Ceramic Tiles and the search for a National Style


Themes for depicting on the majority of the individual tiles followed a policy that Short and Methley of the Ceramic Studio decided on at an early stage:

"There is a big demand for tiles," said Miss Short. "We set out to introduce as much South African atmosphere as we can. We have done a number of old Dutch homesteads and a series of Native life studies, as well as a collection of South African trees and bushes." In 1928 the Union was only eighteen years old. The novelty of creating a "patriotic" iconography must have been extremely tempting.

Nationalism in art was the most important political issue discussed in art circles during the 1920s and 1930s. Artists and critics were piqued at the non-existence of a South African "school" and set about its creation. John Adams was one of the first to articulate a desire for a "national style":

In former years this country was flooded with factory made memorials of an extremely poor type of design. We can at least congratulate ourselves that after the Great War very few examples of tawdry commercial memorials came into South Africa. This was partly because such things have been difficult to get, but it is more likely that the real reason is the enlightened demand for better craftsmanship and design, and the fact that there are now greater facilities in this country for creating finer memorials, using to a large extent the material of the country....There is no need to emphasise the finer feeling in having a man-made instead of a machine-made memorial, and the value such efforts have in contributing toward national self-respect and a national expression through the arts. These things mark a step in the advance of South Africa from a mere trading station to a great and cultured nation.

Obviously associating truth to material and anti-machine sentiments with "national self-respect", Adams's opinions had some influence on his pupils' admiration for studio ceramics. However, in practical terms it was through choice of subject matter that Adams and other artists attempted to express their "South African-ness". Adams's Hamba kahle is a typical example, bordering on tourist art, with its picturesque, smiling Zulu rickshaw boy. Artists such as Erich Mayer objected to this misunderstanding that "national" art had "political or sectional tendencies":

The mere fact that an object of art has been created in South Africa does not make it necessarily a South African work of art. The introduction of features typically South African, such as the protea, the springbok or kopje, does not give it national value. Therefore, in my humble opinion, Fitzpatrick's great literary effort, "Jock of the Bushveld", is not a truly South African book.

In the same article Mayer eulogises Pierneef who, he says, has "intense patriotic aspirations". Pierneef was working on a major series of paintings for the Johannesburg Railway Station at the same time that the Ceramic Studio were producing thousands of painted blue-and-white tiles for the new station's restaurant. It is very likely that Short and Methley were influenced by Pierneef's work and by contemporary commentary extolling his qualities. Pierneef was himself devoted to the cause of a national art, saying, We must stop looking through European glasses when we are painting and designing...In South Africa we possess a virgin soil and surroundings with inexhaustible material if we would only go back to nature and live at first hand. Why must we go on copying the past, doing things that have been done before and which to-day are only worth storing in museums, which after all are nothing more than coffins? Each country and each period has its own style, and why cannot we create a truly South African one? He was also passionately opposed to British imperialism and was not afraid to criticise the new South Africa House in London, accusing Herbert Baker of attempting "to give everything as much of an imperial air as possible". One speculates on what his opinion may have been of the Ceramic Studio's blue-and-white tiles which were, after all, based on 17th century Dutch tiles. Perhaps certain traditions were more acceptable than others? Mayer's criticism is certainly valid for a great number of the Ceramic Studio tile designs. Many are copied from photographs found in S.A. Railway brochures and merely reproduce well- known images, such as the series on famous personalities. The majority, however, were designed by the artists at the Studio who undertook laborious sketching expeditions to obtain the desired subject matter. Pattern drawings reveal a delicacy of touch and sympathy for the medium. The most successful were also well adapted to the rigid square format. Seen individually the tiles are not major works of art, but the massed effect of the Johannesburg Station tiles is remarkable.

The picture tiles produced later for post offices and government off ices were also derived from a Dutch pattern but were, like the individual tiles, of exclusively South African subjects. An interesting pre-occupation towards the end of the 1930s was with the centenary of the Great Trek and the nation-wide interest this stimulated in the Voortrekkers. Many artists attempted heroic panoramas of the Trekkers crossing the Drakensberg, and the history-conscious explored their material culture. One such artist was Rosa Hope whose tile panel for the Irene Post Office (1940) is based on a large etching called Die Voortrekkers (1938, Tatham Art Gallery). Equally absorbing was the so-called "Native Study", a popular theme in painting and sculpture as well as ceramics.

Audrey Frank was fond of depicting traditional tribal dress in tile panels and also produced a series of modelled figurines in this genre.

[Extracted, edited and expanded from Dr Melanie Hillebrand. 1991. The Woman of Olifantsfontein – South African Studio Ceramics. Cape Town: South African National Gallery. pp 15-16]