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Anne (Helen) Petrie
Born to a privileged Kensington, Johannesburg family of Scottish descent, (Helen) Anne Petrie and her elder brother appeared set to growing up into a very promising life ahead.
Apart from their main home in Johannesburg, her parents kept their rather comfortable Summer House in Fish Hook (The Hamptons equivalent in the USA) and were socialites of the day (the family had made a fortune out of gold and diamonds mining), regular guests at Admiralty House when in the Cape, or attending luncheons with Count Labia. Simon’s town, the neighboring village was the Naval Headquarters for the British Navy and at that time South Africa was a jewel colony of The British Empire.
In 1938 a relative, who noted the great potential Anne had shown already at a tender age of 5, cut out an article from the Huisgenoot, a local magazine, dated August 18, entitled” Hoekom ek skilder” (”Why I Paint”) by the then renowned artist Maggie Loubser, on a particularly hot summer’s day while on holiday from Boarding School. This article was translated from Afrikaans into English for Anne by her multilingual nanny. A diary entry records Anne was truly mesmerised at the contents, and thus her eventual admiration for Maggie and passion to paint was unknowingly set.
Anne had a privileged education and completed High School with excellent results, merits and awards; and went on to study further.
During this tertiary period, Anne made 2 trips to Europe touring the leading galleries. She was so eager to learn about art, that at the end of her visits she had taken down some 2,300 pages of handwritten notes. Florence was her favorite city, then Rome, she noted. Returning to South Africa, she began painting her first oils, and with intuition soon began to lay the foundation of what was to mature into her own, distinctive style.
Anne felt that at the time, the taste of small art-public was extremely backward and that there were too few discerning collectors and buyers, particularly in South Africa which was at that point still a British colony.
In 1954 she spent a short period of time sitting in on lectures at the Kunstakedemie van Mechelen, Sint Niklaas and Antwerp, where she met artist Jan Vermeiren who assisted her in mastering her least favorite mediums: acrylic and pastels.
During her many foreign (mainly European) travels, especially during the early years of her life, after finishing school, many important people of the day sat for portraits for which she was well paid. She largely used those funds for further visits to galleries and the odd art-class at the Byam Shaw Goldsmith’s School of Art in London and under Sickert’s (Royal Academy School) own school in Camden Town. Here she struck up a friendship with Cecil Higgs.
At the same time Anne met Mary (May) Ellen Hillhouse, who like Anne had Scottish heritage (and acquaintance to her parents). Together they consulted on what they both declared was “soul-destroying commercial work” also resulting in Anne becoming (like May) an illustrator for various local and foreign companies, excelling in her graphic design for pottery, pattern design for Garlicks and Greatermans and Butterick Dress patterns, to name just a few of the then very popular high-street brands.
At the same time she made (thanks to her father’s intervention) occasional visits to the “Platteland” farm of Maggie Loubser’s father in t Klipheuwel, near Malmesbury. Anne spent many hours brooding over the vision Maggie had acquired during her trip to London, so just like Maggie, Anne spent time in Germany where she experienced the works of Marc and Nolde. The bud of interest, observing and consulting had slowly germinated and soon blossomed, quite spectacularly.
In 1955 upon meeting Marjorie Wallace and husband Jan Rabie, they ended up in a heated debate on politics and thus was cemented her lifelong interest in Humanitarian causes in South Africa. Anne could be very opinionated and outspoken. In 1960 Anne was infuriated by the countrywide protests, demonstrations and strikes against the so-called Pass Laws and Police brutality in response to the anti-Pass Laws campaign (Apartheid period) that she wished to return to Scotland, her ancestral home indefinitely. This phase eventually passed.
South African Union
In 1961, Anne spent a few weeks in private tuition with Gillian Ayres at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham and again at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. In Anne’s few surviving works of that period, one can clearly note that she did not look to the raw Expressionism of the New York School but to the school of Paris with its painterly cuisine and basic figuration. A year later, Anne wrote to Gillian indicating that in her opinion there was still a continent left to explore in the direction of colour when it came to painting and that “although proportion and balance are essential aspects to remember, both artist and viewer have to experience it”. For Anne it appeared that in general amongst her British contemporaries the size of their canvas was increasing, the paint was fattening and forms were becoming more and more abstract. One often notices however in Anne’s work of this period, disciplined, serene, contemplative work in hard-edge idioms. Her artistic experimentation work is very much concerned with balance, harmony, tension, pleasure, movement, beauty and mental fragility.
In 1965 at Stellenbosch University, while attending a lesson on graphic design at the department of Creative Art, she briefly met Jogen Bergen and took hand-written notes where she described him in her diary as a man with “limited talents”.
In 1967 Mr. Albert Wert (then curator of the Pretoria Art Museum) together with Matthys Bokhorst (director of the South African National Gallery) inquired as to whether Anne would be willing to participate in the SANLAM Art Collection Exhibition, which at that point contained in excess of 166 works of art. She declined to participate as the collection “did not possess that degree of inner unity it would have had if the collection had from the beginning been built up for the purpose of exhibition”. She further suspected that the main intention of the SANLAM Collection was to build up a mere collection of attractive South African paintings and sketches to be left hanging in the offices of directors and staff alike. The public would only have access to subsequent prints to feature on SANLAM’S calendars. Further diary entries indicate that she also declined an offer from Rembrandt Van Rijn Art Foundation to purchase her works privately. Already at this stage, her strong opinions, insecurities, inability to interact with strangers, deep-rooted distrust of people in general and her ever more frequent bipolar phases were quite obvious.
Anne did however exhibit in South Africa twice in 1967, the most important exhibition being from October 30 till November 11 at the South African Association of Artists Annual Exhibition at 63 Burg Street, Cape Town. A leading art critic of the day, Johan van Rooyen stated her 3 works entitled respectively Indian Girl, Bantu Boy and Late Afternoon, “should be hailed as proving the standard that is expected at an exhibition of this calibre”, which included works by fellow artists I.Roworth, S.Butler, V.Volschenk and L. Mears.
In 1971 Anne once again, declined an invitation this time from Gunther van der Reis to participate in the “1971 Republic Festival Exhibition” which was organised by the S.A.Association of Artists. She decided to exhibit in Tel-Aviv that year instead. Anne’s works were exhibited in the late 60’s early 70’s at various galleries in SA, where she obtained critical acclaim (often relenting and allowing a portrait or landscape to be exhibited without a credit being published on the programme). Yet shy, introvert, emotionally imbalanced and disillusioned at the politics which clearly favoured predominantly male, Afrikaans artists as opposed to English-speaking females like herself, she stopped exhibiting at most major galleries and vehemently declined many invitations to sell her Art after that.
Anne noted in her personal diary in 1972 that 2 major schools of thought were apparent in the South African art world. One where artists identified with various aspects of their social, political, geographical and environmental conditions; the other with very close ties with international trends, often be related to Colonialism and the Empire. This duality appeared to be the natural result of a “Nation” shaping and divorcing itself from its’ old rural and colonial character.
Anne felt that Nations and Art alike, were becoming more and more involved, interactive and demanded greater effort from the viewer. During the 1970’s 80’s and 1990’s Anne never tried to idealise her subjects. She always strove for the accurate representation of everyday, apparently casual or overlooked subjects. Or the “invisible people of South Africa” as she called them. The many millions of non-Europeans and vast, underprivileged majority, which in real fact made the very fabric of the working nation:
Her devotion to her art, especially during her latter years was so great that she also infected her fellow artists, resulting in anti-art people being able to view art with greater respect and admiration.
In the Transvaal and in the Western Cape she discovered the destruction caused by the introduction of the Group Areas Act that stimulated her imagination. In Europe; mainly Italy and Scotland she sought the dream-world for which she deeply yearned.
Finally, there was her own private inner world, to which very few were ever admitted, but, from which derived all her wonderful creative and inspired powers.
Anne felt most at home in the Cape. Not only because she found relief there for her bodily ills, but in the autumns and winters there, she re-discovered her homeland and thus her identity. At the end of her life, Anne had amongst her closest friends and fellow artists, mainly local Cape Coloured and Malay inhabitants. These were the people with whom Anne felt she could really be herself: a plain, genuine woman who seldom made preparatory cause of her impulsive nature.
In her final years, Anne was mentally and emotionally split in many worlds. Her bipolar condition, combined with the trauma of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by her brother, the loss of her parents from which she never fully recovered, meant Anne would have been better off in an institution. She did however not allow anyone taking her away from her beloved Fish-Hoek Summer House and ended her days alone, with grey, messed up, wiry hair, wandering and talking to herself, shifting between worlds only she knew, known to the locals as “The Fish-Hoek Old Witch”.
This was Anne Petrie, the woman, the benefactor, the pacifist, the friend… The true matriarch of South African Female Artists
Solo and Group Exhibitions:
Anne Bryant Gallery, East London (1958)
Lidchi Gallery, Durban (1962)
Martin Melck Gallery, Cape Town (1963)
Belgium, Paris and Scotland (1965)
Gallery 21, Johannesburg, (1966)
Belgium and Paris(1969)
London and Paris (1976)
Frenchmen, West Germany (1978)
New York (1994)
Selected Private Collections:
Estate Wallace Simpson
Estate P.W. Botha
Estate John F. Kennedy
Estate David Botha
Estate Frank Sinatra
Estate Dr.Christiaan Barnard
Estate Maria Callas
David & Victoria Beckham
Various European Royal Courts owning works by Anne in their Private Collections:
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II & H.R.H. Phillip, the Prince Consort of The United Kingdom
H.M. King Juan Carlos I & Queen Sofia of Spain
H.M. Kong Harald & H.M. Dronning Sonja of Norway
H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf & H.M. Queen Silvia of Sweden
Her Majesty Queen Marguerite & H.R.H. Henrik, the Prince Consort of Denmark
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan
Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands
H.R.H King Constantine & H.M. Queen Anne-Marie of Greece
H.R.H Charles, Prince of Wales & Duchess of Cornwall
Represented in the following Public National / International Collections:The Royal Collection, England (Capri Cape, 1990 and Twin Peaks, Devil's Peak from Rhodes Hems, 1988)
National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
TATE Modern, London
National Gallery, Denmark
National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
The Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC
Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
National Gallery, Finland
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Guggenheim, Bilbao
The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna
National Portrait Gallery, London
Information courtesy of Sebastian L.S. Schwagele and Alexandre De Lusignan who are working on the catalogue resumee for Anne Petrie.