Tempest in the Tatham

2010-04-14 00:00

AN art museum exists to give you as full a picture as possible of a people’s common history — both good and bad. That’s the view of Tatham Art Gallery ­director, Brendan Bell, whose first book on the gallery’s permanent collection, Storm in the Wheatfield (The Tatham Art Gallery Collection 1903 to 1974), will be launched on April 23.

The intriguing title refers to what Bell calls the “storm in a teacup in the local press” in 1967 over the purchase of Bertha Everard’s painting, Wheatfields with Blue Sky. At the time, the deputy mayor referred to it as “chocolate drippings”. For Bell, the controversy surrounding the painting exemplifies attempted interference by councillors in acquisitions for the gallery.

“In writing the book, we were very aware that the story of the growth of the collection hadn’t been told in a public forum — and I feel strongly that if people have information they are better able to make judgments,” Bell said. “We had quite a lot of problems in the nineties with people, councillors among others, asking why certain works were being acquired for the collection. Were they being bought on aesthetic merit or because they were politically correct? It was a huge controversy.”

Bell, who has been in charge of the ­gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street since 1992, also believes very strongly that ­every artwork — whether you like it or not, whether or not you think it’s a good piece aesthetically, whether it’s modern or not — tells a story.

“Every picture tells us something about who owned it previously, it tells us something generally about taste — the taste of the public at a particular time — and it tells us what artists were around in Pietermaritzburg and in KwaZulu-Natal, so you start building up a picture that is greater than the work itself.

“And that picture, the more general picture, becomes part of our collective history. You can get all PC about colonialism, insisting on a concentration of work by black artists of KwaZulu-Natal, but I think it’s better if you have a collection of artworks in an institution that tells a very much broader picture.

“More importantly, the way this collection has grown indicates very clearly that it has been a process which respects the core collection but also extends beyond it.”

Bell’s book is the first volume of his comprehensive history of the gallery, which opened in 1903, after Ada Tatham initiated a drive for the citizens of Pietermaritzburg to buy and donate artworks to the city council. Using her profile and influence, as the wife of the Natal judge president, and being active in various social committees, she managed to convince the council of the value of having such a cultural establishment.

Tatham was then asked to go to Britain to select and acquire artworks to form part of the gallery’s collection. The bulk of these works were based on Victorian taste and were exhibited in three rooms at the city hall — the council chambers, the Supper Room, and Room II.

That early collection was later expanded thanks to a generous gift of over 400 artworks and objets d’art from Colonel Robert Harvey Whitwell between 1923 and 1926. These works will be on show in the Lorna Ferguson Room and adjoining spaces, to coincide with the launch of Bell’s book.

In 1963, the exhibition rooms at the city hall were officially renamed the Tatham Art Gallery and the collection was reviewed and restructured, with a number of artworks being sold at the suggestion of a Mrs Lorimer, then director of the King George Gallery in Port Elizabeth.

Asked what he thought of the sale of more than 100 works from the collection, he said: “I think it was done with the best intentions in mind and it was undertaken by a knowledgeable and professional little committee.

“But it was also done at a time when Victorian and Edwardian paintings were not held in very high esteem at all. The people who undertook the selection of works were very much from what I would call the modernist tradition. They also selected quite a few works by South African artists [for sale], that I’ve been trying to get back or get works by similar artists in the collection, to reflect what was happening in the art world at various times of the gallery’s existence.”

Bell added: “What I am sad about is that some important pieces brought in by Mrs Tatham, including Anno Domini 1917 by J. C. Dollman, have been lost. I don’t have any pictures of that painting, which depicts Christ in the snowy fields of Flanders. It was very powerful for her and others who lived here and who put money towards buying it because they had lost family members in the South African War and in World War 1. It had huge emotional value and I think taking it out of the collection undermined that aspect of people’s lives and history. I have no idea where it went.”

To accompany Bell’s book, the gallery will be staging an exhibition in the first- floor galleries, covering the period 1903 to 1974.

“What we will see in the exhibition when we get to 1963 is a list of all the works that were sold. There are very few that have images as no photos were taken,” Bell said. “I argue in the book that you don’t get rid of artworks in a collection. It’s often suggested that you get rid of works, but you lose something every time you do that. You lose something of the bigger picture. We’re hoping that this gap in the collection will alert people to the danger of taking stuff out of the collection.

“An art museum is there to give you as full a picture of our common history as possible — both good and bad. My book is trying to place on record the importance of the collection in our history and the individuals who played a major role in it.”

The Tatham Art Gallery officially moved to its current home in 1990, and today you will see works by Victorian artists hanging side by side with modernist pieces and works by African artists.

“I suppose there are purists who would cock a snoot at that because they would prefer to see things hung chronologically, but what we are trying to do is set up commentary between the works — that is what is the artist’s intention, subject matter, etc?” Bell says. “For those who are not very knowledgeable, modernism can be very confusing and frightening, whereas Victorian story paintings give very obvious clues which help the viewer engage with the work.”

• Storm in a Wheatfield (The Tatham Art Gallery Collection 1903 to 1974) will be launched at the Tatham Art Gallery at 6 pm on April 23. If you would like to attend you need to RSVP to Bryony Clark at 033 392 2825 or e-mail bryony.clark@msunduzi.gov.za as soon as possible as capacity is limited to 150 guests.

• Copies of the book, which is priced at R495 (hardcover) and R375 (soft cover) can be purchased from the ­Tatham shop.

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