William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Art in London

THE ARTIST WILLIAM Kentridge (born 1955), son of a prominent lawyer, is a South African. His creations are usually highly imaginative and often politically challenging and critical of the subjugation of non-European African people. This is fascinating given his privileged background – having been brought up in a South Africa where the ‘white’ people were a highly advantaged section of the population until the ending of the apartheid regime (and maybe even now to some extent).

His artworks are frequently dramatic, often employing cinematographic and sometimes theatrical techniques. The messages they convey to the viewers can be both disturbing and humorous, sometimes both simultaneously. Whenever I have seen them, I have been both fascinated visually as well as moved emotionally.

The Royal Academy of Art in London’s Piccadilly has a large retrospective exhibition of Kentridge’s work until the 11th of December 2022. Apart from numerous drawings, tapestries, and other static artworks, there are plenty of his cinematographic installations on display. In fact, there are too many of these installations. Each one is amazing to see, but having so many together in one place spoiled their intended impact. Just as the first chocolate from a box is wonderful, eating all of them at once gives one indigestion, and this was the case with the Royal Academy’s crowded assemblage of Kentridge’s works. Too much was crammed together in insufficient space. To be fully enjoyed, each of his installations should be seen on their own in a sufficiently spacious environment – they need ample room to breathe and express themselves.This overcrowding was a pity because the exhibition does not allow his works to shine in their full glory.

An artist and teacher in West Hampstead

WHILE I WAS STUDYING to become a dentist (in the late 1970s), I used to attend an etching and engraving class in a studio in West Hampstead’s Sumatra Road. The class was supervised by the owner of the studio, my mother’s cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983). Like my mother, he was born in South Africa. They were both born in King Williams Town, but he was 23 years older than her.

An engraving by Dolf Rieser

Dolf ‘s childhood memories evoke South Africa as it was at the turn of the century (19th/20th) and are recorded in his unfinished autobiography (dolfrieser.com). Here is an extract that gives a flavour of them:


“The climate of King William’s Town was particularly difficult to bear and my mother suffered greatly especially where her nerves were concerned. I vividly remember her awful attacks of migraine when she had to stay in a darkened room. In the end we decided to leave South Africa, as I shall relate later on . My uncle, my mother’s brother, was at that time living on the border of Basutoland. He was running a small trading post and also kept some horses and sheep. This place was right up on the high plateau and was called Moshes-Ford after the famous Basuto chief, Moshes. My uncle invited us up to him for a holiday and I think we first took a train and then had to continue by horse and carriage, which presumably was also the postal service at the time. I remember well an “ooutspan” for lunch near an immense field full of dried bones and skeletons. These were the remains of the “Rinderpest” which shortly before had nearly wiped out the cattle of South Africa. I played football with a cow or ox skull, very much to the annoyance of the grown-ups. The following night we had to spend at the German Pastor’s home and I remember how impressed I was with the enormous bed and unknown eiderdowns.”


The ’Rinderpest’ was a disease that afflicted cattle.

During his classes at Sumatra Road, he would regale us with stories of Paris in the 1920’s and 1930s, when he was there learning etching an engraving in the studios of both Stanley Hayter and Joseph Hecht. One story that sticks in my mind is how he used to attend the same Parisian café as Pablo Picasso. The great master sat at one table alongside the the other leading artists in Paris, and junior artists like Dolf sat close by at another table.

Dolf was an excellent teacher. He showed us how to etch and engrave. However, what impressed me most is that he had the ability to look at his students’ works in progress, understand what we were trying to achieve, and then provide constructive (rather than prescriptive) advice.

I really miss Dolf, even though it is so many years since he died. He had a wonderful sense of humour, was a wonderful raconteur, and, having once trained as a biologist (before becoming an artist), a wonderfully adventurous approach to his métier.

A Boer War warrior in Warrington

PALMYRA SQUARE IS a delightful rectangular piazza in the heart of Warrington in Cheshire. I use the word ‘piazza’ because the English word ‘square’ includes many squares which are anything but square. The centre of this open space is filled with the pleasant Queen’s Gardens, the Queen in the name being Victoria. It was near the end of her reign that the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (‘Boer War’; 1899-1902), a bloody conflict between the British Empire and the Dutch speaking colonists in what is now South Africa, occurred. In the middle of the eastern half of Palmyra Square there is the statue of a man in a helmet carrying a rifle in his left hand. His right arm points forward, as does his right index finger. The other fingers of his right hand clutch a pair of binoculars. He is wearing knee high boots, standing on a sculpture of a rock, and dressed in an old-fashioned military uniform. As soon as I saw this statue, I guessed (from the style of the uniform) it was connected the Boer War, and when I looked at the plinth upon which the military figure is perched, I discovered that I was right.

The monument was unveiled by General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (1839-1908), in the year before his death. Buller commanded British forces in South Africa during the Boer War. The man depicted on the plinth is Lieutenant Colonel MacCarthy O’Leary (1849-1900). He was killed on the 27th of February 1900 whilst leading men of his regiment (The South Lancashire) during the Battle of Pieters Hill. Richard Danes in his “Cassell’s History of the Boer War” (published 1901) pointed out that the 27th of February was Majuba Day, which was when the British were soundly beaten by the Boers at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. The battle at Pieters Hill, which led to a British victory, facilitated the opening of the road to Ladysmith, which was being besieged by the Boer forces. An informative website (www.alamy.com/stock-photo-statue-of-lt-col-william-mccarthy-oleary-in-queens-gardens-warrington-54385554.html) revealed:

“The Regiment drew many of its recruits from the then-South Lancashire town of Warrington, where Colonel O’Leary was very well known. When the town erected a memorial to the men of the Regiment who died during the war, it chose to feature a sculpture of Colonel O’Leary on campaign in South Africa.”

The statue was sculpted by Edward Alfred Briscoe Drury (1856-1944). Amongst his many other creations is the South Africa Gate on The Mall in London.

The plinth upon which O’Leary stands forever motionless bears a large plaque on which the many members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the South Lancashire Regiment, who died during the Boer War, are recorded. These include a few officers and too many men of lower rank. Another plaque records the campaigns in which the regiment was involved. Apart from Pieters Hill, these were: Spion Kop, Vaal  Krantz, Colenso Kopjes, Tugela Heights,  Relief of Ladysmith, Botha’s Pass, Laings Nek; and the occupations of Wakkerstroom, Utrecht, and Vryheid. In other words, they took part in most of the important struggles during the Boer War.

The monument stands in a peaceful square in a small town, once in Lancashire but now in Cheshire, just about 400 yards from the River Mersey. As I stood looking at it during an unusual heatwave when the air temperature was between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the brave men recorded on the plinth, who would have been encumbered with military equipment and inappropriate uniforms, managed to keep on going during the hot weather that they would have encountered whilst struggling against the Boers in the south of Africa.

Eyes facing the ocean from Madeira

STARING OUT TO sea at Calheta on the Portuguese island of Madeira is a bronze bust of a man wearing 18th century clothing and a bow tie. The sculpture depicts Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza (1750-1816). Born in Caracas in what is now Venezuela, Miranda became a military leader and a revolutionary fighting for his country’s liberation from Spanish rule. Regarded by many as the forerunner of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the great liberator of several Spanish South American colonies and born in Caracas, Miranda ended his life in a Spanish prison in Cadiz.

The plaque below the bust in Calheta records (translated from the Portuguese on a website: https://statues.vanderkrogt.net/object.php?record=ptma108):

“The Sons of the municipality of Calheta in the lands of Venezuela at the bicentenary of the Independence in honour of its precursor ‘Generalisimo, Sebastian Francisco de Miranda’ ‘The most universal Venezuelan’”

I interpret this as meaning that the bust was erected by descendants of people from Calheta, who had emigrated to Venezuela.

The bust was created by the Venezuelan sculptor Julio César Briceño Andrade, who was born in Caracas in 1950. It was unveiled in Calheta by Lucas Rincón Romero, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Portugal, on the 5th  July 2011.

Miranda was the son of a man, who had migrated to Venezuela from the Spanish Canary Islands. His mother was born in Venezuela. Although, he crossed the Atlantic several times, I do not know whether Miranda ever set foot on the island of Madeira.

Like those from Calheta, who migrated to Venezuela, many others have migrated from Madeira to various parts of the world over the years. I have been told that many of the Portuguese speakers in South Africa had their roots in Madeira. Having seen the bust in Calheta, clearly Venezuela was another destination.

Now, with difficulties that Venezuela has been facing, some its citizens with Madeiran heritage are returning to the island as can be seen in an article published on-line (www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/madeira-an-island-of-refuge-for-venezuelans-of-portuguese-origin/):

“No one knows the exact figure but the authorities in Madeira consider that about 6,000 Venezuelans of Portuguese descent have taken refuge on their island, where they found themselves in an extremely precarious situation. “They arrive with nothing, many are sick, these are people lacking a great deal,” said the President of the Portuguese archipelago, Miguel Albuquerque. These people are second or third generation Portuguese, descendants of those who left Madeira decades ago in search of a better life in Venezuela. They are now making the opposite journey.”

Reading this made me think about South Africa, to which many Europeans, including my parents’ families, travelled in search of a better life. After the ending of apartheid, many of their descendants have left the country because they had become concerned about their futures in a land where Europeans no longer hold the upper hand.

Diverting water in Madeira

A damming plate hanging on a wall beside a stream in Funchal

WHEN WE WERE IN the Western Cape of South Africa,  I  noticed streams running alongside roads in rural farming areas. Occasional small channels led off from them and into the fields of farms. At each junction of the main stream and a side channel, there were small plates that could be used  to temporarily dam the main stream to divert water into the channel leading to the fields.  

We are staying in Funchal, Madeira. Our guesthouse is high above the city centre and the seafront on a road that leads down an extremely steep hill.  On one side of the road there is a fast flowing stream. Every now and then, there are metal plates that can be inserted into slots on both sides of this stream to divert water into the property beside the water. This is just like what I saw in rural South Africa. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the similarity of the damming system, but I cannot recall having noticed it anywhere else I have visited.

Crossing the Equator in a Roman toga

MY PARENTS WERE born in South Africa. They settled in England in about 1947/48. In 1955, when I was three years old, my parents took me on a visit to their native land, possibly to show me off to relatives who lived there.

We travelled to Cape Town by sea. I remember nothing of the voyage, which must have taken about two weeks. Recently, I came across a photograph, which had remained in storage for several decades in my late father’s garage. The picture shows a little boy in a white outfit resembling a Roman toga. He is standing between two children dressed up to resemble, if your imagination is good enough, Belisha beacons such as are found at pedestrian crossings of the zebra variety.

The photograph reminded me of what my mother had told me many years ago. During our voyage to South Africa, we crossed the Equator. My mother told me that to celebrate this event, there was a fancy-dress party for the children on-board. My mother, unlike some of the other parents, had not been aware that this was going to take place. So, she had not packed a costume for me to wear. Ever resourceful and extremely creative (she was a painter and sculptor), Mom used one of the sheets from a bed in our cabin to wrap me up as if I was wearing a toga. Looking at the photograph, it appears that also she fashioned a pair of what look like Roman sandals, using some string. Thus, during my first crossing of the Equator, I was attired in a Roman toga.

Looking at this image, which includes a rug designed to look like a pedestrian crossing, made me think. There I was standing halfway across a zebra crossing whilst our liner crossed from one side of the Equator to the other.

Mahatma Gandhi in Hampstead

WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:

“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”

The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.

Swimming at the White House

MY PARENTS, ESPECIALLY my mother, were keen that I learned to swim. It took me a long time to learn this activity. For many years, I was taken to various indoor pools to take lessons with a variety of swimming teachers, some professional and others not. One of the latter was a young Asian lady, who gave me a few lessons in the pool at the White House. This was not the famous establishment in Washington DC but a 1930’s apartment block, now a hotel, near Great Portland Street Underground station in London.

The White House, London

The teacher, who had no success with getting me to swim, lived in the White House and was recommended to my parents by another resident, a family friend, whom we knew as ‘Sakki’. Like my parents, Sakki was born in South Africa and my father told me that his family and Sakki’s were either remotely related and/or in business together. Both Sakki and my father were on the academic staff of the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). Sakki was the anthropologist Professor Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). He had become an expert on the anthropology of indigenous people of Botswana and South Africa. Amongst his many published works was “The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, published back in 1930.

Apart from providing me with one of my many swimming instructors, Sakki took a great interest in my sister and me. He gifted me several books, amongst which was several books about the adventures of Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin. These were in French and were volumes that were at the time neither available for sale in the UK nor translated into English. When I graduated with my PhD in 1976, he presented me with a two-volume book about magic, myths, and science.

In the very early 1960s, Sakki joined us on a family driving holiday in France in our smallish Fiat 1100. My mother, who had been involved in a serious car accident in the 1930s, had installed seatbelts in our car, a rare thing for the time. Sakki had to travel in the rear seat with my sister and me. Sakki had his own seatbelt (lap design), and my sister and I were strapped together in the other belt, separated from each other by a pillow. It soon became obvious to my parents that Sakki was not enjoying being confined in the rear of the car with two young children. My parents solved the problem by stopping at regular intervals at roadside cafés so that Sakki could enjoy a glass of cognac. This seemed to help him tolerate the journey, about which I remember little else.

During my childhood, Sakki was a regular visitor to our family home. He used to amuse us kids with comical verses, only one of which I can remember. It sounded to my ears something like this: “Olke, bolke, reeby, solte. Olke, bolke, knor.” While writing this piece, I looked for this on the Internet, and now know that what he was telling us was the words of an Afrikaans song that goes:

“Olke bolke Riebeeck stolke, olke bolke knor…”

Well, now, many years since I last saw Sakki, I know that what he was telling us was not his invention, as I had always believed as a youngster.

Sakki underwent surgery on his vocal cords. This affected his speech badly and drove him to avoid socialising in his later years. However, he did visit our home on at least one occasion after his voice had been affected. I was a young teenager then and I can still remember that when he spoke, all that one could hear was a hoarse, rasping, whisper. After conversing with me for a few minutes, he said to me:

“You don’t have to whisper just because I am talking so softly.”

And then he added:

“I have noticed that everyone with whom I talk gradually lowers their voice to a whisper whilst they converse with me. It is strange how the loudness of my voice affects that of people who are talking with me.”

That people unconsciously adjust their voices to match that of their interlocutors made a great impression on my young mind, and I have never forgotten it.

I do not believe that I ever met Sakki again between 1976 and 2003, when he died. By then, the White House had almost completely changed from being an apartment block to becoming a hotel. Sakki lived there until he died and was one of the place’s last full-time residents from the time before it became a hotel with a few flats.

And, just in case you are wondering, I did learn to swim eventually, not at the White House but in the pool of the old YWCA near to Tottenham Court Road station.

Well travelled paints

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT you might find by chance. While sorting through possessions in our storage unit, or ‘go-down’ as it is called in Indian English, I came across a wooden case. It contains artists’ paint brushes; tubes of oil paint, already used; pencils sharpened with a knife rather than a sharpener; a portable palette stained with usage; a couple of glass bottles; a tin containing Fortis brand thumb tacks (made in the USA); and various other items used for creating oil paintings. One of the pencils is marked “sanguine”. Pencils of this type are like charcoal sticks but a little harder. They can be used to draw lines and are also smudgeable.  On the lid of the box, there is a label issued by the Union Castle shipping line. It informs us that the case was travelling Cabin Class in Cabin number 464 on the Pretoria Castle from Cape Town to South Africa.  The name of its owner is “BS Yamey”.

BS Yamey was my father, an art lover who never ever created an oil painting in the 101 years of his life. The box most likely belonged to my mother, HB Yamey, who was a trained artist, both a painter and later a sculptor. My mother left South Africa in early 1948 and married my father on March the 16th 1948 in London. No doubt, the artists’ case was amongst her belongings being shipped from South Africa to her new home in England.

The Pretoria Castle on which the artistic materials travelled had its maiden voyage, soon after my parents married, in July 1948 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretoria_Castle_(1947)). Constructed in Belfast, it was probably the only ship ever launched remotely. The wife of General Jan Smuts (1870-1950) launched the ship by sending a radio signal from her home in the Transvaal to the shipyard in Ulster (www.bandcstaffregister.com/page4349.html).

The dating of the launch means that the case travelled to England no earlier than July 1948. It is labelled with my father’s name and a cabin number. I assume that this means that it is likely that he travelled with it. As the ship was renamed in 1966, we can say that the case made the voyage before that year. Now, my parents spent most of 1950 in Montreal, Canada, and then returned to London by 1951. Possibly, my parents returned to South Africa for a visit between their marriage and my birth, but I have no evidence of this.  I was born in 1952, and as far as I can recall from what I have been told, my parents did not return to South Africa until 1955, when I was taken along as well. We travelled by sea, but I have no idea on which vessel we travelled and whether the artist’s case travelled with us. So, because my parents are no longer around to tell me about this case, the date of its journey from the southern to the northern hemisphere must remain a mystery.