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.
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.