Recording and interpreting the paintings of the San

2009-02-18 00:00

GEORGE Stow was one of those 19th-century figures who came to this country — or to other parts of the then British Empire — and was fascinated by what he found. He was an amateur in the best sense of the word. He started out to be a doctor, but ended up as a geologist, and it was while he was investigating the geology of South Africa that he became fascinated by the cave and rock paintings that he found at various locations.

He went to remote shelters and caves, and traced and recorded what he found there. Pippa Skotnes has located 143 of his final, worked-up paintings — 133 of them are in the Iziko Museum in Cape Town — as well as notebooks and sketches, and they are reproduced in this very handsome book, which also contains some of Stow’s own writing.

Stow is not an uncontroversial figure — he has been accused of forgery and of inventing his own paintings. And there is no doubt that his images are interpretations rather than true copies, although it can be argued — and is by Skotnes — that any copy, even one made by a camera, is an interpretation, giving a view of a painting from the standpoint of the person holding the camera. It cannot give the totality of the shelter, the relation to other paintings and to natural formations.

But whatever your attitude to Stow, and to the art of the San people, this is a beautiful book and a record of one man’s interaction with the San. Stow believed that they, as the country’s original inhabitants, had a right to the land. Not a popular view in his time.

Margaret von Klemperer

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