Landscape painter JH Pierneef (1886-1957) was commissioned by the South African Railways in 1929 to do a series of panels that would hang in the new Johannesburg Station. The building, designed by Gerard Moerdijk and Gordon Leith, was completed in 1932. The brief was non-specific: depict “places of scenic beauty and/or historical interest”.

Over the next three years Pierneef travelled widely in southern Africa, producing hundreds of sketches and watercolours which were later worked up into 32 canvases. These were hung in the concourse of the station, in the hope that railway commuters would want to travel to the landscapes portrayed. Their distinctive qualities – simplification of form, geometrically based composition, and subtle colouration – were to become hallmarks of Pierneef’s mature style.

The canvases were moved from the station to the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1987. In 2002 they were relocated to Graaf-Reinet and housed in the Pierneef Museum. The are currently being exhibited in Stellenbosch at the Rupert Museum.

After a visit to the museum in March 2007, my fascination with the paintings became an obsession with finding the original sites of Pierneef’s paintings. My travels have taken me to some beautiful places, some unchanged, others spoilt by the rude march of progress.

His landscapes, empty of human presence, are now contested and under threat. The splendour of Nature, once seen as evidence of God’s handiwork, now attracts the attentions of Tuscan housing developers or bungee jumpers.

Pierneef provided consoling illusions for a newly suburban class that was losing its links to the land. His work contains many fictions. Within a single image, he often combined different perspectives and different times of day, but one accepts that he was attempting to tell a larger truth about the nirvana that lay before him in the 1930s.

Looking at the landscapes 80 years later, I found Pierneef’s nirvana corroded but there were still many glimpses of the grandeur he depicted.