Museum Highlight

J. Anthony Betts

With trips to the museum or days out to the beach a possibility again, here a Museum Highlight to celebrate the re-opening of Reading Museum, and a chance to see the Rubens to Sickert: The Study of Drawing exhibition in person until August 2021. [Highlighted: May 2021]

South Parade Pier, Southsea, Hampshire
by J. Anthony Betts (1897–1980)

Oil on canvas
66cm x 76cm
Date: about 1936

RGA Ex-officio member 1933 – 1963, Exhibiting member 1933 – 1941
Reading Museum Accession Number
REDMG : 1937.14.

A possible day trip for Reading residents, South Parade Pier, Southsea has been destroyed by fire on three occasions and has undergone various renovations and changes over its long history. Originally used as a passenger terminal for ferries to the Isle of Wight it was officially opened in 1879. The first serious fire in 1904 resulted in a complete rebuild, designed by local architect G.E.Smith, much shorter and this time as a pleasure pier including innovative windscreens and a theatre, it opened in 1908. A few years after the approximate date of this painting, during the Second World War, the pier was requisitioned by the government and was partly dismantled and altered. A fire in 1966 destroyed the theatre and most notoriously once again the pier was destroyed by fire during the making of Ken Russell’s film Tommy. Having suffered from neglect and disrepair plus huge storm damage during the early 21st century, in 2017 the pier has been restored once again for all to enjoy.

We can gain an insight into the artist J. Anthony Betts from EV Watson’s book A History of the Reading Guild of Artists 1930 – 1980 when he introduces Betts to the reader:

“By virtue of his position Professor Betts was forthwith made an ex officio member of the [RGA] Council. He exhibited in the Guild shows of 1936, 1940, and 1941, but soon ceased to do so. It appears that it was 1936 before he attended a Council meeting and in 1939 we find a Councillor of the time deploring the fact that the Head of the School of Art ‘did not take a more active interest in Guild affairs’. It seems safe to assume that Professor Betts saw himself, not so much as a fellow member, and certainly not as a leader, of the Guild (as Seaby had been) but rather as one ready at all times to give advice or help and to make the University Art Department premises available to the Guild.”

J. Anthony Betts although he was by default the ex-officio of the RGA 1933 – 1963, exhibited at three of the RGA’s Annual Exhibitions, at that time held at the Municipal Art Gallery (now Reading Museum). We can conjure up the image of his first exhibit in 1936 Study of a Dancer which was described by a reporter at the time as “a colourful, prancing figure, several feet high, of a doll-like ballet performer in the green bodice, pink skirt, and striped pantalettes”. The work was chosen by guest “Critic” Frank Ormrod as the outstanding entry of the exhibition. Ormrod (later a long-standing RGA member and President) was said at the time to have “come down from the Slade”, however when he made this choice he’d already spent one year as a sessional lecturer at Reading University Department of Fine Art! Betts went on to exhibit twice more with the RGA, with frustratingly non-descriptive titles, two oils in 1940 called Study, and two more wash drawings in 1941.

From EV Watson we find that his skill and teaching would influence the RGA over the decades that followed, many of his students and colleagues were or became RGA members. He is often mentioned over the years to have given lectures, “criticisms” and tuition via “Carnegie classes” to the members and the influence of his teaching could be seen in works at RGA exhibitions for many years. By all accounts quite a character, one member said of Betts “I think we students were all slightly scared of him – he had a great presence.”

Following his retirement from the University, in 1964 he became a Patron of the RGA and was a guest of honour at the exhibition party. It seems fitting that in 1968 Betts, who was once picked out for an “outstanding” entry, became the first ever Assessor of the Marie Dyson Award. Presented at the Annual Exhibition for a piece of work judged to be of “outstanding” merit, we forget today that early assessors would have known Marie Dyson as a fellow artist before her untimely death and in whose name this award was founded. His support can still be seen in September 1980 (the year of his death) when he is still listed as a Patron long after his first involvement with the RGA.

You can find out more about J. Anthony Betts, former Head of the School of Art at the University of Reading for 30 years, and the collector at the heart of Rubens to Sickert: The Study of Drawing from the Reading Museum website.

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