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Visual Arts

Della Butcher

"Mother of Singapore artists".

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I'll continue to promote our local artists because they are good. It is important for us to have artists in our society as they are the few who can capture our thoughts and imaginations creatively on canvas. And me…I'm only their champion.

– Singapore Tatler Annual, 1989.

Della Butcher was a prominent champion and patron of Singapore visual arts. Fondly known as the "Mother of Singapore Artists", the art gallerist provided a lifetime of unflagging support to Singapore artists through the promotion and exhibiting of their works. She also went beyond her role as an owner of Della Butcher Gallery and provided financial support to struggling artists and was a loyal buyer of their artworks. Her legacy lives on in the Della Butcher Foundation and the Della Butcher Award, which recognises and provides support to aspiring talented young artists.

Born in 1922 in London, UK, Della Butcher studied art at the London College of Art (now Royal College of Art). Graduating from the college, she became a trainee fashion designer at Worth fashion house for a brief period of time, beginning an itinerant professional career that took her through a variety of occupations before she eventually became an art gallery owner.

Leaving Worth, she joined the Surrey Police in Reigate, Surrey as World War II began and became the division's first ever woman constable. She went on to become a telephone operator for a spell after the war and continued in a series of jobs. She then became a stewardess with Hunting Air Travel and eventually found herself in Cyprus in 1953 as an office manager of Skyways Aircraft Corporation.

Then, she became involved with an archaeologist and worked as his assistant. Here, Butcher discovered she enjoyed arranging and organising exhibitions of artefacts she found during archaeological digs. Six years later, she moved to Beirut, Lebanon to work for the alumni magazine of the Alumni Association of the American University. She returned to her love of art, writing art reviews and organising art exhibitions with the university art group.

From there, Butcher continued her peripatetic career, returning to the UK to work for a wine company. She then ran a restaurant and became a race car driver, once finishing in second place. After which, she went back to flying with charter airline companies and arranging package tours for holidays.

Around this time in 1964, Butcher's friends told her about a boutique in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in Sabah, Malaysia that was looking for a manager. She got the job, packed her bags, and made her way to East Malaysia. On the way to Sabah, she stopped over in Singapore for two days, beginning her significant foray into the Singapore art scene. Seeking out art galleries and museums, she realised there were none and instead came across the works of Singapore artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Thomas Yeo along Princess Elizabeth Walk, where Singapore artists displayed their artworks in the open. Though enchanted by the manner of the display, Butcher found this lack of proper gallery space troubling, and decided she would return to Singapore to do whatever she could.

While working in Sabah, Butcher started venturing into the art industry, exporting Iban and Kenyah tribal handicrafts and jewellery to Singapore. She returned to Singapore in 1967 and surveyed the local art market, finding that there was only the Donald Moore Gallery. She also realised that although native Singaporeans were busy seeking success in a newly independent Singapore, the expatriate community was developing a growing fascination with Chinese artworks by Singapore artists. But before she could do anything else, she fell seriously ill. As she battled her illness, Butcher promised herself that she would open an art gallery if she recovered.

The following year, she got better. She came to know expatriate art collector Constance Meyer who shared Butcher's interest in Singapore art. Together, they pooled together their resources and opened the Meyer Gallery in a shophouse next to the Robinsons Department Store at Raffles Place in 1970 with less than $1,000 capital, selling tribal handicraft and art by pioneer Singapore artists. They had the support of then Minister for Culture Jek Yuen Thong, Minister of Finance Goh Keng Swee, Chairman of National Theatre Trust, Goh Poh Seng, High Commissioner of Malaysia Lien Ying Chow and the US Ambassador to Singapore Francis J. Galbraith.

With the opening of the gallery, Butcher resolved to help create greater recognition of Singapore artists. She bought Singapore artworks to exhibit at the gallery, and exhibited artworks on behalf of Singapore artists without any charge. Many Singapore artists benefited from her efforts, including Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Thomas Yeo, Ng Eng Teng, Lee Man Fong, Choo Keng Kwang and Chieu Shuey Fook. In addition to her gallery, Butcher went out of her way to promote the artists she exhibited. Singapore watercolourist and Cultural Medallion recipient Ong Kim Seng, whom Butcher closely worked with in the ‘80s, recalled how she would personally bring artists to the newspaper offices if the press did not cover their exhibitions. "A few reporters joked that if an arts journalist was unwilling to cover her exhibitions, Della will butcher them!" Ong quipped, "She always believed that the local newspapers should promote local artists and their work."

When Meyer left for Australia in 1970, Butcher renamed the gallery to The Gallery of Fine Art and ran it on her own. She faced financial difficulties but managed to keep the gallery running by taking on freelance work. In her effort to promote Singapore art, she scoured the island for exhibition spaces, setting up in hotel lobbies and street pavements, and even personally bringing artworks to potential buyers to facilitate sales. Butcher's ingenuity and resourcefulness was commended in a UNESCO study of Singapore art culture that noted her departure from the usual practice of gallery owners confining exhibitions to their own gallery spaces.

In 1972, a fire broke out at the Robinsons Department Store, causing great damage to Butcher’s neighbouring gallery. Salvaging what she could, Butcher moved The Gallery of Fine Art to Raffles Hotel. The gallery remained there till the late ’70s until another move saw it set up shop at Orchard Hotel, where it found greater success in securing international buyers of Singapore art. In January 1979, she secured a sponsorship by Singapore Airlines for a series of exhibitions in Bahrain, Dubai and Kuwait featuring 150 artworks by eight Singapore artists including Ang Ah Tee and Ong Kim Seng. The exhibitions were a great success, leading to the sale of many paintings, much interest in Singapore as a tourism location, and cultural exchange exhibitions between the Dubai Arts Society and The Gallery of Fine Art in 1980.

Continuing her successful efforts in Singapore art, Butcher opened a branch of The Gallery of Fine Art in 1982 at the newly opened Changi Airport, and famously held exhibitions on board the luxury cruise liner Princess Mahsuri (now Spirit of Adventure) in 1984. She then exhibited works of Singapore artist Tang Juey Lee at the Hilton Hotel Music Room for the Singapore Arts Festival 1984. Her support of Singapore art was also unhindered by professional boundaries—when one of the artists she represented exhibited with a rival gallery at the Ming Court Hotel, she gladly helped in the setting up of that exhibition.

In 1986, she closed The Gallery of Fine Art due to poor health. But she returned to the gallery business two years later, establishing and devoting her time to the Della Butcher Gallery at Cuppage Terrace. In 1990, Butcher was invited to join a task force led by the Economic Development Board Creative Services Strategic Business Unit to assess the development of the Singapore art industry. The same year, she sponsored and held a successful exhibition at The Oriental hotel for the artist Rupa Natarajan, who would credit Butcher for her success as an artist.

By 1992, Butcher had organised more than 300 exhibitions for more than 100 artists. On her birthday that year on 24 April, 24 artists with whom she had worked held an exhibition affectionately entitled The Mother of the Artists at Riverwalk Galleria Exhibition Hall in honour of her 70th birthday.

In January the following year, Butcher passed away at home in her sleep. Five months later, at Singapore Ambassador-At-Large Tommy Koh's request, the Rotary Club of Singapore established the Della Butcher Award, which was first awarded to the best LASALLE College of the Arts art student in 1994. The award was then opened to art students at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts the next year.

In November 1995, Butcher's friends, together with the Rotary Club, held an exhibition-auction of Butcher's own collection of art prints and 75 paintings by artists such as Ang Ah Tee, Ong Kim Seng and Tay Bak Koi, bought by Butcher herself in support of these artists. The collection, valued at S$87,000, was auctioned at the Regent Hotel over three days and the money raised was used to fund the Della Butcher Foundation in support of the Della Butcher Award, and to fund art scholarships for promising young artists in Singapore.

Her legacy also lives on in the Della Butcher Gallery, which continues the good work of its founder in promoting Singapore artists through exhibitions and talks. The gallery also assists in the implementation of innovative art education techniques in primary and secondary schools.

Timeline

24 Apr 1922

Born in London, UK.

1939

Graduated from London College of Art (now Royal College of Art).

Trainee designer, Worth fashion house, UK.

1953

Manager, Skyways Aircraft Corporation, Cyprus.

1964 to 1967

Boutique manager, Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), Sabah, Malaysia.

1967

Moved to Singapore.

17 Mar 1970

Co-owner, Meyer Gallery, Singapore. With Constance Meyer.

1970 to 1986

Owner, The Gallery of Fine Art (previously Meyer Gallery).

1972

Moved The Gallery of Fine Art to Raffles Hotel after Robinsons Department Store fire.

Jan 1979

Organised exhibition of 150 artworks by eight Singapore artists—Ang Ah Tee, Nai Swee Leng, Ong Kim Seng, Tang Juey Lee, Tay Bak Koi, Wan Soon Kam, Henry Hoisington and Karen Hoisington—in Bahrain, Dubai and Kuwait. Sponsored by Singapore Airlines.

1982

Opened a branch of The Gallery of Fine Art at Changi Airport.

1984

Organised exhibitions on luxury cruise ship, Princess Mahsuri (now Spirit of Adventure).

Organised exhibition of Tang Juey Lee art, Hilton Hotel Music Room, Singapore Arts Festival.

1988 to 1993

Owner, Della Butcher Gallery, Singapore.

1990

Member, Creative Services Strategic Business Unit task force, Economic Development Board.

Sponsored and organised exhibition of Rupa Natarajan art, The Oriental, Singapore.

24 Apr 1992

Exhibition The Mother of the Artists organised by 24 artists on Butcher’s 70th birthday, Riverwalk Galleria Exhibition Hall, Singapore.

11 Jan 1993

Passed away at age 70 in Singapore.

1994

Della Butcher Award established.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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