Time, tradition and change; cycle and re-cycle requires a constant reassessment of what we assign value to in each unique piece of art. How we assign that value depends upon a personal journey as we identify what resonates with us, and what is recognized as being significant in a wider social context of the society in which we live. This context is in constant flux, never more so than now.
This blog is an attempt to take what is in the gallery stock and place it in a date line to unearth the various stories that appear around a physical item. The first cluster of paintings fall into the New Group, a group of young artists who returning from Europe encountered the stultifying inertia in their homeland and decided to group together. They apposed the closed aesthetic of South African Society of Artists.
The four main artists heading the group were Gregoire Boonzaier, Freida Locke, Terence McCaw and Lippy Lipschitz. They had a common desire to form a fellowship of artists similar to the London Group in England. Boonzaier and McCaw organized the group and invited artists from the Transvaal. The aggressive young organisers wasted no time in arranging their first exhibition. Seventeen SA artists were on a show at an opening in 1938. (Berman; 1938)
At a similar time we see the story of Edward Roworth who arrived in South Africa in 1902. A tall man 195,5 cm high, who came to the country with the British Forces in the Anglo Boer war. He remained and settled in the Cape. He was a man who took a more conservative route in the art world joining South African Society of Artists and finally heading it in 1908. He was awarded the directorship of Michaelis in 1938 and there was controversy and criticism as he was accused of a dictatorial attitude and the bête noire of younger progressive artists such as New Group.
I have compared two building paintings one of the new group artist Charles Peers and one by Edward Roworth. The composition of the new group artist is more unusual as he uses diagonal lines in his layout to make it asymmetrical and dynamic. The Roworth is more solid or traditional in it’s style as the composition divides the picture plane into horizontal planes. A central facade makes for a stable symmetrical composition. The conservatism of the solid composition seems to have been more successful in that Edward got commissions from the South African government and SA house in London.
Roworth did his formal education at Slade school studing under Henry Tonks. He spent much time studing frescos in Florence. Charles Peers studied at a Liverpool art school. He was fascinated by the local shipping activities. He intended to pursue a Naval career and ended up working as a draftsman for a marine shipping agent.
- 1938 Edward Roworth director of University Cape Town Michaelis director
- 1938 Charles Peers invited as a member of New Group
Both artists had an interest in travel and stayed in the Cape colony after military service. Roworth seems to have been quiet charismatic as he started up a studio in Burg street with a goal to create a distinctively South African style and joined the South African Society of artists. Charles Peers was elected a member in 1905 and worked at various printing studios as a chromo lithographer. In 1930 he published two folios of lithographic drawings. Peers worked extensively in watercolours and the 1922 he painted in oils focusing mainly on landscapes.
Seeing artists such as Peers and Roworth capture the beautiful South African architecture of the Western Cape is a testament to the high cultural values the people in the area have managed to cultivate through land ownership, architecture and painting. This value has taken over three century to be cultivated through buying and selling tracts of land in order to create buildings that appreciate in value. A more indepth study of the Nektar property reveals a history behind the building still standing today. Charles Peers painted the landmark almost 80 years ago.
The Nektar started as a plot of land near the source of the Eerste river. It was a grant of 25 morgens made to two freed slaves, Marquard and Jan Ceylon. By 1712 the land had been transferred to Anna Hocks a widower in the area who inherited Schoonzicht and took ownership of many free holds in the area. The 6 farms were passed on to Anna Hassler and her eldest daughter married Christoffel Groenewald the second in 1719. In 1762 Jacob Groenewald transfers 2 of the properties. In 1774 there is another transfer from him to two new owners his younger brothers. In 1790 the farms are transferred to Pieter Jacob Du Toit for 31 100 guilders for land that 7 years earlier (1761) was selling for 900 gilders! This can surely indicate that a house had been built. In 1790 Coenraad Johannes Albertyn brought the four lower farms from the Boedel of Anna Hassler. In 1814 Albertyn built Nektar after selling Groenhof. (Fransen 1980)
Looking at the New Group artists relative to more conservative artists such as Roworth it becomes evident that ground needed to be broken for a newer generation of artists. Many had been to Europe and could see that the solid traditional paths layed down in their homeland did not allow for a new way for thinking.
More experimental artists in the New Group went beyond the traditional buildings as subjects and portrayed nudes. The subject is more ephemeral in nature and was used by early ground breaker members of the New Group namely Maggie Laubser. It was matched by more convensional members such as Robert Broadly. He only joined the group later. and was a well intergrated male artist. Maggie had a conservative up bringing studing at Stellenbosch and moving over seas to work with German Expressionists before the firstworld war. Then she returned to South Africa to her family farm Oortmanspoort, near Durbanville. Here she created her own pastorial style while taking business trips to market her art. She painted numerous portraits of indian and black woman. The drawing shown in the Cape Gallery collection exhibits an uninhibited and more expressive style of mark making. There is an immediacy that is not rehersed or refined, it reflects the rawness of the woodcuts she must have witnessed when working with German Experssionist such as Karl Schmidt-Rotluff in Berlin. Laubser was the first woman to recieve Honour for painting by SA Akadamie in 1946.
If we compare her expressive style to the nude of Robert Broadly, his style is much more distanced, refined and realistic. His career as an artist was successful in the Cape Colony as he painted regularly and was asked to do local commssions. He competed with 3 other male artists and won. He was commissioned to paint the Royal opening of parliment in 1947. He was also a good golf player becoming a professional in 1934 but he gave it up for his painting carreer.
This essay has looked at various artworks in the Cape Gallery collection and placed them historically. I have drawn a comparison between the conservative yet solid painting style of Roworth head of SASA and Michaelis and the more dynamic asymmetrical work of other established artist of the time recognised by the New Group such as Charles Peers. The discussions of the history and investment contrasted with the immediacy of female nude drawings speaks of the spirit in the shell of objects owned. In the nude studies I have selected a male and female artist and compared what they have done in the context of a conservative South African artworld. Maggie was not easily given recognition and lived a much more secluded life style as she entered the artworld. A male artist such as Broadley that followed once the group was more established used his regular practice due to his financial means and role in society to create a more realitic artwork. Discussing and comparing the New Group and other artists such as Roworth gives a historical picture of the Cape Town artworld in the times in which they were painted.
Click here to see Cape Gallery Paintings at the new Group.
Berman, Esmé (1983) Art & Artists of South Africa, AA Balkem Cape Town
Bouman AC Dr, (Circa 1950) Painters of South Africa, H.A.UM , South Africa.
Fransen H, (1980) The old buildings of the Cape, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, Cape Town.