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Walter Battiss - the early years

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

Walter Battiss was born in Somerset East on 6 January 1906. The family name was well known, because Battiss’ paternal great-grandfather was a Royal Engineer who had come to South Africa with the 1820 Settlers, built forts for Lord Charles Somerset, and married Sarah Hartley, whose parents built the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst. He planted the famous Oak Avenue in Somerset East.

John Battiss, his grandfather, who was the second of 16 children, had also left his mark on the town, having built its Town Hall and Dutch Reformed Church. Battiss loved Somerset East and its environs, and as he grew older he would swim in the streams and climb the ravines and kloofs. His love of nature began here.

Between 1914 and 1917, his parents hired a double-storied building in Paulet Street, and ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel. Due to the recession which followed the First World War, the Battiss family left Somerset East in 1917, for Koffiefontein and later Fauresmith. This building was later to become the Walter Battiss Art Museum, in 1981.

In 1917, when Battiss was 11, and the family had moved to Koffiefontein, an engineer on a local mine stimulated an interest in archaeology in the young Battiss. He discovered petroglyphs, and later cave paintings, and this fired a life long passion to explore Rock Art in the young Battiss. Expeditions in search of ancient art followed.

Battiss travelled widely over Southern Africa, recording the art he found in the caves. He even hunted with the San in Namibia, and he authored and published several books on the subject. In 2016, at the WITS Origins Centre, a remarkable exhibition, Another Curious Palimpsest, celebrated his research, his drawings, his notebooks and his paintings of the Rock Art.

The elegant images which had been carved onto rocks had inculcated themselves deeply into the young artist’s mind, for they were to compose a major part of his own iconographical repertoire. The family later settled in Fauresmith, where his education was completed.

Battiss worked as a Law Clerk in Rustenburg, before moving to Johannesburg, in pursuit of his teacher’s diploma and his art degree. His first one-man exhibition was in Rustenburg 1927, when he was 21.

Battiss acquired an art teaching diploma in 1932 and a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 1940 from UNISA. He started teaching in 1933, at Park School, Turffontein, and in 1936, began his thirty year art teaching stint at Pretoria High School for Boys.

In 1938 he paid the first of several visits to Europe where he met various successful poets and painters. During this time he forged a lasting friendship with Pablo Piccasso. Back in South Africa, Battiss turned to Rock Art to find the “soul” of his paintings. To pay tribute to the source of his inspiration he published "The Amazing Bushmen" in 1939.

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