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City Hall en passant

City Hall en passant

And so with Pierneef  to the Eastern Cape, to the mysterious world of East London. I tell people I’m having a show there and they softly mouth the words “East London” in an “ag shame” way, and the conversation ends. They don’t know what to say: I might as well be showing in outer space. How desperate, to be scrabbling about where nothing ever happens! True, East London does feel like a town past its glory days. The lovely colonial and deco buildings of Oxford street have taken a knock, but it’s the transforming –  the sense of the frontier –  that makes the Buffalo City so interesting.

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The gallery was built in 1905 , and bought in 1907 by the prosperous Bryant family. The colonial English went forth and made replicas of their world. They named their suburbs and streets Berea, St Andrews and St Marks, and they came to stay with all the confidence of a conquering race. In this mini London, the well-to-do copied and even outdid the standards of the metropolis. From the ceilings to the parquet floors and art nouveau door handles no expense was spared. The far sighted matriarch bequethed it all to the city and, after recent restoration, the house looks grand again. In the garden, the coach house doubles as coffee shop and extra gallery, and between venues they have up to twenty shows a year.

There’s a rare portrait of Wordsworth here, much coveted by the Wordsworth Trust. Here’s the wandering poet of the lonely cloud, looking somewhat homesick. Or perhaps alarmed at the sudden appearance of all those threatening Pierneefian cumulonimbus things.

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With the exhibition formalities done, I took to sightseeing with my old china Mr Donnelly. Down at the beachfront we met some Zimbabwean craftsfolk. Sales, they told me, were fair to middling. They too were a long way from home. We took the road down the coast, the Indian ocean on our left and dense euphorbia -dotted hills to our right. We stopped at the mouth of the Great Fish river, that contested line between Xhosa and Settler worlds. Nothing really to mark its importance, just a couple of fishermen trying their luck off the beach. Okes with surnames like Bowker, Pringle or Emslie, no doubt. We had a toasted chicken mayo sarmie at the Great Fish Diner, bought a Cob from a man next to the road, and headed home.

Frontier ahoy!

Frontier ahoy!

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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