Nick van der Leek reflects on how Robert Gwelo Goodman had to change to matter as an artist…
Words: Nick van der Leek, @HiRezLife
To find the Englishman who came to Africa, changed his name and eventually became the master of sunshine, we have to move in the way he did. We must get away from steering wheels and controls, and allow ourselves to be transported. We’re not taking the train on a whim.
Goodman (1871-1939) was the son of a British Railways worker, and in 1888 the 17-year-old Goodman became a railways clerk, initially in Paarl, later in Newlands.
Our Hogwarts Express hides in plain sight. It’s called the Blue Train and I’m on it right now, leaving Cape Town harbour and the present far behind. As I begin my journey north, the Blue Train rata-tatting over curling sun-kissed tracks, the dining cabin swaying slightly, a teacup tilting on its saucer, I look at the name on my notepad. Robert. Gwelo. Goodman. Why Gwelo?
I go through my notes. As the 19th century drew to a close, Goodman (not yet Gwelo) returned to Europe, spent time in Paris and then many more years in London and Chelsea. But that’s not all. Grania Ogilvie’s comprehensive Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors provides this summary of Goodman’s movements over a 35-year period:
1886-94 lived in Cape Town
1894-97 in France
1897-1915 lived in England [visiting South Africa frequently]
1903 and 1905 India
1907 travelled to Italy, Spain, Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District
1910 visited Venice
1915 returned to South Africa
1916 visited Namibia, 1917 spent six months in Johannesburg painting mine dumps
1918-19 visited the Drakensberg and Durban
What is the point of visiting so many places? In 1900, while ensconced in England, Lord Roberts permitted Goodman to travel back to South Africa to sketch the battlefields of the Anglo-Boer War. That’s the equivalent of the modern-day embedded journalist, putting himself in harm’s way. It’s bold, it’s dangerous, it’s a sure-fire route to adventure but you know, as Maya Angelou once put it, ‘Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest’.
We have to plunge ourselves again and again into the unknown, one brave act followed by another, in order to build a life of real substance. Is this train like that, a magical rail across the South African countryside? Or am I just sitting in comfort, coasting along on someone else’s dream?
At Worcester I get out and stand on the platform. The train is already hot and brutal, fuming. How do we go from seeing the familiar landscape we know as South Africans, to seeing it as visitors, and becoming the potential heroes of our countryside? And why Robert Gwelo Goodman?
In 1901, when Robert Goodman was 30 years old and exhibiting Boer War artworks at Grafton Galleries in England and the Cape Town Technical Institute, he lamented to Cape Town art instructor J S Morland about the difficulty he was having in making a name for himself on the London art scene. Goodman – the name – just wasn’t good enough. Morland thought Robert needed something more distinctive, more African.
The central, then-Rhodesian town of Gwelo (founded in 1895, the same year Goodman began his art career, and now called Gweru) somehow made sense. The town named after the Kalanga word kwelu (pheasant) exports flowers, chromite and boasts Zimbabwe’s largest railway marshalling yard. It’s a town founded on trade, enterprise and transport.
As my train slips further into the vastness of the Karoo, I contemplate the loss of a countryside and the loss of ourselves. What is the essence of a land, what is the essence of a man? Memories. Moments.
On one side of the window: caviar, croissants, scones, chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea. On the other side: the infinite Karoo. Rinsed skies and pale pastels washing by the window. Are past and present fused into the unquiet, unfolding moment of creation? If so, can we not be part of our own creation?
I alight from the train at Matjiesfontein. My head swims with champagne and my blood bursts with the sugary rush of vetkoek. In my delirium, with the bright Lord Milner Hotel looming against the sun, I want to know about Goodman’s birthplace. Taplow. Why does that name ring a bell?
It’s situated – it turns out – one railway stop before Maidenhead, travelling from London. I lived in Maidenhead for a year, and Taplow was just eight minutes’ drive away. Taplow has a pit 83 million years old with evidence of oyster shells and sea-slug fossils. The pit is a sign that the sea once drowned most of Buckinghamshire. Taplow meanwhile is named after a 6th century king buried in the area under a great mound, Viking style.
Now the train has stopped in the middle of nowhere. The steely murmur of the track speaks of another approaching train. The engine, as it passes, is like a living thing, hissing, clattering. Goodman’s England is like this train too: powerful, loud, vulgar and sophisticated. I wonder, was Goodman too?
In the foreword to his biography Gwelo Goodman, South African Artist by Joyce Newton Thompson he’s described as a cocky, conceited, rude little man but the same source calls him an ‘attractive, stimulating, vital man’. I glance out the window for inspiration. The Karoo, like Goodman’s birthplace, was once the bottom of the sea. How the world has changed. How the world can change. And how Goodman had to change to matter as an artist.
Goodman needed many years to appreciate the South African light for what it is. An Englishman, like my great-grandfather (Dutch artist Tinus de Jongh), will visit these shores and for many years still see his own country in the new country.
He will see a pale sky and pale sunlight, and dark copses, and dreary lakes. It takes courage to let go of your schooling and experience, and step into the real world, to see what is really there and not what you are taught to see. Not one act of courage, but many, until finally, one fine day:
‘In his sun-splashed buildings he has [given] us the splendour of our rugged mountains and the torrid brilliance of our blazing sun’. EF Watermeyer, who wrote a foreword in Gwelo Goodman’s biography. Or, as Bilbo the Hobbit put it, ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door… if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’– J R R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.
When I awake I’m in Kimberley, and on a whim I get off there. After a restless night too close to the train station, listening to the freights of time shunting back and forth, I rise into a pale golden morning. What hope is there of finding Goodman here? From the train station to the William Humphreys Art Gallery it’s a chilly ten minute walk.
As I arrive, the gallery opens and Goodman is there, resplendent in roses. On one occasion, Goodman told a reporter in Johannesburg, ‘I paint roses, I was going to say as well as any man alive, but probably better. Fantin-Latour is the only rival I have ever had as a rose-painter’.
Goodman’s roses are undoubtedly well done but, as art historian Esmé Berman puts it, the ‘composition [of] almost all… his flower-pieces is unimaginative and academic’. Thankfully his landscapes are anything but. And now I’d like to see one. I’m told there’s another gallery two hours’ drive from here that has a spectacular Gwelo Goodman. On a 180km-long, flat road, I contemplate Goodman’s roses. England had its War of the Roses, and we had our wars, including with England. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in British history and cost England dearly – £22 billion adjusted for inflation.
Goodman may not have known about other contemporary painters of roses (Van Gogh and Georgia O’ Keeffe) and overestimated his own skill at blooms, but he eventually became a master of the South African sun. The tawny veld whispering beside my window has not forgotten the red coats Goodman painted or the press of crumbling gravestones. Salt pans and anthills outside my window are bleached by an angry sun in a blinding blue bowl.
Boonzaier escaped the problem of the South African sun by painting sunless scenes. What did Gwelo do? It turns out Gwelo was more courageous – like a train, hot and brutal, blustering. It took time but Goodman eventually ‘intensified his palette’ as Berman puts it. He wove vibrant orange and yellow highlights into mauve middle tones and dark, earthy shadows. Light and dark, blood and earth. I wonder, is everything a contradiction, and does truth lie in these contradictions?
It’s a bright, warm, dreamy winter’s day in Bloemfontein as I take the steps inside the lovely Oliewenhuis Art Museum. On the first floor is a Goodman, perhaps the largest painting in the entire gallery, sporting the most lavish frame. Behind the glass, and my own reflection in it, is a dark scene.
A Scottish woodland. What’s it doing here? A Highland scene covered in snow and caught in shadow, except for a bright ribbon of ice glowing in sunlight. I step back and glance at an enormous Pierneef to my left. It’s nowhere near as colossal, or as dark or bright as this.
In the basement is an even brighter work by Goodman called The Rock. It is so bright the archivist admits there is some controversy about the work – is it the original or has it been retouched? Because the white sun leaps off the canvas as though applied a few hours ago rather than before my father was born.
Joyce Newton-Thompson would have appreciated the controversy over The Rock, and perhaps Goodman would too. Before departing the City of Roses, I have an unexpected encounter with a large spider at a front door. According to Wikipedia, so did another former resident of Bloemfontein, JRR Tokien: ‘As a child, he was bitten by a large baboon spider in the garden, an event some think later echoed in his stories…’
As the deep blue of the Drakensberg builds in the bright distance, I’m aware of a trade, born in sickness between this country and that. Tolkien’s father died of rheumatic fever, Goodman came to South Africa in 1911 to recover from it. England gave us Goodman, and Goodman gave to England and a worldwide audience a more acute sense of the South African palette, something Esmé Berman refers to as Goodman’s ‘flickering tapestry’. And South Africa gave Tolkien back to England, prompting him to write about the loss of the countryside and country folk:
‘It was a kind of lost paradise… There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go – and it did…’
Tolkien lived right beside one of only two working mills in England. Goodman lived inside beautiful Cape Dutch homesteads, and restored them from within and without. As he grew older, his interest in architecture and gardens grew, until finally, when the world wound down to war, Goodman settled on flower studies.
Like Tolkien, there was something impish about the man who grew up on and around trains. Gwelo mastered pastels first; this is where his oil paintings find their maturity. He was a man who played golf, fished for trout; he was a big-game hunter who controversially shot an elephant. The railway man had come a long way, hadn’t he?
Johans Borman’s online biography credits Goodman’s ‘considerable impact on South African art… as well as encouraging the young Gregoire Boonzaier… Newton Thompson describes his…dramatic sense of colour, its self-confidence; the profound affection it shows for the beauty of our own country…[Gwelo] remained steadfast to certain eternal verities in art, believing in the values of hard work and individualism over the emerging modernist ideas.’ And to paraphrase Maya Angelou, without honesty we cannot have decent art.
Gwelo mastered that most difficult of subjects, the South African sun. He built and improved houses and brought the vibrancy of the outdoors and the garden to put inside them. It was more than just capturing beauty, it was finding home away from home.