Mary Agnes Stainbank was born in 1899 on the farm Coedmore in Bellair, Durban. She was educated at St. Anne's DSG at Hilton.
Stainbank was an artist way ahead of her time. Though credited with introducing a modern school of sculpture to South Africa during her early career, she was often criticized for her use of avant-garde images. As a woman artist, she experienced the gender discrimination. In spite of such difficulties, she went on to produce a body of work that is timeless and still relevant today. Largely neglected during her lifetime, she was ‘rediscovered’ by the sculptor, Andries Botha, in the early 1980s. Botha organized a national touring exhibition of her work. She received the acclaim due to her as a foremost South African sculptor.
During her career, Stainbank produced many portraits of the people who lived on the estate alongside architectural commissions that she received. These include decorations on buildings, in Durban, such as the Children’s Hospital at Addington Beach and the Government Offices in the CBD. From 1916 – 1921 Mary Stainbank trained at the Durban School of Art under the renowned British ceramicist, John Adams, who recognized her remarkable talent for portrait modelling and design. He encouraged her to choose sculpture as a career. In 1922, she enrolled at the Royal College of Art, London, under its principal, William Rothenstein (1872-1945) and obtained her diploma in 1925. She also attended a school of engineering in London to study bronze foundry work. During this period, she saw sculptures by cubists and contemporary British artists whose styles she brought back to Natal in 1926.
When she returned, Stainbank established a sculpture studio – Ezaya - on the Coedmore estate where, between 1926 and 1940, she produced her finest work. Many of her freestanding sculptures were shown during the 1930s at exhibitions organized by the Natal Society of Artists.
Her choice of African subject matter and her use of sharp, angular forms and distortion of limbs to depict her subjects shocked the largely conservative viewers of the time, who were used to the romantic-realist style of South African artists. As a result, her sculptures did not appeal to the buying public of the day.
During the Second World War, Stainbank worked in a military drawing office. After war service, she was appointed Head of the Sculpture Department at the Durban School of Art, where she lectured until her retirement in 1957.
Though her work did not sell, she continued to create sculptures, which were housed in her studio at Coedmore. In the 1980s, a large body of these works went on display at the Old Parliament Buildings in Pietermartzburg. This collection was subsequently transferred to the Voortrekker/Msunduzi Museum. With the restructuring of that museum, the work was returned to the Stainbank family.
The Stainbank collection is generally regarded as the largest body of work by a single artist in South Africa to have remained intact. As such, it is a priceless heritage, which deserves to be on permanent exhibition, open to the public. The future Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery will fulfil this purpose. It is to be established at Coedmore, the original Stainbank family estate, where the family settled in the 1880s.
The collection will be displayed in a building that was once a cowshed on the family farm, Ndaba Nkulu. This is where Mary Stainbank’s original studio was situated and which will be transformed into the Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery. The gallery is to form the focal point of the Ndaba Nkulu Culture and Heritage Hub.
The Hub includes the Wilderness Leadership School housed in the same building as the proposed gallery, as well as two other important components. These are the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve, a 252 hectare reserve, which was used by King Shaka’s riding parties on their way to Pondoland, and the Coedmore Castle Museum, which is the original Stainbank home and which has been left fully furnished with the family’s own possessions.
Mary Agnes Stainbank died in 1996 in Durban.