New exhibition uncovers double life of WA’s Betty Bunning

Charles & Betty Bunning

A never-before-seen showcase of the life and work of Western Australia’s

trailblazing 20th Century artist Elizabeth Blair Barber (1909 – 2001) has opened at the

Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth.

Self Portrait – Betty Bunning 1968, oil on canvas 89 × 60 cm

Living a seemingly double life for many of her nine decades, this avid storyteller’s

public face was as Betty Bunning, the socialite wife of prominent WA businessman,

the late Charles Bunning.

But to the art world, she was Elizabeth Blair Barber, the gifted and prolific painter

who chronicled WA history, persuaded celebrated figures of the day to sit for

portraits, and played a pivotal role in nurturing young artists.

Elizabeth Blair Barber: A Life Amongst Painters is a heartfelt celebration of a gifted

artist whose work was overlooked for far too long but who was instrumental in

forging a new appreciation of female artists in society.

The exhibition of around 200 of Blair Barber’s artworks, many meticulously restored,

has been a labour of love for the Bunning family, the name behind Australia’s best-

known hardware and garden centre chain.

Long Path Uphill c 1950s, oil on board 50 × 40 cm

The late artist’s son, Bob Bunning, said his mother had been an extraordinary

Australian painter whose legacy captured eight decades of WA history, along with

many treasured family memories.

“The result of the restoration and framing works has been transformational. It has

been a great feeling of satisfaction to me to see these works come to life again,” Mr

Bunning said.

“Much of my mother’s work has never seen the light of day until now. Partly because

society considered female artists an oddity at the time, but also because she was

busy juggling life as Betty Bunning, society wife and mother of three, whose

husband, my father, was busy building the family business.

“It is my hope that others attending the exhibition will delight in her work as I do.”

Preparing for the exhibition over the past few years has been a journey of discovery

for its curator Connie Petrillo.

“As curator I really grew to understand Elizabeth Blair Barber the artist,” Mrs Petrillo

Said: “Her work was highly individualist, and her approach to painting was about the

spontaneous recording of the moments around her. Her work is built from

expressive brushstrokes that once laid down, remain as a trace of her experience.”

Mrs Petrillo worked closely with Mr Bunning to decide which of the paintings – from

the hundreds the family had safely stored over the decades – to include in the show.

Their collection spans nearly 80 years, from a small sketch Blair Barber completed in

1925 as a 16-year-old, to paintings from the 1940s and ’50s, right through to floral

arrangements painted in her final years.

It’s the largest time-span involving a single artist that Mrs Petrillo has curated, with

about 90 per cent of the works being shown for the first time.

Several depict scenes from the sawmills Blair Barber painted while accompanying

her husband on his trips to the South West, building roads and houses and

establishing new mills. Many of those towns no longer exist, giving these artworks

extra significance as snapshots of Western Australian history.

“The artist’s legacy is a fascinating one, affording us an insight into the world of both

art-making and life in 20th Century WA,” Mrs Petrillo said.

“She was such a major figure in the Perth art scene for so many decades and took so

many young artists under her wing that she deserves to be widely recognised and


Elizabeth Blair Barber: A Life Amongst Painters marks the start of a new era for Blair

Barber’s legacy. There have already been approaches about a retrospective, a coffee-table book and

collaborations with private art collectors who have long appreciated the artist’s talent.

Elizabeth Blair Barber: A Life Amongst Artists runs until Saturday, August 10 at the Holmes à Court Gallery, West Perth.