A rich life in painting

MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE
Last updated 10:45 13/07/2012

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the walls of Betty Eaton's home are an exhibition of her life.

From family photographs to artworks by a dearly missed friend, and Betty's own art, they reflect a life of travel, friends and a lifelong career as an artist.

She once found her inspiration in the colours of India, the wide open spaces and bustling cities of the United States, the vivid colours of Asia and the vistas of southern Europe.

"You name it, I've been there," the 88-year-old says from her armchair, where even her glazed and painted earthenware coffee cup is a little piece of art.

Once an active member of Wellington's bustling art scene, life has slowed for Betty but her mind has not.

She still paints every day, landscapes of Tuscany and Provence and what she calls "rooster paintings" for the farmhouse kitchens of friends. She sets up still lifes with flowers or paints from photographs, such as a shot of the canals of Venice brought to her by a travelling friend.

Hidden at the end of a lane of suburban affluence, Betty's stone-fronted house is accessed by an enormous wooden door.

Those who enter are greeted with a grand American-style home with high ceilings and arched passageways, the furniture collected over the years bearing physical memories of her travels, such as Asian vases, plates and bowls. One framed work depicting a peacock was given to her during a journey through India in chauffeured cars in the company of millionaires.

Betty's face lights up at the memory of a country that captured her imagination many years ago and remains with her. "Oh, I've been right through India," she reminisces happily. "We started in Madras and ended up in what was Bombay then. We went to Jaipur. What a gorgeous place."

A wall opposite the passage is covered with photos, most black and white, of Betty's family. The formal wedding photos from long ago to the more relaxed portraits of recent times include her parents and grandparents, siblings, children and grandchildren. She passes the wall every time she heads to her studio, the familiar faces prompting memories of times gone by or reminders of visits from grandchildren to come.

Her current source of inspiration, McKendry Park, is viewed from her bedroom at the opposite end of the house.

Perhaps less grand than the sights and sounds Betty drank in abroad, the scene of blossoms on the park's old walnut, plum and apple trees among a carpet of bulb flowers nevertheless injects her with renewed painting fervour each spring.

She has allowed her painting style to become "freer", the result of still painting every day.

She uses acrylics now, only sometimes reverting to her original medium of watercolours.

Oils have been put aside for their strong smell, which can permeate her home.

Taking pride of place in Betty's bedroom are the paintings of a close friend, fantasy artist Ellinore Ginn QSM, who died in 1995. A bird theme flows through the works, the winged creatures fluttering around the main subjects but blending into the overall picture so well that it takes more than just a glance to see them.

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In a corner behind Betty's large wooden dining table sits a statue of a female form, a treat Betty allowed herself after a successful exhibition of paintings of old Wellington houses.

Betty's artistic career began as a student at Wellington Art School, where she was taught by Helen Crabb. Her exhibitions included many at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, where she has been an artist member since 1963. One painting included in the academy's exhibition, Response to the Land, won the Caltex Art Award in 1988.

A watercolourist at heart, Betty's works made regular appearances with the Wellington Society of Watercolour Artists. Her works have been sold to private collections in New Zealand, Australia, England and the US.

Though happy in her Blenheim home, which she moved to about eight years ago to be in the same town as her daughter, Wendy, Betty speaks enthusiastically of houses she left behind in Wellington, a city she dearly loves.

For Betty, inspiration is found everywhere.

A painting that remains with the Invercargill Art Gallery, Soon to Go, depicts one of the old buildings that were being demolished in and around her Wellington street, Telavera Tce.

Betty was sad to see the "gorgeous" houses disappear, but the sale of her work was "quite a thrill".

After Telavera Tce, she moved north with her husband to a five-hectare section just outside Plimmerton. They kept racehorses and had a driveway with beautiful trees, and a cottage beside the main house. But a decade on, the property was torn in half by a new stretch of highway, the old road having seen too many bad accidents.

With the driveway and horse paddock gone, and the cottage now across the busy road from Betty's house, the property was sold and she moved back to the city.

A 100-year-old villa in Karori was her home for many years, its grand interior the result of a generous cash injection by its former owner, a top advertising executive who Betty says poured about $100,000 into renovations. It had two large brass kitchen sinks that created a striking effect but were a pain to keep clean, lit by a large skylight. The curtain tassels cost $400 each, Betty remembers with a smile.

"It had a beautiful French fireplace. And it had this magnificent gate. But it was too big, it was huge. Four bedrooms  you can imagine it was really gorgeous.

"The bathroom was all gold; that was a bit over the top."

She also speaks fondly of the homes belonging to longtime artist friends, particularly one on Auckland's North Shore currently for sale for several million dollars. Referring to recent magazine photos of the house, she recognises artworks as memories of gatherings and visits bubble to the surface.

Life for Betty has changed, but there is still plenty of life left in her. Visitors pop in and out, be it for a chat or to help prune the roses. Her 88th birthday was celebrated with champagne and family around the big dining table.

But it is Wellington where her heart has partially remained, with her artists' circle who spent hours happily painting together both indoors or out, overlooking the surf of Lyall Bay or the reflecting lights of Oriental Parade.

It was a creative atmosphere she greatly misses.

"I can't sit outside and paint now like I used to. I haven't got other people to sit with and paint with. I just paint on my own."

- The Marlborough Express

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