Forming of the Walter Battiss Museum

On 24th October 1981, in a ceremony attended by family, friends, and colleagues of Prof. Walter Battiss, the grand old man of South African art stood in front of the old Officer's Mess in his birthplace, Somerset East, and bequeathed a collection of his work to "the people of Somerset East - all the people of Somerset East, and the people of South Africa - all the people of South Africa".  Friends and colleagues donated their own works to be part of the Museum collection.  Battiss's ex pupil and great friend, Prof. Murray Schoonraad assisted by curating the collection.

On an old envelope filed in the Museum, written in Battiss's writing, in pencil, are words which were obviously part of his notes for when he spoke at the opening.  "To me it's a great miracle that the people of a small Karoo dorp wanted art so badly that they made it possible for the top artists of South Africa to co-operate with me to bring this about.  Now people from all over the world can come to Somerset East & see the miracle."

This was the largest Battiss collection in South Africa before the Jack Ginsberg collection was given to Wits Art Museum, in June 2016, to be exhibited for three months and then to form the nucleus for a definitive Battiss collection which will be available for study and research. 

The two storied house with its long shaded verandah was built as an English officers' mess in the early days of Somerset, and was hired by the Battiss family, who ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel between 1914 and 1917, when the recession which followed the First World War forced them to close, and move to Koffiefontein.  It lies under the benign gaze of the Boschberg Mountain, and is a familiar landmark in this small Karoo town.  It still functions as an art museum housing the large collection of Battiss' work, as well as family items, books, letters, and some of Prof. Battiss's clothing and personal items. Fifty books from his personal library, many of them heavily annotated, were sent from the Durban Technicon in 2017.

The Museum was fully restored when serious deterioration of the building was identified in 1999, and it reopened in 2004.

Battiss's father, from a family of "vigorous hymn-singing Methodists" wanted him to be "a strong man" - while his mother wanted him to be an artist.  His talent as an artist was obvious from a very early age.

At the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum in October 1981, Battiss, at 75, still looked every bit as much the "strong man" as the artist.  His large frame, neatly dressed in pin-striped shirt and suit, contrasted with his long white hair and goatee.

The day after the opening, the party was moved to the Glen Avon Falls, a place which held great significance for Battiss.  As he wrote in his book, Limpopo, "In Somerset East, my parents ran a private temperance hotel to which families came from Port Elizabeth.  My father spent his tme taking the guests on picnics to an astonishing waterfall on Glen Avon Farm in the Boschberg."

"MY FATHER WAS A WATERFALL AND MY MOTHER WAS A BUTTERFLY" is an oft quoted phrase which Battiss first wrote in the preface to "Limpopo".  It refers to the strength of the waterfall of ideas tumbling out of the highly creative imagination; the butterfly was ever seeking new places and new possibilities for expression.

"I found it easy for my father and the waterfall to be one and the same manifestation of paternal energy.  My mother was small and flitted around, delicate yet supermobile, the abstraction of a butterfly."  Butterflies appear on innumerable occasions in the canvasses and sketches produced throughout Battiss's long and varied career.

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