The Officers' Mess and Walter Battiss Art Museum



In 1818 the building was erected on what was then known as Somerset Farm—set up under the instruction of Governor of the Cape Lord Charles Somerset, to provide fodder, crops and meat for the British troops defending the Frontier.

Walter Battiss Art Gallery

In 1825, Somerset Farm was closed, and on 1st September 1825, 1820 Settler John Austin was granted Freehold Title of erf 57. In 1906 ownership passed to a Mr Sawtell, who added the veranda and the wrought iron fence.  The eight fire places in the building are said by experts to be mid-Victorian—1850—1880.  This gives the lie to versions saying they were put into the building by Lord Charles Somerset, and have Royal crests!

Between 1914 and 1917, the Battiss family rented the building from the Sawtell family, and ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel.  Before this, they ran a Temperance Hotel in Worcester Street.  This building no longer exists.  In 1917, due to the recession after the War, the Battiss family left Somerset East for Koffiefontein in the Free State.

The Sawtell family owned the building until 1973 when it became the property of the two men, Dr JC Vosloo and Ben Erasmus, who donated it to become the Walter Battiss Art Museum when it was opened in 1981.

In 1999 the building was in very poor condition, and had to be closed for repair. Funding was sourced from DSRAC and Lotto for the restoration of the fabric of the building, and the veranda.  The Museum was reopened in 2005.


John Battiss 1805—1879, was a Royal Engineer in the British army.  He married Sarah Hartley in Grahamstown in 1828.  Sarah’s family were the builders and founders of the Pig and Whistle Hotel in Bathurst.  The couple moved to Somerset East in about 1840.  Their grandson Walter Battiss Snr was born in 1879, and in 1905 he married Louise Sara Price, from London, who had recently arrived in the Eastern Cape with her Webster relations.  The Websters were involved in the building of Ann’s Villa in the Zuurberg, and the Middleton Hotel.

Walter Battiss Snr was the top athlete in the Eastern Cape, and had over 100 trophies for cycling and sprinting.  Louise had worked for a top bookbinder in London, and had been entrusted with binding Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s photograph albums.  Her father was a well known and talented designer, and had designed costumes for the Drury Lane Theatre and the Folies Bergére.

Walter and Louise had three children, Walter Whall born in 1906, Alfred born in 1907, and Battiss’s beloved sister Doreen Louise was born in 1910..

In the preface of one his early books, Limpopo, Battiss wrote “My Father was a waterfall, and my Mother a butterfly”.

This refers to the strength of the cascade of ideas tumbling out of his highly creative imagination; while the butterfly was ever seeking new places and 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.”


On 24th October 1981, at 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, 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 with putting the collection together.

Walter Battiss

 The day after this, Battiss, accompanied by many friends, as well as the media who were making a TV documentary, made his way to the Glen Avon Falls—immortalised in the lines…. “My father was a waterfall……”


In the 1970’s when Battiss was travelling extensively, he was unimpressed by the popular conceptualist art movement; where art was considered to exist only in the moment in which it was created.  He felt that art should be for all people and for all time.

 His response was the creation of his “island of the imagination” - Fook Island.  With the collaboration of Norman Catherine, and many of his artist and academic friends, Battiss created a mythology, a language, an alphabet, and a message of tolerance and freedom for those who embraced the concept of being Fookians.  “You will seek in vain for the location of the island, for it eludes conventional cartography.  It is not a place you arrive at, you are either there or not there” wrote his friend and fellow Fookian Esmé Berman.  Battiss proclaimed himself King Ferd III, drove using a Fook drivers licence, and, most incredibly, travelled internationally using his Fook Island passport.  There were Fook postage stamps, bank notes, and coins.

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