Hayden Proud, Curator of Historical Collections of Painting and Sculpture, Iziko Museums of Cape Town
Some years ago, a small body of artists clubbed together to organise a society, which aimed at coming boldly before the public and asking their encouragement. After various revisions and amendments the society took its present form ... [and has] ... now become a recognised part of South African life. Let us hope that this young sapling may grow to become a great tree, the roof-tree of a South African Academy, where a strong and united people may meet.1
MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, the launching of the South African Society of Artists (SASA), our oldest surviving body for practising artists, was greeted with much optimism, and by 1906 it was confidently described as a society "with no rival in the subcontinent." 2 The SASA grew to command the respect of many artists on a national basis, and many of them were either members or submitted work to SASA's annual exhibitions. However, by 1950, overtaken by rapid change, it came to be regarded as "sterile and provincial."3 Ironically, SASA, the initiator of a major "advancement" in the visual arts in colonial South Africa, is today largely forgotten by the offical art establishment. Reflecting upon a hundred years of its existence, it is now possible to take a more sympathetic view of its history, and its early history in particular. In many ways the Society became a casualty of the artistic forces and the institutions that it had initially helped to nurture in its efforts to promote the cause of art in this country.
A case in point was its pressure for the building of the SA National Gallery. The attainment of this objective in 1930 did not enhance the Society's prestige, but the converse. Although Cape-based, SASA claimed to be nationally representative and had long held sway as Cape Town's premier art organisation. The realisation of an official, state-funded, independent art institution may well have provided the facilities that SASA had long dreamed of, but it also signalled the end of its prestige in Cape Town and beyond. Given this scenario, it is perhaps not surprising that the South African National Gallery's (SANG) Inaugural Exhibition on 3 November 1930 should have been the occasion of public conflict between SASA and the Gallery's managing authorities. The issue, justifiably, was the lack of representation of work by South African artists on the first exhibition, and what SASA termed "the extravagant lauding of a certain section of Overseas Art."4 Simply put, it was a predominantly British exhibition supplied by a certain Mr Murray Fuller - and the works were for sale.
The Society, quick to take up the hurt feelings of South African artists, immediately issued a 30-page pamphlet in English and Afrikaans entitled: A Protest on behalf of the Artists of South Africa against the slighting, and belittling attitude of the Authorities on the occasion of the inauguration of the South African (National) Art Gallery on the Third of November, 1930. It detailed all the correspondence surrounding earlier requests for the omission to be rectified, and accused the Gallery's Honorary Director, Professor John Wheatley, of incompetence. It concluded: "To sum up, the Management of the South African Art Gallery has displayed such ineptitude at its very first trial that few people, and certainly no South African artist, can feel the slightest confidence in its future. The SANG Board Minutes on this matter are terse and give no mention of how this written attack was received. At any rate, subsequent negotiations resulted in SASA being invited to coperate with the SANG in organising the First Annual Exhibition of Contemporary National Art at the Gallery in the following year.6
From its inception the Society saw its role in the broadest terms; as one that transcended colonial boundaries in the subcontinent, even before the Act of Union in 1910. 7 The founding of rival provincial societies in South Africa often tested its assumed primacy over the years, despite their friendly relations. This was the case with the Natal Society of Artists (NSA), led by its President Leo Francois (qv.) in the 1920s. Not only was the NSA highly successful, but it provided Francois with a base from which to mount his bid to found a South African Academy affiliated to the RA in London. Negotiations for SASA's co-operation in this were unsatisfactory, and although Francois launched his SA Institute of Art in 1926, it soon crumbled for lack of support."8 The SASA had experienced an even earlier attempt to found an Academy in 1905. A small coterie of artists in Cape Town, which included the sculptor Thackeray Edwards and SASA member R.H. Whale (qv.), gained the support of the likes of Lord Alfred Milner and Sir Abe Bailey for their plan. It proposed the appointment of a British-based president in Sir William Richmond. SASA rejected the proposal on a number of grounds. It was felt that the initiative was not truly South African, and there were objections to many of its aspects, including the fact that the proposed Academy refused to accept women as office bearers.9
The South African art with which we associate the Society in the period c.1900 to 1950 has been variously disparaged since as "academic, eclectic, traditional and moribund."10 South African art museums, in a process of realignment first to formalist abstraction after 1950, and then to a new political order since 1990 seem to have relegated much of it to the murky realm of post-colonial and post-apartheid amnesia."11 Despite this, it cannot be denied that the period 1900 to 1950 saw not only the creation of South Africa's existing institutions for exhibitions and the teaching of art, but also the growth of a viable art community, in Cape Town especially. It was in response to this art community that SASA was established first in 1897 and revived in 1902, alongside the South African Drawing Club (SADC), founded in 1889.12
In the early 1900s, Burg Street and St George's Street were the address of many an artist's studio. By 1926, Long Street was a "street of studios" where one could have found SASA members Edward Roworth (qv.), George Crosland Robinson (qv.), Constance Pen stone (qv.) or Hugo Naude (qv.) all at work. Beatrice Hazell (qv.), Allerley Glossop (qv.) and Florence Zerffi (qv.) also worked there in adjoining studios.13 A grand studio existed in the Theatre Building, which stood on the site of the present General Post Office. Initially used by Philip Tennyson Cole (qv.), it was then rented by Denis Santry (qv.). It was described as "a very fine [studio] indeed, 28 feet by 21, very lofty and excellently well lighted by six windows ... on the first floor, the entrance is around the corner from Darling Street."14 Gwelo Goodman (qv.) took it over in c.1916."15 Linking all of these artists was their membership of SASA.
A detailed account of SASA's membership is impossible, for much material has been lost. No exhibition catalogues for the years 1907-1917, 1924-1936, and 1936 - 1940 survive, but Press reports and old reviews have helped to fill in some of the details. SASA members had to renew their membership annually. Individual memberships and the numbers of members thus fluctuate from year to year, and the records are incomplete. This exhibition profiles, on one hand, its most important members, and on the other, the often more intriguing casual exhibitors on its shows. Where possible, they have been represented by the actual works that they entered, or close approximations.
SASA mounted two shows each year. These were held variously at the Drill Hall, the new City Hall on Darling Street (opened in 1905), the Divisional Council Chambers on Greenmarket Square (The Old Town House), the SA National Gallery (opened in 1930), the Maskew Miller Art Gallery, Ashbey's Galleries, and also in the Society's Rooms at 42 Burg Street (opened in 1906, but later closed). There was always an Annual Exhibition open to all on the basis of merit, and also a special Members' Exhibition. Other types were also held, usually dedicated to watercolor, or even as charity fundraisers.' It is the "open" exhibitions, those mounted in collaboration with either the SANG or the Natal Society of Artists (NSA), that hold most interest. Here, more unusual work was often seen, and the shows tended to be more representative of South African art. In 1931, for example, the "modern" work of Rosamund Everard-Steenkamp (qv.) earned the contempt of the conservative critic Bernard Lewis, while that of the "quite untaught" Moses Tiadi (qv.) the first black artist to have his work hung in the SA National Gallery, received a relatively warm response.'
In 1902 and 1903, SASA combined with the SADC to mount its first exhibitions in the Drill Hall on Darling Street. At this time they were the largest exhibitions ever held in the Cape Colony, with over 450 works shown on each occasion. The hanging conditions were makeshift. A photograph of the 1903 exhibition shows George Crosland Robinson's Sir William Tfiorne, Mayor Of Cape Town in pride of place, hung against lengths of cloth. The Press enthused that "the usual bleakness of aspect" in the Drill Hall had been "painted out by a great broad brushstroke of refinement." The 1903 exhibition was opened by Sir Walter Helyutchinson, the then Governor of the Cape Colony, who processed into the hall with an entourage on the firing of the noon gun on Signal Hill.
At the 1903 opening, Hely-Hutchinson expressed pleasure at "what was being done for the advancement and development of art in this country,” He complimented SASA and the SADC for uniting to stage the exhibition. It was "a good augury for the future both as regards art and as regards other matters," he said, "for do we not all think... [this way]... in these days of union" This reference to a new spirit of UI\it in matters of art and of politics just after the end of the Anglo Boer War drew spontaneous cries of "hear, hear" and generated much applause. A Grand Promenade concert was held with the exhibition, and reminders appeared in the papers to alert the public of its imminent closure:
There is reproach for all who, able to do so, fail to turn in and view the remarkably interesting collection. Some 500 pictures to look at and study, pleasing music to listen to, and light refreshments to assimilate, should prove a strong inducement no longer to tarry by the way, quite apart from the desire we are confident everyone feels to encourage South African Art as far as it lies in their power.
Amusing incidents were also related during its run:
The other day an elderly gentleman of spare figure sauntered into the Art Exhibition in the Drill Hall. He strolled past the gentleman at the entrance who takes the cash for the admittance tickets and programmes. "Tickets please," ejaculated the latter with a certain reproof in his tones. The elderly gentleman strolled on without looking around. (No. He was not deaf; that is not the point.) The one behind the table appeared to be making up his mind to give chase, when a visitor, who came in a little after Sir Gordon Sprigg, the elderly gentleman referred to, explained who he was. A minute later the doorkeeper was, with a winning smile, presenting a programme, free, gratis and for nothing to Sir Gordon, who accepted with an equally engaging expression about the lips. What is the use of being Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, if you cannot walk into an art exhibition without forking out? What, indeed.
Public demand extended the show to 18 December, Messrs. Darters and Co. loaned a pianola, and at regular intervals recitals were given. The star of this exhibition was the young Edward Roworth (qv.), a recent arrival in Cape Town, who was singled out "as a young artist who bids fair to make his name in Colonial art." The Society's subsequent exhibitions were highlights on the social calendar, equivalent in local terms to the private viewings at London's Royal Academy, and occasions for sartorial display. The SASA 22nd Annual Exhibition at the Cape Town City Hall on 8 February 1923 was thus described in the columns of a fashionable magazine:
There were pictures by many of our leading artists, but the crowd was so great that it was quite impossible to see them to advantage. At the conclusion of the ceremonial part of the proceedings, a very enjoyable al fresco tea was served in the lobby. This was quite a new departure on the part of the Council, and turned what is usually a mere cold ceremony into a particularly pleasant and much appreciated social gathering. There were some very lovely frocks.
In the colonial era, white society often affirmed its own sense of purpose in South Africa by the use of words like "progress", "pioneering", "civilising" or "advancement". An underlying intention was, of course, the replication of its parent culture, even in matters of art. Letters to the Press, opening speeches, and even the stated objectives of SASA itself made habitual use of the ringing term "advancement" as a specific role for art's refining and "civilising" effects. Our present-day notion of advancement" in art is informed by Modernism, which emphasises change itself "as a dynamic constant ...embraced by those who would be modern, as a marker of advancement." "Advancement" in colonial society also implied movement towards equivalence with the ideal models back at "Home". Hely-Hutchinson, in opening the 1903 exhibition, compared the "easier" task of the Society's selection committee with that of the previous year's selectors at the Royal Academy in London, who had to review, he was told, over 20,000 submissions. "I hope," he said, "that the time may come when this Society will have to do the same (applause) - not for its sake, but for the sake of progress of art in South Africa (applause)."
"Advancement" in art was also linked to "progress" in nation building. In a review of the 1903 Exhibition, much sentiment was expended on the ideal of bringing depth to a national "soul" hitherto fixated only on mining and stocks:
An aesthetic somebody once described South Africa as 'a nation without a soul' ... We prefer to take another and more hopeful view. To us it appears that our nation possesses a large soul that is only waiting to be developed ...We are a young nation and as the first concern of the child is for bread and butter ... so have our wants hitherto been material ones ...There are few things more beautiful or touching in the character of a nation than the love of art ... it fosters the national spirit of the people and is an inspiration to patriotism. A great deal, then, depends on the establishment of a South African art. This work is now being thoroughly undertaken by the South African Society of Artists...
Sentiment about the creation of a "national art" occurs with regularity in reviews of the 1903 exhibition. The "large majority" of South African subjects on view was a source of optimism, and it was stated that "the great ambition ... is to found a recognised South African school." The primacy of South African subject matter was seen as the way of fostering a sense of a national identity:
"... The majesty of the mountains.. .the solemnity of the veld, the picturesque ness of the native and the Indian ... [for] when a South African school of artists devotes its whole ambition to reproducing these things on canvas, much of the construction of a South African nationality will have been accomplished."
Critics who term South African art of this period "provincial" seem intent on judging it by the standards of sophisticated societies elsewhere. However, in 1900 South Africa's urban centres were still isolated outposts that were still surprisingly rural. Charles Peers' early Rondebosch Common (No. 81) shows just how pristine and undeveloped this area of Cape Town was at the time. It was a small port-city of 100,000 people. However, by its virtue as the oldest settlement and the major entry point for travellers, Cape Town was still the centre of artistic activity in the region. Before 1900, its bodies for the visual arts were the SA Fine Arts Association (SAFAA), founded in 1850, the South African Art Gallery (later known as SANG), constituted in 1895, and the SADC, founded in 1889. In 1900 the SADC held its 12th Annual Exhibition. The Owl, a publication co-owned by Constance Penstone (av.), commented favourably on how the SADC had made a "wonderful advance" in trying to promote art in South Africa, but was acrid on the philistinism found at official levels:
That art is at a low ebb, a very low ebb, in Cape Town no one can deny. Within the past two days a striking illustration of this fact has been given. The Town Council and a few private citizens, wishing to recognise the merit of our late Mayor, Mr. T. Ball decided to present him with his own picture. Instead of going to one of our several capable local artists and giving a straight out order for a life-size picture in oils, they commissioned a photographer to make a bromide enlargement of his late Worship. This has been coloured in oils, and yesterday, amid much gas, this "work of art" was presented to Mr. Ball. There is just as much art about colouring in a photograph in oils as there is in painting a fence, but yet each of the daily papers spoke of the picture as a "portrait in oils," and a fine specimen of Cape Town art. When our public men and the press show such a barbarous idea of the fine arts as this, is there any wonder that the majority of our artists are living in hash houses, and wearing patches on the seats of their trousers! Truly, such a state of things in the leading city of South Africa is deplorable.
In 1932, Leo Francois (qv.), writing broadly of pre-1900 attempts to promote art in South Africa, observed that much was left to "talented amateurs", whose efforts nevertheless formed the basis of what he called "the very considerable advance in art which became most noticeable after the South African War." This "advance" corresponds with the revival of SASA in 1902, and the founding of the NSA in Durban in 1905. Francois also held that the "the influence of the 'mad ineties', which marked a remarkable epoch in British art and letters, made itself felt in the Dominions, and as a result several Art Societies sprang into being."
By this time, the idea of art as a leisurely "accomplishment" for gentlemen and ladies was an established phenomenon, born of the development of watercolour painting in the 18th and 19th centuries. The portability of the medium meant that its use did not require a professional studio, and it was ideal for documentary purposes when travelling. Its accessibility stimulated the emergence of amateur enthusiasts of varying talent who sought membership of various art societies. With the founding of the SADC in 1889, this tradition came to South Africa, and many amateurs and professionals rubbed shoulders. The tradition of the "documentary" watercolour by the itinerant artist, so much a feature of the 19th-century, became well entrenched in South Africa and persisted in the work of such SASA members as Elizabeth Drake (qv.), Constance Greaves (qv.) and Mabel Withers (qv.), whose intrepid travels in pursuit of subjects were followed with fascination by the public. Although now regarded as stylistically conservative, the work of SASA members was much ahead that of the rest of South Africa. Early controversy erupted within SASA itself in about 1904-5 with Roworth's and Smithard's (qv.) use of "impressionist" techniques, and they were nearly ousted from membership. Resentments simmered, for in 1906 it was reported that "the Impressionist opposition is making little or no headway, and Mr Roworth and Mr Smithard have been able to convince few if any that a dab of sepia paint is really a patient Malay gathering firewood ..." Their style of painting showed a marked sophistication over the other provincial societies. In Natal their work, and that of other SASA members, was considered untidy and reckless in technique:
In Cape town, as the oldest urban community in South Africa, art has numerous votaries, and has even developed a style of painting which, while effective enough, when used by the thoroughly well trained artist, is a dangerous school for the beginner to follow ... in which sketchiness is mistaken for breadth. It requires the hand of a master to get fruitful effects and detail as well by a few touches, and no attempts at brilliant colour schemes can ever compensate for careless drawing, or make a picture of a mere outline."
Reservations were also expressed about the tendency of SASA members, such as Hugo Naude (qv.) or Charles Peers ((jr.)(No. 81) to paint on too intimate a scale: "We have had to comment at times on the large number of "postcard" pictures ... Attempts at portraying the Drakensberg or Table Mountain on a bit of canvas or a board about 3 ins. by 4 ins. was absurd, and was not art in any shape or form ... Big subjects, as a rule, demand big canvases." The Society has had various categories of membership over the years, ranging from Fellowships to student or even junior memberships. While the distinction between "amateur" and "professional" is often an indeterminate one, the presence of large numbers of amateurs within the ranks of SASA became more evident as it began to lose many of its professional members to the New Group after 1938 and, after 1945, to the South African Association of Arts. Certain critics began to savage SASA exhibitions on this account. In 1944, SASA member Bertram Dumbleton (qv.), a noted professional, counter-attacked the local art critic "RH.W." in a letter to the Cape Times:
Whenever the South African Society of Artists stages an exhibition it is held up to ridicule by our local art reporters, who by courtesy are called critics ... The Society of Artists tries to extend a friendly hand to a number of interested amateurs who would otherwise be isolated from artistic intercourse which is why many bad pictures are hung in the exhibition ... I would invite these self-appointed critics to come forward either in singly or in a body, covey or flock to show the Society of Artists just how pictures ought to be painted.
To which "P.H.W." replied:
One of the first functions of a critic is to give honest opinions, and all the Dumbktons in the Union will not make me condone the practice of hanging on the walls of a public gallery the vapidities of the amateur and the immaturities of the student as representative of contemporary art in South Africa.
Although a professional of conservative bent, Doubleton was sensitive to the unique role played by the Society in catering for the needs of both amateurs and professionals. Although he presents an emotional argument, his sincerity echoes that of F.B. Ross (qv.) an early Secretary of SASA, who wrote in 1905 that "the SA Society of Artists are ever only too happy to extend a brotherly hand to any disciple of art... and that all that is required of each member is that he must possess some skill in his selected branch of art, and that he must be earnest in his pursuit thereof ..." As we celebrate this Society's centenary, we recall not only its early efforts in "advancing" the cause of art in the Old South Africa, but that the "friendly" and "brotherly" hand referred to by its founders is still relevant to the New.