We learned last week of the death of Joan de Bethel, aged 93. Her daughter, Caroline Crabtree, tells of her life as an artist who lived and worked near Rye.
Joan (Burton) was born on November 25 1923, in Brighton. She was an only child; she and her parents moved to Greenford, Middlesex just before Joan started school, moving again to Gloucester Place, London, by the time Joan was in her mid-teens.
On leaving school, she was accepted at St Martins School of Art and Design, where her interest in theatrical costume and set design was encouraged and developed. During the war a film of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier, was championed by Churchill, intended as a morale booster for Britain. Students from St Martins were co-opted to help create the banners and tabards of the fighting crowds, and Joan was one of those involved. The war was a time when home grown talent both in the theatre and ballet flourished, and after the war, the theatre continued to grow in the optimistic days of the early 1950’s.It was a good time to be a designer working in the theatre and was the happiest time of Joan’s life. In 1952 she met David de Bethel, another artist/designer; their engagement was announced in The Stage in 1953.
Their daughter Caroline was born in 1955, Joan and David by then working together as a partnership. Their work attracted the attention of the founder of the New Zealand Players – David was a New Zealander – resulting in their moving to New Zealand in 1957 to work with the young theatre company. They returned to London in 1959, but found, on their return, the west end theatre had moved on, and the sort of shows for which they were known were no longer being produced. Looking for an alternative means of income, a prototype of the painted cats, which later would become so well known was produced, with some success.
The very first cats were layered paper over a chicken wire base, soon replaced by moulded papier mache. Wanting their daughter to grow up in the countryside, the family moved to Lewes, and then to Udimore, Sussex, in 1964. The cats were now increasingly in demand; made by David , painted by Joan, finally varnished by David, they were sold to outlets in the UK and the USA. During their time in Udimore, Joan became a member of the Rye Society of Artists (RSA), regularly exhibiting and selling her watercolours in their annual exhibition.
David died in 1977; just a few months before his death, he and Joan had approached Rye Pottery to have the cats made in pottery, that could then be painted, thus enabling Joan to continue producing the cats, which she sustained until into the new millennium. Joan moved to Rye in 1981.
Whilst the cats were provided a steady income, her watercolours were her pleasure; she continued to exhibit with the RSA, until poor eyesight, and the encroachment of dementia made this an impossibility. The advancement of dementia necessitated a move to Thornwood in Bexhill, where she lived for the last five years of her life. Though her memory of her life with David, and in Rye, was completely lost, she continued to draw, her pleasure in her art continuing to the end of her life.
Main photo: Kenneth Bird