A gallery in disrepair

2018-10-08 15:32
A sign explaining the reason why some artworks are not displayed in the Tatham Art Gallery.

A sign explaining the reason why some artworks are not displayed in the Tatham Art Gallery. (Ian Carbutt)

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The 144-year-old Tatham Art Gallery building is slowly falling apart, along with the neighbouring 166-year-old Old Presbyterian Church.

The Tatham is one of South Africa’s premier galleries, but its state of disrepair has led to paintings being taken off the walls and put into storage. Its precious collection was started in 1903, and was moved from the City Hall to the current location, the former supreme court, in 1990.

At first glance, the red brick building is a beautiful sight, however, a closer look reveals crumbling and missing bricks and rotting wooden window frames.

A source, who asked not to be named, said the entire building needs to be fully renovated.

“The bricks on the outside of the building are rotting and crumbling, the balconies are terrible. On the inside, paintings have had to be removed due to the damp creeping in. The paintings were placed on screens against the gallery walls. When it rains, water streams down the screens like a water feature,” said the source.

“If the roof had been fixed, there would not have been this knock-on effect. Now it is going to cost double to fix because the screens have been ruined as well. If any rain falls on the art, it will be ruined.

“The last substantial renovations to the building were done in 1990 and the gallery was in a pristine condition, but little has been done since.”

Another gem in the central city precinct, the Old Presbyterian Church, is infested with termites and has been closed to the public for some years.

Ros Devereaux of provincial heritage resources authority Amafa said the gallery occupies the oldest standing government building in Pietermaritzburg, and is a Grade II Provincial Heritage Landmark.

The gallery’s iconic Maritzburg red brick walls are crumbling. Amafa can supply bricks to repair them, but the City must act, it said.

Of the damage to the gallery, Devereaux said: “We have received the building surveyor’s reports but the municipality has not completed the application process that would allow Amafa to issue the permit for the required work.

“Amafa can currently offer several pallets of old Maritzburg red bricks for the repairs to the outside of the building where the bricks have exfoliated.

“Apart from that Amafa cannot assist with the restoration costs. It can, however, put pressure on the municipality to maintain the protected heritage building.”

She added that the City owns a number of important buildings that are suffering from similar neglect to that at the art gallery.

“The City Hall needs attention in places, the Buchanan Street Baths are in urgent need of attention as the neglected areas are a health and safety issue.”

Signs of decay at the Old Presbyterian Church in the Tatham Gallery grounds. It housed the outreach centre, but has been closed for years.

Devereaux said the Tatham building’s significance stems from its colonial past, its architectural value, and its use as the supreme court, “which often determined the fates of the previously oppressed people in this province”.

“In that sense, it is a tangible reminder of the colonial power which oppressed the indigenous people as well as those who were settled here to bolster the colonial power.”

It is also “a major component to the heritage environment” that includes the City Hall and the old Publicity Building, said Devereaux.

She said the root cause of the damp in the gallery is the removal of the timber floors in the storage area and their replacement with a concrete slab when the building was converted in the late 1980s.

“Although every precaution was taken to install various types of damp proofing ... it was not realised at the time that those treatments would fail after their guarantee period of 20 years.

“The building, as well as the fittings and fixtures, will all need treatment before the art can be safely stored in those spaces.

“The collection is regarded internationally as one of the most important art collections and probably the most important collection in the southern hemisphere,” said Devereaux. “If the gallery were to close, this asset would be denied to the people of this province and the country as a whole.”

She added that the church was built in 1852 and the site was granted to the Presbyterian Church on condition that it install a clock tower, as there was no City Hall at the time.

“When the tower was completed it was realised that the weight that falls as the clock ticks would require a taller tower in which to operate and more money had to be raised.

“It was completed in 1874. Once the City Hall clock was installed in 1893, this clock became redundant and it was built into the Greytown Town Hall and then returned to the building in the 1970s.”

She said the extent of the termite infestation has been difficult to ascertain due to the risk of the clock falling.

“There are few engineers and contractors capable or willing to handle such a task. The concern is that the beams supporting the clock will fail, bringing the clock down and creating serious damage to the tower in the process.”


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  tatham art gallery

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