Joan de Bethel 1923 – 2017

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Cat figurine by David and Joan de Bethel

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.

Vintage papier mache cat figurine by Joan and David de Bethel

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.

Examples of Joan de Bethel’s work

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

15 COMMENTS

  1. I met Joan a few times at her home in Rye. I was so taken with her cats that I became a distributor for Joan and probably sold over 50 cats. One of our outlets was the rather classy Hoopers department store in Devon.

    Joan was a real character, sharp as a needle yet a little disorganised. She did not tolerate fools gladly but under all that she was a great person.

    I am proud to have known her and I still have a collection of her cats, each individually painted and numbered.

    Rest in peace Joan, you were amazing.

  2. I Have A Small Porcilain Cat Figurien it Has A Sticker On The Base That Says it is Designed By JOAN de BETHEL And Ref B.B. it is Wearing A Yellow Striped Suit And A Yellow Waistcoat With A Flower Pattern And A Pink Tie And Shoes Can U Tell Me More About it Many Thanks David

  3. David, it sounds like one of the later cats that were made by either Rye or the Cinque Ports potteries. These Joan painted and either returned for firing to the pottery or varnished them herself. Later still the potteries began producing the finished cats to Joan’s designs, such was the demand. These later cats often have flat eyes while the earlier ones are raised off the surface. Cats painted by Joan have a year date, a number and the letter C in a circle for copyright, followed by her name and a place, usually Rye.

    The very early cats made by Joan and her husband David were bigger and made in papier mache, these are the most valuable cats now, often fetching £500 to £1000. The hand painted ones go for between £150 and £500 and the later ones for up to £100. I think yours is likely to be one of the later ones. Hope that helps
    Tony Bennett

  4. Further to my last post David, some of the later cats had raised eyes too I have discovered but they will be marked with a commercial mark on the bottom.

  5. I hadn’t heard of Joan De Bethel until watching The Repair Shop today and seeing Caroline Crabtree talking. It was so interesting that I looked them up and came across this article and well as finding some cats for sale on eBay.

  6. I have 3 of Joan’s cats. Bought in the 1980’s.
    One has the copyright symbol, the other two don’t.
    Does that mean that Joan didn’t paint them?
    Thank you.

  7. Just watched the same Repair Shop episode and the cat was absolutely gorgeous. Such a talented lady and such a wonderful programme.

  8. I have too just watched this programme and found the original cat and the story behind it fascinating. Learning about how and why art pieces were made is extremely interesting and can enhance all our lives.

  9. Gosh: I’m watching the repair shop program now. Saw paper mache cat and it reminded me to look on the bottom of my gorgeous remaining cat. My boyfriend bought me 2 gorgeous wedding cats Mr & Mrs. From the Cotswolds in the late 1980s. Sadly Mrs got smashed and I’ve still got all of the pieces. I’d love to find a replacement so Mr can be reunited!

  10. I watched The Repair Shop too and was inspired by the wonderful repair job done on the cat. It was television to treasure, such a great story and wonderful repairer. There’s never enough information about the people who work behind the scenes in theatre, and today has given us a glimpse of their multitude of talents.

  11. I would just like to thank the Repair Shop as I’ve just watched which is obviously another repeat of this episode! I hadn’t heard of these cats either but thought it was just beautiful! The repair work was just amazing too…so talented!

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