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An autumn day in the Overberg. I’m off to Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay to draw, but, despite the sunlight, things are hazy and I decide instead to go inland. I take the road up the Hemel en Aarde Valley. We wind gently upwards past fabled wine estates. I have my sketching stuff with me, and of course the company of the intrepid Africanis, ears straight up, watching for baboons and guinea- fowl. At the top of the valley there’s a dirt road with a sign saying Karwyderskraal. I take a left there. I noodle on down the road, eating the dust of urgent Toyota bakkies. Where are they going in such a rush? They have business on those wine estates. Or maybe they’re Karwydering things. I take a right up a pine tree avenue, the De Bos dam down below. I’m seeing a lot of stuff, but its just not composing itself. Out of the car, there’s a chill wind, and I can’t get the car facing the right direction. I close the door on my thumb. I feel badly dressed, cranky, and out of sorts. I need new shoes. The clock is ticking.

Back on the dam wall, I pull up alongside a large SUV, and we peek over the edge. Two men and a woman. Swimmers, one in a wet suit and two soaking in the morning light. Snatches of talk drift up, and there are tales of Iron Men and other endurances. I confess, dear reader, that for a moment, I envy their youth and their strength.


After a while the woman comes up the embankment and she pats Lulu and tells me, by way of explanation, that they are Training. Three people in their productive prime whiling away a Tuesday morning sloshing around the De Bos dam. Training,eh? No wonder the economy’s gone to pot. Straightening my shoulders, I said to her “I am doing Aesthetic Research.” Nah, I didn’t say that. “I’m just knocking around” is what I told her.

We dawdle up the valley until we get to the Teslaarsdal road. At last, the dirt road I’m looking for! A kilometer down the road, I pull up and start a drawing. It is noon now and warming, and I’ve stopped the nonsense of looking for picturesque things to draw. There’s a craggy outcrop to my left, but I’m looking instead at some bland fields and a grey nondescript hill. After a while a car pulls up next to me, and dispenses a man and woman, who thank the driver for the lift. They wander off towards Teslaarsdal with nothing on the horizon. The man in the car next to me struggles for a while to start the engine, and I ignore him steadfastly. Eventually it splutters to life, and away he goes. It’s hot now and I need suntan lotion. I find some in the console of the car. It is cheap green allegedly zinc -based stuff targeted at surfers. Why did I buy it? I apply it first to the back of my neck, then to my arm. My forearm is now bright green and sticky as if dipped in nuclear slime. Yay!


A few kilometres towards Teslaarsdal I see the man and woman trundling along the road. I stop to give them a ride. “Muli bwanji!” I say as they get into the car. The Malawian greeting is met with great surprise and mirth. Perhaps its just my bad pronounciation. I drop them at a farm gate further on down the road. Eventually I get to the metropolis of Teslaarsdal. Nothing more, perhaps, than a gradual expansion of smallholdings and two new (and ugly) facebrick shops. It merits another visit but for now I have one more drawing to do, so we get back onto the dirt, trustfully following signposts that give no indication of distance.

I go on through the agricultural wasteland. It is difficult to think of it as anything else. Rather like the world evoked by Andrew Wyeth’s great painting ” Christina’s world,” except more so.


This is the world us bread -eaters have made. Scrubland – once the home of many small mammals and the raptors that lived off them –  makes way for wheat; our carb-craving knows no end. Outside of the odd sheep, there really is very little life here, although farmers are encouraging the blue cranes endemic to the area. And I saw a heron. And five egrets.

Its getting on, shadows are lengthening and the light yellowing. Despite these morbid thoughts, it looks beautiful. I stop the car on a hill and do my last drawing of the day, overlooking a cluster of bluegums and gentle hills marked through with giant scribbles and scrawls. And then its back around the Kleinrivier mountains to the suburban seaside.



In country music there is always someone walking the line, as my friend Richard Smith observed. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it and so of course did Johnny Cash. The line your blogger is walking right now runs from his studio straight through to September 8th, the date of his first Cape Town exhibition. The travels with Pierneef are now mainly in the confines of the studio as the brush meanders back and forth covering its tracks and time skids away. Small sketches proliferate in an attempt to pin down ideas for paintings. They help to quell the rising tide of panic.
 Note for a Hermanus site painting

I’m doing a biggish oil of the Hermanus site – it consists of seven small images. After three days I had three small images in place. Like a happy construction manager I was even figuring how many more hours it would be before the painting was done. But by day four, things suddenly started to look wrong. The canvas was cluttered and kind of formulaic in its intention. The thing that Hemingway called the “crap detector” was starting to ring, and I had to press  the Delete button. Day one, two and three’s efforts were painted over.  Day four’s too. It wasn’t their fault. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’m giving one of them a second life:

 the virtual fishing party

The saying “to walk the line” originates in the American Midwest. In the days of railway construction, parched and hungry construction workers would walk the line for miles, checking that all the beams were in place. Ahem. Your crap detector should be warming up now. I have no idea where it comes from. But it’s a good way of describing the need to make aesthetic or other judgement calls. And I’ll let you know how the big one turns out…

looking for the line...

Pierneef’s depopulated harbour in the 1920s:


Gutting those fish.


A regular hive of activity. OK. So maybe he did the drawing on a Sunday morning when everyone was in church. Today the action is above the harbour, the Euro and $ the catch. (note trained tracker dogs sniffing for Euro’s)


Op soek na die Euro


The harbour from above: Pierneef took his view sitting  near the milkwood on the right. The rocky overhang below that is also a great place to draw from. My friend Harry Kalmer didn’t like the soporific watercolours I did down there – he said I needed to get back to Joburg!


overlooking the harbour


Pierneef may have chosen the old harbour site to please his patron, but by 1930, Hermanus was already a famous fishing paradise. This was largely due to the exploits of one Bill Selkirk, who, after a five and half hour battle from the rocks at Gearing’s Point, landed a 987kg shark:


Selkirk and shark


The London Illustrated News devoted a double page spread to this in 1928. The De Wets Huis Photo Museum has many other pics of fishermen and their “trophies”. But by today’s standards these examples of manly virtue may look like accomplices to a crime: We no longer subscribe to the idea of killing animals as “sport.” And there are hardly any fish to be had.


Giant Ray


Giant Ray and Boy . Watercolour 22 x 17cm .2009

Pierneef started work on the Station Panels in 1929. The General Manager of the SA Railways and Harbours was Sir William Hoy. For years he spent his annual vacation at the Marine Hotel in Hermanus, where he took the good air and fished.


Fishing with Sir and Lady Hoy


The Old Harbour was under the jurisdiction of the SAR&H, and this could explain why Pierneef chose to include it as one of the Panels. Sir William may have enjoyed the artistic rendering of  his retirement town. (Did JHP stay with him when he was in Hermanus? Did they share a bottle of port?) But he may not have relished the prospect of more tourists: He vetoed a railway line from Caledon to Hermanus. The station had already been built in 1912.


The station that never saw a train


Not Valentines day, but Nineteenth Century Romanticism. The Romantic painters responded to the industrial age by looking for the sublime in Nature, a quest that was both aesthetic and spiritual. And even well into the C19th, when the Impressionists were drenching themselves in sunlight, the gloomy Northern Romantic tradition continued. (It’s been argued that Pierneef belongs to this current in European painting.)

I chose to show the harbour buildings overwhelmed by the magnitude of an Atlantic storm: A very Romantic idea.


Old Harbour, Hermanus.


Oil on canvas.60cm x 170cm.2009

Pierneef’s woodcut of the Hermanus old harbour. His graphic output – woodcuts and linocuts – was huge, and all of it of very high quality.


old harbour, woodcut. c1931


See my post Down South (below) for a look at his painting of the same. It still looks like this – except for the boats which were washed away in a storm in 2008. And even though the camera tells us the buildings are much smaller, this is far more ‘realistic’. Perhaps it reinforces what we choose to remember? Or reassures us that we are imposing ourselves on Nature?

Hermanus – my home town for the last two years – is the southernmost site.

Two things strike me about about this panel: He made the buildings look a lot larger than they are, and the total absence of the human figure. In those days the harbour was a hive of fishing activity. The photographic museum nearby has great pics from those days of trophy fishermen alongside their monsters from the deep. Now, sadly, you’d be hard pressed to find fish in Walker Bay. Except of course for whales. Which aren’t supposed to be fish….




Cape summer hues:  Those what-colour-is-that grey greens of the Cape mountains in summer. And the ubiquitous mauve. Pierneef got those mountains in the background dead right.

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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