Important Collection of original works by 19th-Century Artist Thomas Bowler Goes Up for Auction

4 Mar 2024

Strauss & Co’s March ART online auction features a single artist session focusing exclusively on 19th-century British artist and landscape painter Thomas Bowler. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors to acquire pieces directly from a collection curated by Dr. Frank Bradlow, Bowler’s biographer and a luminary in Africana collectables.

The sale features 356 works across three sessions: Art Club, Focus on Thomas Bowler, and Impression/Expression.

Focus on Thomas Bowler

All 46 lots in the single-artist session hail from a recently deaccessioned corporate collection – the  second-largest collection of Bowler’s work, only surpassed by the William Fehr collection at Iziko.

Among the highlights is a rare oil painting depicting Table Bay, alongside remarkable watercolours showcasing life in 19th century Cape of Good Hope and other parts of South Africa.

After arriving in Cape Town in 1834, Thomas Bowler spent his career documenting the Cape Colony. He painted both its landscapes and the lives of its inhabitants. His work also captures the early development of Port Elizabeth and scenes from his travels during a period of conflict between the Dutch and the British as they expanded into territories defended by the indigenous population.

In 1965, Bradlow suggested placing a plaque on the Wale Street building where Bowler once lived, which was then the offices of a financial services company.

“With the assistance of Dr. Mathys Bokhorst from the National Gallery and Bradlow, the company secured additional works by Bowler. Bradlow then took on the role of curator for the collection in 1967. Through his efforts, it became the second-largest holding of Bowler’s art, surpassed only by the William Fehr collection at the Iziko Museums, encompassing paintings and other objects from the 17th to 19th centuries,” says

Kayleen Wrigley, Strauss & Co Valuation Specialist.

A captivating landscape oil painting reminiscent of British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner is included in the auction. This atmospheric piece depicts Table Mountain and Table Bay and is the highest-valued lot in the session.

“Oil paintings by Bowler are exceedingly rare. He worked primarily in watercolour, the favoured style of English landscape painters of the time. Bradlow recorded only a handful of oil paintings known to be in existence,” Wrigley explains.

Table Bay from Bloubergstrand (estimate R 80 000 – 120 000) captures a moody scene: clouds hovering against white-capped peaks, a dark teal sea, and in the distance, a bruise-coloured Table Mountain looms ominously. Bowler’s meticulous eye for detail is evident in the inclusion of a lone seagull perched on a rock in the far left corner and groups of jackass penguins gathered on the crags.

Mosenthal Collection

Also included in the collection are seven watercolours from The Mosenthal Establishments Commission, a Jewish family of businessmen who played a significant role in establishing South Africa’s wool industry and launching various trading stores across the country’s hinterland.

In late 1856, Julius Mosenthal decided to commemorate the Mosenthal Establishments and commissioned Bowler to create seven watercolours depicting its properties and business ventures.

These watercolours showcase the early development of streets and buildings in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (now known as Gqeberha), as well as the bustling activity in the various Mosenthal-owned trading posts in outposts such as Graaff-Reinet, Murraysburg, and Hope Town.

One of the watercolours, Maisonnette. Cape Town. Cape of Good Hope (estimate R45 000 – 65 000) depicts Julius Mosenthal’s residence in the artist’s typical picturesque topographical style, while portraying a bustling street scene with various figures surrounding the elegant homestead. Additionally, it captures the diverse cultural influences in the Cape that would shape its present-day cosmopolitan character.

The far left of the painting depicts two figures who appear to be East Asian labourers engaged in conversation. In the middle ground, a figure with a conical hat strides past a house, a carrying pole balanced across their shoulders. Next, two Muslim men, their heads capped with Cape Malay elders’ traditional red kufi hats, stand out. To the right, British settlers stroll in their finest Victorian attire. Interestingly, , a lone stray dog takes centre stage rather than any of the human figures. The dog appears curious, observing the scene unfolding around it.

The first Mosenthal establishment in the Eastern Cape was their Port Elizabeth office. Bowler’s composition Port Elizabeth, from The Mosenthal Establishments commission (estimate R45 000 – 65 000), displays a diverse array of people, oxen, and dogs, providing a glimpse into a typical day in the city’s early history.

“Before photography became widespread, artists like Thomas Bowler and contemporaries like Thomas Baines played the role of photojournalists. Their paintings, capturing landscapes and scenes encountered during global exploration, were widely reproduced as lithographs and featured in publications,” says Wrigley.

While these works arguably reflect a Western colonial perspective, they remain valuable historical records offering insights into the lifestyles and customs of European settlers of the Cape during the Victorian era.

Art Club

The  first session pf the sale, titled “Art Club,” includes a range of prints and works on paper by established South African artists well-known in the auction circuit. Among the contemporary highlights are Mongezi Ncaphayi’s Untitled (Abstract in Pink and Blue) (estimate R8 000 – 12 000), an early Zander Blom chromogenic print, The Black Hole Universe: Chapter 2, Scene 041 (estimate R8 000 – 12 000), and Nelson Makamo’s My Mother Told Me ‘Never Throw a Stone and Hide’ (estimate R10 000 – 15 000).

Other works of interest are a trio of striking landscapes by Vera Volschenk, each coming onto the market with attractive estimates: The Sleeping Beauty – Riversdale (estimate R3 000 – 5 000), Arbeidsgenot (Dist Riversdale) (estimate R5 000 – 7 000), and The Lagoon – Nature’s Valley (estimate at R5 000 – 7 000). 

“Another standout piece of the Art Club session is Colony II (estimate R50 000 – 70 000) by Penny Siopis. This woven mohair tapestry is part of Siopis’s early 1990s Colony series. Created by the Marguerite Stephens Tapestry Studios, it measures 137cm x 150cm x 1.5cm and features inscriptions with the names of the weavers, Lillian Simelan and Gladys Ntontela,” Wrigley says.

Impression/Expression

The third session, “Impression/Expression,” also offers treasures from Esther Mahlangu, Lionel Smit, Cecil Skotnes and Christo Coetzee. Furthermore, there are striking sculptures by Speelman Mahlangu, landscapes by Alexander Rose-Innes, Tinus de Jongh, and Pranas Domsaitis, and delicate, evocative charcoal sketches by Judith Mason.

One of the session’s highlights is eight linocuts by mystic artist and philosopher Dan Rakgoathe, all attractively priced. Rakgoathe, South Africa’s first craft teacher, worked and taught at the Rorke’s Drift and Mofolo art centres. Another eye-catching lot is a pastel drawing by French-Mauritian artist Clément Sénèque titled Village on a River (estimate R12 000 – R18 000). The work likely depicts L’Isle-Adam on the River Oise and boasts an impressive provenance, with direct acquisition from the artist’s granddaughter.


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