Inspired by nature and colour

2008-11-20 00:00

If John Rushton takes you on a guided tour of his home, it’s neither the interiors that he talks about, nor the views of the attractive garden. It’s the paintings. As he moves from room to room, he mentions the names of well-known South African artists like Gregoire Boonzaier, Tony Strickland, John Littlejohns and Titta Fashiotti. However, many of the paintings are his work, and they wouldn’t be hanging there if it wasn’t for a rugby injury.

Born and brought up in what was then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Rushton attended St David’s in Inanda, Johannesburg, where he “had no time for art and never even went into the art block. I was too busy with sport and studies.” He went on to spend some 20 years farming citrus, sugar and coffee in coastal KwaZulu-Natal, which is where he came to pick up a paint brush for the first time in 1970.

He was recovering from a rugby injury when asked to organise a stand for the Zululand Show. “I decided to use a R1 note as the backdrop, because it featured citrus trees. However, I found I couldn’t draw it so I went to a well-known artist, Diamond Bozas, for help. He had studied at the Royal School of Art in London. He showed me how to draw graphically and asked me to join the art group he ran. That was the start. I painted with his group for several years and he taught me a lot.”

Despite his lack of formal art education, Rushton’s description of his informal education, a background immersed in art and artists had me shaking my head in amazement and envy. His uncle, Clem Langton, was an art dealer who ran what amounted to a form of “artists-in-residence” programme. “He and my aunt, Anne, had a property on the Vaal River where he built studio cottages. He used to invite artists and their partners to come and stay, and, of course, paint. I used to watch them work and listen to their conversations over tea or as they discussed each others’ work. I met many of the foremost South African painters including Boonzaier, Littlejohns, Fashiotti, Strickland, W. H. Coetzer and Errol Boyley, whose career my uncle helped to promote. Littlejohns was quite an influence on me as he used to talk to me as he worked. Fashiotti taught me about not over-painting. I also became familiar with other artists whose works my uncle handled, like Gwelo Goodman, Hugo Naude, J. H. Pierneef and Pieter Wenning.”

As a consequence of this experience, when he did eventually start to paint, Rushton had “an intellectual understanding of art, but no practical competence. I had listened to those painters discussing things like how to handle shadows, distance, sunrises, colour and composition, but I had no experience of putting it into practice. I had an eye for art but had never even thought about trying it myself.” He trained under two artists, starting with Diamond Bozas, who taught him about mixing colours. “Strickland, who had a property in the Drummond area, tutored me from 1974 to 1978. He was a very good teacher and also taught me a lot about colour and about looking at things so that you really see them.”

Just as Rushton began to paint through something other than choice, call it chance, fate, God or what you will, so it was with his first exhibition. In about 1974 he took some paintings to be framed at a gallery in Durban and they offered to host an exhibition for him. It took place in the Elangeni Hotel and was to be the first of many.

The story of how he and his wife, Priscilla, came to find their home in Hilton also contains elements of the supernatural or “otherworldliness”. “The farm that I was involved with on the Tugela River was completely destroyed by a cyclone in 1982 and we lost everything. We continued to live on the farm, but I went into agricultural consulting. Our youngest child was still at school in Pietermaritzburg so in 1996 we decided to move here and I went into property development and consulting, having done a postgraduate course in marketing, economics and property development at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. While looking for a house we came across one in Worldsview. There was a room above the garage, but the agent did not know what it was. When it turned out to be a studio, I knew we had found our home.”

Rushton’s works now hang in places that range from the Oppenheimer Brenthurst Gallery in Johannesburg to galleries and private homes in Europe, England, the United States and New Zealand. He has also carried out several large corporate commissions. He paints in oils from memory, photographs and sketches. His style is Impressionistic, influenced by Paul Cézanne’s work. “He used primary colours to great effect and a light palette with sketchy and moulded brushstrokes. He also had a great love of nature and art. I like bright colours, so love to work in them. I have a passion for poultry and I had fowls as a child, so I often paint them. I have always been an outdoor person so I love painting landscapes, wildlife, cattle, indigenous trees and other things that grow. I like to paint scenes that inspire me, like a game reserve or flowers in Namaqualand.

“Painting is not an emotional experience for me, it’s quite clinical. I derive a huge sense of satisfaction from using colour and creating something, but I don’t have huge emotional highs or lows and I can paint at any time.”

Up until now, he has had to paint in his spare time, but that is set to change as he shifts career gear again and concentrates on property consultancy in order to have more time to paint. About time to paint, Rushton feels regretful: “I am sorry I didn’t take a practical interest in art when I was younger and met all those artists. I could also have been painting instead of playing so much sport.” However, he says with a smile: “I intend to keep painting for as long as possible. After all, Boonzaier was still painting at 93 and died at 97. That’s my intention too.”

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