Artist Spotlight: Helen Anne Petrie

Sebastian Schwagele recently completed three years of research on a leading philanthropist and Anti Apartheid female South African artist, Helen Anne Petrie He submitted to me his biography of her for publication.

 

Born to a privileged Kensington, Johannesburg family of Scottish descent in 1933, (Helen) Anne Petrie and her older brother appeared set to growing up into a very promising life ahead. Her family had made a fortune out of gold and diamond mining. Her parents kept their rather comfortable "Summer House" in Fish Hook (The "Hamptons" equivalent in USA) and were socialites of the day. Her parents were regular guests at Admiralty House when in the Cape or attending luncheons with Count Labia.

 

In 1938 a relative, who noted the great potential Anne had shown already at a tender age of five, cut out an article from the Huisgenoot, a local magazine, dated 18 August, entitled "Hoekom ek skilder" ("Why I Paint") by the then renowned artist Maggie Loubser while on holiday from Boarding School. This article was translated from Afrikaans into English for Anne by her multilingual nanny. A diary entry records Anne was truly mesmerized at the contents, and thus her eventual admiration for Maggie and desire to paint was unknowingly set.

 

During this tertiary period, Anne made two trips to Europe touring leading galleries. Florence was her favorite city, then Rome, she noted. Returning to South Africa she began painting her first oils and developing her own style. In 1954 she spent a short period of time sitting in on lectures at the Kunstakedemie van Mechelen, Sint Niklaas and Antwerp, where she met artist Jan Vermeiren who assisted her in mastering her least favorite mediums: acrylic and pastels.

 

Self portrait

The is a self portrait of Helen Anne Petrie. Click on the image for full size.

While traveling, Anne met Mary (May) Ellen Hillhouse, who like Anne had Scottish heritage. Together they consulted on what they both declared was "soul-destroying commercial work" also resulting in Anne becoming (like May) an illustrator for various local and foreign companies, excelling in her graphic design for pottery, pattern design for Garlicks and Greatermans and Butterick Dress patterns, to name just a few of the then very popular high-street brands.

 

In 1955 upon meeting Marjorie Wallace and husband Jan Rabie, they ended up in a heated debate on politics and thus was cemented her lifelong interest in humanitarian causes in South Africa. Anne could be very opinionated and outspoken. In 1960 Anne was infuriated by the countrywide protests against the so-called Pass Laws and Police brutality in response to the anti-Pass Laws campaign.

 

South African Union

In 1961 Anne spent a few weeks with Gillian Ayres at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham and again at St. Martin's School of Art in London. In Anne's few surviving works of that period, one can clearly note that she did not look to the raw expressionism of the New York School but to the school of Paris with its painterly cuisine and basic figuration. Anne's work of this period was disciplined, serene, and contemplative work in hard-edge idioms. Her artistic experimentation work is very much concerned with balance, harmony, tension, pleasure, movement, beauty and mental fragility.


Bantu Woman Servant.

Bantu Woman Servant. Click on the image for full size.

In 1967 Mr. Albert Wert (Then Curator of the Pretoria Art Museum) together with Matthys Bokhorst (Director of the South African National Gallery) enquired as to whether Anne would be willing to participate in the SANLAM Art Collection Exhibition. She declined to participate as the collection "did not possess that degree of inner unity it would have had if the collection had from the beginning been built up for the purpose of exhibition." She further suspected that the main intention of the SANLAM Collection was to build up a mere collection of attractive South African paintings and sketches to be left hanging in the offices of directors and staff alike. The public would only have access to subsequent prints to feature on SANLAM'S calendars. Further diary entries indicate that she also declined an offer from Rembrandt Van Rijn Art Foundation to purchase her works privately. Already at this stage, her strong opinions, insecurities, inability to interact with strangers, deep-rooted distrust of people in general and her ever more frequent bipolar phases were quite obvious.

 

Anne did however exhibit in South Africa twice in 1967, the most important exhibition being from 30th October till 11th November at the South African Association of Artists Annual Exhibition in Cape Town. A leading Art Critic of the day, Johan van Rooyen stated her works entitled respectively Indian Girl, Bantu Boy and Late Afternoon, Kommetjie "should be hailed as proving the standard that is expected at an exhibition of this caliber," which included works by fellow artists I. Roworth, S. Butler, V. Volschenk and L. Mears.

 

In 1971 Anne once again, declined an invitation; this time from Gunther van der Reis, to participate in the "1971 Republic Festival Exhibition" which was organized by the S. A. Association of Artists. She decided to exhibit in Tel-Aviv that year instead. Anne’s works were exhibited in the late 60’s early 70’s at various galleries in SA, where she obtained critical acclaim.

 

Because she became shy, introverted, emotionally imbalanced and disillusioned at the politics which clearly favoured predominantly male, Afrikaans artists as opposed to English-speaking females like herself, she stopped exhibiting at most major galleries and vehemently declined many invitations to sell her work after that.

 

Anne noted in her personal diary in 1972 that two major schools of thought were apparent in the South African art world. One thought was where artists identified with various aspects of their social, political, geographical and environmental conditions; the other with very close ties with international trends, often be related to Colonialism and the Empire.

 

Jug, Apples and Eggs

Jug, Apples and Eggs. Click on the image for full size.

Or the "invisible people of South Africa" as she called them. The many millions of non-Europeans and vast, underprivileged majority, which in real fact made the very fabric of the working nation:

 

Anne felt most at home in the Cape because she found relief there for her bodily ills, and the Autumns and Winters. At the end of her life, Anne had amongst her closest friends and fellow artists, mainly local Cape Coloured and Malay inhabitants. These were the people with whom Anne felt she could really be herself: a plain, genuine woman who seldom was impulsive.

 

In her final years, Anne was mentally and emotionally split in many worlds. Her bipolar condition, combined with the trauma of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by her brother, and the loss of her parents from which she never fully recovered, meant Anne would have been better off in an institution. She ended her days alone, with grey, messed up, wiry hair. She wandering and talked to herself, shifting between worlds only she knew. She became known to the locals as "The Fish-Hoek Old Witch."

 

Various European Royal Courts owning works by Anne in their Private Collections

  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II & H.R.H. Phillip, the Prince Consort of The United Kingdom

  • H.M. King Juan Carlos I & Queen Sofia of Spain

  • H.M. Kong Harald & H.M. Dronning Sonja of Norway

  • H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf & H.M. Queen Silvia of Sweden

  • Her Majesty Queen Anne-Marie & H.R.H. Henrik, the Prince Consort of Denmark

  • Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan

  • Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands

  • H.R.H King Constantine & H.M. Queen Anne-Marie of Greece

  • H.R.H Charles, Prince of Wales & Duchess of Cornwall

Represented in the following Public National / International Collections

  • National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo

  • TATE Modern, London

  • National Gallery, Denmark

  • National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

  • The Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC

  • Singapore Art Museum, Singapore

  • National Gallery, Finland

  • The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

  • The Guggenheim, Bilbao

  • The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna

  • National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Dr. Shirley Sherwood Collection

5 Comments

Very interesting to see there are still undiscovered gems coming out of South Africa.
May 4, 2009 6:20 AM


2 of her works have now also been added to The Royal Collection

Helen Anne Petrie (1933-2006)
Capri Cape, 30 April 1990
Watercolour
14.0 x 18.9 cm
RCIN 934074

Helen Anne Petrie (1933-2006)
Twin Peaks, Devil's Peak from Rhodes Hems, 10 October 1988
Watercolour
14.0 x 19.2 cm
RCIN 934075

If you wish to obtain images of these, you should contact my colleagues in the Royal Collection Picture Library, information on which can be found on our website.

May 4, 2009 6:37 AM

FOLLOWING last week’s article about a former Paarlite who has sold paintings by an unknown South African artist to well-known British collections, evidence has reached Paarl Post that the artist, Helen Anne Petrie, had indeed lived and worked in Fish Hoek.

 

Glenn Strutt, now an art dealer in Europe, has sent documentary proof that neither Bonhams nor the Royal Collection were duped, as was feared, when they purchased paintings from him in Britain.

 

Among the documents provided were the catalogue of an exhibition of the SA Association of Arts’ annual exhibition in Cape Town in November 1967. Two paintings by the artist, then 35 years old, are listed.

In the same year she also exhibited at the Fish Hoek Arts Festival.

 

Reports in the newspaper, Fish Hoek Echo, refer to paintings exhibited by the artist as a member of St Margaret’s Art Society in 1966.
August 24, 2009 4:06 AM

REUTERS

American Pension fund acquires works by Reclusive South African Artist Helen Anne Petrie (1932-2006)

 

Helen Anne Petrie (1932-2006)

2009-10-17 18:25:09 - Leading American Pension fund, specializing in Contemporary art acquires 8 works by Reclusive Anti-Apartheid South African Artist Helen Anne Petrie (1932-2006) via The Strutt Family Trust IT694/2002

 

Reports in the newspaper, Fish Hoek Echo, refer to THESE paintings exhibited by the artist while a member of St Margaret’s Art Society from 1960.

 

Furthermore Anne felt that at the time, the taste of small art-public was extremely backward & that there were too few discerning collectors & buyers, particularly in South Africa which was at that point still a

British colony. Anne did however exhibit in South Africa twice in 1967, the most important exhibition being from 30th October till 11th November at the South African Association of Artists Annual Exhibition at 63 Burg Street, Cape Town.

 

A leading Art Critic of the day, Johan van Rooyen stated her 3 works entitled respectively Indian Girl (Recently sold at Bonhams Auctioneers in London), Bantu Boy & Late Afternoon, Kommetjie "should be hailed as proving the standard that is expected at an exhibition of this caliber", which included works by fellow internationally, respected & collected artists I.Roworth, S.Butler, and V.Volschenk & L. Mears.

Yet shy, introvert, emotionally imbalanced & disillusioned at the politics which clearly favoured predominantly male, Afrikaans artists as opposed to English-speaking females like herself, she stopped exhibiting at most major galleries & vehemently declined many invitations to sell her Art after that.

 

Anne noted in her personal diary in 1972 that 2 major schools of thought were apparent in the South African art world.


One where artists identified with various aspects of their social, political, geographical & environmental conditions; the other with very close ties with international trends, often be related to Colonialism & the Empire.

 

This duality appeared to be the natural result of a "Nation" shaping & divorcing itself from its’ old rural & colonial character. During the 1970’s 80’s & 1990’s Anne never tried to idealize her subjects.

 

She always strove for the accurate representation of everyday, apparently casual or overlooked subjects.

Her devotion to her art, especially during her latter years was so great that she also infected her fellow artists, resulting in anti-art people being able to view art with greater respect & admiration.

 

Finally, there was her own private inner world, to which very few were ever admitted, but, from which derived all her wonderful creative & inspired powers. Anne felt most at home in the Cape. Not only because she found relief there for her bodily ills, but in the autumns & winters there, had she re-discovered her homeland thus her identity? At the end of her life, Anne had amongst her closest friends & fellow artists, mainly local Cape Coloured & Malay inhabitants.

 

These were the people with whom Anne felt she could really be herself: a plain, genuine woman who seldom made preparatory cause of her impulsive nature.

 

Anne Petrie, the woman, the benefactor, the pacifist, the friend…

 

The TRUE Matriarch of South African Female Artists.

EXHIBITIONS OF HER WORKS ARE PLANNED IN THE FALL IN THE HAMPTONS, CHELSEA AND MONTE CARLO

October 17, 2009 1:09 PM