Betty Quelhurst, Peter Abraham, Kenneth Roggenkamp and Theodore Klettke at the Moreton Galleries, Brisbane in June 1950) were successful. On 19 September 1951 a selection committee comprising Dr Gertrude Langer, Robert Haines and Vida Lahey awarded her the scholarship. Her work was included in the 1951 'Exhibition of Queensland Art’, at the Queensland Art Gallery and also in the early exhibitions 'Queensland Artists of Fame and Promise’ and 'L. J. Harvey Memorial Prize for Drawing’.
With the assistance of YAG scholarship Betty Cameron studied in London under Stuart Ray at the South West Essex Technical School but such was her proficiency that, after two terms study, he suggested she apply to enroll at the prestigious Royal College of Art, London. She was successful and was awarded the Princess of Wales Scholarship for the best female student. An appeal conducted by the Courier Mail, Brisbane, in 1953 provided the additional funds so she was able to complete her three year course of study.
She returned to Brisbane in 1957 with her British husband, the painter Roy Churcher. Together they set up a studio and gave classes in the attic of the Royal Queensland Art Society’s premises in the School of Arts Building, Ann Street. At the end of the year they took over classes at St Mary’s Studio, Kangaroo Point when John Molvig departed for a tour to Melbourne and central Australia. Portraiture was her major interest when she returned to Brisbane although she occasionally painted landscapes. She exhibited a 'Portrait of an old woman’ in the Australian Women’s Weekly Portrait Prize in 1957 and an unfinished portrait of Robert Haines, the Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, in the Centenary Eisteddfod in 1959, together with a 'Portrait of J. V. Duhig’. Later that year, however, Cameron gave up painting to devote herself to rearing her four sons. After some years as a secondary school teacher she began to teach at Kelvin Grove Teachers’ College. In 1971, when her youngest son started school she became a full-time lecturer there. She took her academic career seriously enough to undertake an MA from the Courtauld Institute in London. Her thesis was on Jon Molvig, later the subject of a book and she was awarded the degree in 1977. Two years later she was appointed senior lecturer at what was then the Preston Institute of Technology in Melbourne, a move that entailed her leaving her family in Brisbane for the first year. Her outstanding abilities combined with her administrative and networking capacity led to her becoming head of school. In 1983 she was appointed Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, and in 1984 was Deputy Chair of the Council. Her generous inclusive approach and administrative capacity brought her to the attention of Janet Holmes a Court and in 1987 she was invited to apply for the position of Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. In 1990 she was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Australia where she became known as “Betty Blockbuster” for the magnificent range of exhibitions she organised. After she retired in 1997 she made a series of television programs on art for ABC Television. She also returned to her first love of drawing as, with failing eyesight she revisited her favourite works of art and drew them to fix them in her mind. The resulting books, Notebooks and Australian Notebooks combine fine drawing with written observations that are like love letters to art.