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For the Love of Flowers

24/01/2023

Celebrating flowers, gardens and botanical paintings
An exhibition at Iziko Rust en Vreugd

The garden at Iziko Rust en Vreugd remains an oasis within Cape Town’s busy city centre. Flowers are much loved and admired for their beauty and fragrance and have inspired artists across the centuries and they’ve have been the special focus of still life paintings and botanical drawings. Floral motifs abound in fashion and design in cultures across the world. A collection of flower-related artworks had been selected for exhibition at Iziko Rust en Vreugd. For the love of flowers features watercolours by botanical artist Ethel May Dixie (1876-1973) from the William Fehr Collection, complemented by contemporary artworks from the Iziko collections.

Botanical artist Ethel May Dixie (1876-1973) loved painting South African wildflowers. She said that she had once attempted to paint a house, but when the proportions went awry, she went back to flowers, and never painted anything else again. Dixie, mainly a self-taught artist, supported herself by working as an illustrator. She was the principal illustrator for a series of books, The Flora of South Africa, by Dr Rudolph Marloth (1855-1931) and become internationally known for her detailed and botanically accurate paintings. Books from The Flora of South Africa series are included in the exhibition.

Watercolour by Ethel May Dixie of Gerbera jamesonii (Barberton daisy), c. 1910-1920. William Fehr Collection, Iziko Museums of South Africa (G44)
Watercolour by Ethel May Dixie of Erica regia (Elim heath), c. 1910-1920. William Fehr Collection, Iziko Museums of South Africa (G39)

Dixie was born in Sea Point, Cape Town and educated at the Vredenburg High School for Girls in Long Street, where botany was one of her subjects. She was a disciplined artist who worked at her half-moon table from 9am in the morning until midday – as long as the light was suitable. Each painting would take her a week to complete. She later lived at the Avondrust Home for Aged Women in Rondebosch. On her 90th birthday, Dixie was appointed an honorary life member of the Botanical Society of South Africa in recognition of her services to botany. She died at the age of 97.

The Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of the six floral kingdoms in the world, is recognised as a World Heritage Site. Whether growing in the veld, countryside or in cultivated gardens, flowers form part of our planet’s biodiversity systems and play an important role in nature. They are reminders of the fragility of the natural world. Climate change, pollution and destructive human action threaten the natural world, increasingly condemning the diversity of plant and animal life to endangered status and even extinction.

In South Africa colonial settlement has been an early contributor to this destruction, setting up harmful systems of production still characteristic of the nation today, and most world economies. Sustainable ways to live with nature must be based on environmental research and regulation, as well as systems of indigenous knowledge. To complement the Dixie watercolours, other works from the Iziko collections form part of For the Love of Flowers. These include watercolours of Protea by Dorothy Barclay (1892-1940), a South African botanical illustrator and Dixie’s niece. Proteas were named after Proteus, a god in Greek mythology who could change into many forms, like the different forms of the Proteaceae family.

A watercolour by Charles Ernest Peers (1875-1944) depicts flower sellers at the Trafalgar Place flower market in Adderley Street, Cape Town. Archival records and oral histories indicate that flower sellers were trading in Adderley Street from the mid-1880s onward. In the 1890s conservationists accused the flower sellers of destroying local flora, and permits were introduced for wildflower picking. Because of the range of wildflowers available at the flower market, plant collectors regularly visited there, and ‘discovered’ two plant species that had not previously been described by botanists. These were named Erica dulcis L. Bolus and Erica autumnalis L. Bolus.

Watercolour by C.E. Peers, Flower Sellers on Trafalgar Place, undated.
Iziko Museums of South Africa (SACHM 91/273).

The history of flower selling is inextricably linked to the history of colonial dispossession of land and natural resources, apartheid era forced removals and racist urban planning. Many of the flower sellers once lived in Constantia, now one of Cape Town’s most gentrified and wealthiest residential suburbs and flowers were the ‘bread and butter’ of many who lived there. When the Group Areas Act in the 1960s enforced the removal of people from their homes, most of the flower growing in Constantia came to an end.

Two contemporary South African ceramic vessels inspired by nature are also on show. A colourful hand-painted and glazed porcelain vessel by John Newdigate (b. 1968), titled Dragonfly in an Ice Cream Factory. The work depicts a magnified crimson red dragonfly overlaid on the workings of an ice cream factory, alluding to industrial developments which threaten the natural habitats of insects, plants and animals.

When Lisa Ringwood (b. 1968) works with clay, she is constantly reminded of the medium’s rich history and tradition. Taking delight in this history, she fuses historical elements with serene and whimsical daily moments observed in nature, merging past and present in her work. Her ceramic forms are hand-crafted to provide surfaces for painterly explorations, such as the illustrated plate painted with a flowering aloe branch inside a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain jar.

For the Love of Flowers was curated by Esther Esmyol, Curator: Social History, Iziko Museums of South Africa with input from fellow curators Andrea Lewis and Andrew Lamprecht, as well as generous support from Jay van den Berg. The contribution of numerous Iziko colleagues in the departments of design, exhibition, collections, conservation, finance and marketing is acknowledged, as well as former Iziko Director Lalou Meltzer for editing of text, and Dr John Manning of the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for the verification of plant names.

For the Love of Flowers can be viewed at the Iziko Rust en Vreugd Museum, 78 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town. Open on Thursdays and Fridays from 09h00 until 16h00. Closed on Christmas Day and Workers Day. Contact number Tel +27 (0) 481 3903. Email: eesmyol@iziko.org.za

About Iziko Rust en Vreugd Museum

Meaning Rest and Joy, the house was originally built in 1777-1778 as a home for Willem Cornelis Boers, a high-ranking official in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. After Boers vacated the property, it was owned by various individuals. It was later occupied by educational institutions, including the Cape Town High School from 1925 to 1957. Today Rust en Vreugd forms part of the Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Rust en Vreugd’s garden has always been a well-known feature during its many years as a residence. The original garden was much bigger and stretched as far down as the present Roeland Street. Cultivating and maintaining privately owned gardens at the Cape, as well as the Company’s Gardens, depended on the labour of enslaved people. One of the owners of Rust en Vreugd, Ryno van der Riet, who lived at the house from 1813 until his death in 1828, enslaved 31 people (men and women) who worked at the house and garden.

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